Let’s say you have a goal to reach: getting in shape, starting a business, writing a book, advancing your career. What’s the best way to pursue it?
Some people argue that you need to put all your energy into it. Throw yourself into the project. Read dozens of books on the topic. Aggressively seek out mentors and coaches. Publicize your ambitions and work your ass off. Start-ups famously use this philosophy to build billion dollar companies in just a few years.
Other people instead argue that this mindset is misguided. You’re motivated now, but what about three months from now when the enthusiasm has worn off? The better strategy is to go for small gains, but deliberately increasing over time. Do less than you possibly can, but move up steadily. I’ll call this the habitual approach.
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The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, but their motivating philosophies certainly contradict: push hard now or start slow. Which works better?
Which is Better: Habits or Intensity?
I’ve had a hard time picking a side in this debate because, the truth is, I’ve found both of them to be useful. I did the MIT Challenge and The Year Without English which were certainly based on a start-up approach applied to learning. But I learned other topics, like psychology and business, largely from a habitual approach of steadily reading more books.
My business seems to have benefited from both approaches. Although I’ve changed strategies over the years, whenever I’ve settled on a writing frequency, I stick with it. Every week, writing according to that system. Whether I’m busy or not. Whether I have great ideas or nothing.
But some of my biggest leaps forward came from bursts of intensity, not habits. I wrote Learn More, Study Less, over a couple months with an intense writing schedule. I built most of my products this way, researching and creating them intensely, rather than in a stretched-out process.
The answer to my question, at least in my experience, seems to be: it depends. Sometimes habits are a better strategy. Other times going for full-intensity makes more sense.