Are You Stuck in the Intensity Trap?

Are You Stuck in the Intensity Trap?

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I’ve been thinking about the powerful effect of Consistency and why it’s such a challenging practice for many of us. I believe the answer lies in our relationship with Intensity.

I worshiped Intensity for more decades than I care to admit!  

Go big or go home was my motto.

Instead of showing up consistently, I put all my eggs in the basket of Intensity by delivering grand gestures. This applied to every part of my life, from social interactions to health and beyond. 

If you’re wondering what that looks like, here are a few examples:

Instead of eating well consistently, I would overeat for a few days and then starve myself for a day.

Instead of running a few miles daily, I would run sporadically and then attempt to make up for “lost mileage” in one long weekend run.

Instead of having timely conversations when agreements were broken, I would save all my complaints for one intense conversation, which was often too much for all parties.

Instead of making it to the scheduled meetings, I would apologize with grand gestures, falsely assuming they would make up for my absence.

The result? 

Over time, I became very skilled at operating in Intensity mode. It led to exhaustion, weight gain, injuries, losing others’ trust, and, most importantly, a profound lack of confidence in my ability to “be my word.”

 

I write and coach on the distinction between living life as a Pro vs. an Amateur.

Pros are individuals who intentionally approach life with skill and precision. They are lifelong learners who strive to transform their mindset and identity to better achieve their life values, goals, and desires.

You can tell someone has turned Pro by the general sense of ease and peace they exude—even when their life circumstances are challenging. I’ve discovered 30 distinctions between Pros and Amateurs, but this one is arguably the most transformative.

Amateurs go fast. Pros go far.

To go far in life, Pros choose Consistency over Intensity 90% of the time. 

Pros are always playing the long game and know that in the short term, we are only as good as our Intensity. In the long term, we are as good as our Consistency.  

 

 

So why do we sacrifice Consistency at the altar of Intensity?

It arises from one of two false beliefs.  

The first is the belief that if we miss a session/workout/commitment, we can make up for it by doubling down on the next one. The math looks like this:

1 Intense Session = 3 Consistent Sessions

This math is wrong in every area, from parenting to health.

Intense sessions have their place in our lives, whether training for a marathon or preparing to take the bar exam. But if we consistently use intense sessions to make up for missed regular sessions, it won’t be long till the entire system falls apart.

The other common misconception is that quality always outweighs quantity. As someone who values depth in every aspect of life, I can attest that quality time alone cannot replace the sheer quantity of time we need to dedicate to any goal that holds significance to us.

We must do our reps, and there’s no way around it.

Still, calibration is essential when balancing Intensity and Consistency in life. Too much of one and too little of the other can lead us off course.

Using the framework below, I’ve described how we feel when we are in the sweet spot of the Intensity/Consistency framework and how we feel when we are out of whack.

 

 

Quadrant I represents a state of High Consistency and Low Intensity.

This is the sweet spot for achieving long-term success. Those who excel at this have developed Consistency as their default mode and strategically use Intensity by incorporating short bursts. They also understand the value of recovery time and make sure to schedule it into their routines.

Quadrant II represents a state of High Consistency and High Intensity.

This is the perfect recipe for burnout if we go all out all the time. While this approach may initially appear to deliver short-term gains, it proves unsustainable in the long run. Burnout is an actual state that can throw us off course for a long time. It's not uncommon to give up on something we love as a reactive response to burnout. 

However, the real issue lies in our inability to manage our energy and focus, not in what we blame as the problem, i.e., the job, the relationship, the kids, etc. Life is a long game, and learning to calibrate our focus and energy is a foundational and required skill for living like a Pro.

Quadrant III represents a state of Low Consistency and Low Intensity.

An individual in this state may feel constantly drained and confused due to a profound lack of energy. Here, we have an energy problem rather than one that has to do with a lack of purpose, passion, or discipline. When I find my client or myself in this quadrant, I do an honest lifestyle assessment to see whether I’m in integrity with the fundamental pillars of my wellness. I assess my sleep, fueling, and hydration. Sometimes, it’s as simple as fixing what’s missing in those areas. If the problem persists, I do an Energy Audit to uncover the people, places, thoughts, and beliefs draining my energy. I then take action from there.

Quadrant IV represents a state of Low Consistency and High Intensity.

In this state, we often struggle to complete what we start. This is frequently due to a lack of authentic interest in the goal that has been set. One may pursue a goal because they feel they should be doing it rather than because they genuinely want to. In such cases, the advice given by Sir William Osler is precious, "The most important step in becoming successful in anything is first to become interested in it."

Another reason we suffer from constant “unfinished business” is we haven’t done the work to understand our “why.” In other words, we started something without a complete understanding of the purpose of our goal. We can push through difficult and mundane times only when we have a deep and clear understanding of the purpose of our goals. Otherwise, it’s simply a matter of time before we (often quietly) abandon the goal.

 

To be clear, these quadrants are not personality dictums. We all move through all four at different moments in life. My strong hope is that we do the work to spend most of our time in Quadrant 1, where the main dish is Consistency, and Intensity is a spice used sparingly and skillfully.

I love this story about the great violinist Isaac Stern, who was once approached by a fan after a concert. The fan said, “Mr. Stern, I would do anything to play like you.”

“Really?” answered the virtuoso. “Would you practice 10 hours a day for 20 years? Because that’s what I did.”

 

Photo Credit: Lefrak Photography

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