The Pause Button Mentality Is Killing You

Why You Need the “Intensity Dial” Mental Model

I’ll get back into exercise once things settle down a bit.

I’m going to take a short break from my diet, but I’ll get back into it once I’m not traveling as much.  

I’m putting this on pause, but I’ll pick it back up in a month.

People say this kind of thing all the time…and they almost never “come back” the way they say they will, when they say they will.  

Usually their one-month break turns into a one-year break, and when they do finally take another crack at it, they’re starting from zero…or worse.

I’ve had quite a few people announce to me that thy were taking “breaks” like this over the years.  Funny thing, thanks to the coronavirus, most of them are now getting the break they were waiting for.  How many of them do you think are actually getting back on the wagon?

None.  At least, none that I could find.  

Here’s the hard truth: this sort of all or nothing thinking– where you’re either firing on all cylinders or doing absolutely nothing– always results in doing nothing.  Quite often, that’s precisely the intent behind it, even if people won’t admit that to themselves.

Ask yourself: would you rather run a mile, or dream of running a marathon?

You know what the right answer is.  If you’re not in a position to do everything you’d like to do, then do what you can.

The solution here is to change your mental model.  Instead of thinking of fitness as a light switch that you turn on and off, think of it as a dial that you can adjust to one, ten, or any number in between.  

There are two steps to this process: creating your own personal intensity dials, and then using them.  

Yes, that’s dials, plural.  You can view yourself as having three different intensity dials: one each for diet, exercise and lifestyle.

Here are some examples of what ten and one on those dials should look like:

Level 10

Exercise: 2 hours a day of intense mixed cardio and weight training, 6-7 days a week.  Work with a personal trainer.  

Diet: Count calories and macros with every single meal and snack.  Eat 3-4 meals a day with meat, vegetables, fruit, no added carbs except right after a workout, and no processed ingredients.  One cheat meal a month.  Work with a dietician or nutrition coach.  

Lifestyle: Sleep 9 hours a night.  Meditate for 10-20 minutes, twice a day.  Have a job you love, happy relationships, and cut all major sources of stress out of your life.  

Level 1

Exercise: Park further away from the store/office to talk more.  Take a ten-minute walk every day.  

Diet: Eat one unprocessed meal a day.

Lifestyle: Follow a ten-minute pre-bed wind-down routine.

Now for today’s exercise: build your own personal intensity dials.  

I’ve already done levels one and ten for you.  Now you fill out the  rest.  Start with nine, then two, then eight…work towards the middle.  

Note how I’ve defined the extremes of this intensity dial.  Ten isn’t the most effort you’re likely to put in right now; it’s the most effort you could ever possibly put in.  One isn’t no effort– it’s still a little effort.  Banish the thought of ever turning your fitness life “off,” ever again.  

Once you’ve created your personal intensity dial, let’s talk about how you use it.

Ant any given time, you’ll be setting each of those dials to some level or another.  Maybe they’re all at a six right now.  

Decide what you want them to be at to begin with– a six is a good starting point, actually. 

Re-evaluate this decision periodically– somewhere between once a week and once a month.  Not every day; your life doesn’t change that much, that often.  Decide how often you’ll re-evaluate and when; every Sunday evening maybe.   

Now, there will be days when you don’t do exactly as you’d planned.  That’s normal.  If you’re currently at a six for exercise, which for you means you’re lifting weights for a half hour four days a week, and you do one of your workouts a day late…that’s not bad.  

Don’t turn that dial down just because of that.  Don’t change it on a daily basis at all, in fact.  Only adjust it whenever you’ve decided ahead of time to review your commitment.    

However often you’ve decided to re-evaluate, when you do that, ask yourself “How easily am I able to keep this commitment?  Could I turn that dial up a notch?  Do I need to turn it down a notch?”  You should rarely be turning it up or down more than one notch.  

If you follow this approach, it’ll have two big effects.

First, you’ll always be doing something.  There will be no more “breaks,” ever.  Just periods when you’re taking it relatively easy.  

Second, your level of effort will be very stable.  If you’re at a six now, you might go down to a five or up to a seven in a week or two.  Your level of commitment to fitness will change in response to significant changes in your life situation, not day to day variations in your mood and energy level.  

I can’t emphasize the following enough: everyone, literally everyone, who stays in good shape and takes good care of their health thinks this way.  The on/off switch model guarantees failure.  The intensity dial model doesn’t guarantee success, but it makes some degree of success extremely likely, as long as you follow it.