There’s a concept in the fitness world called “time under tension.” The premise is that the more time you spend lifting weights—the higher your volume of exercise—the bigger your muscles will get. On the other hand, while time under tension increases muscle size, intensity is what makes us stronger (lifting heavier weights in briefer yet more intense and focused sessions that stress our bodies).
If you want to get better at squatting 200 pounds, do it a lot. You’ll become more skilled at the squat movement, add muscle, and 200 pounds will begin to feel lighter. When we do something a lot, we get better at doing that specific thing. We become efficient.
But no matter how many times we squat that 200-pound weight, we’ll never be able to squat 400 pounds unless we progressively push our limits—unless we learn how to stress our bodies through intense and focused bouts of training.
Whether we’re trying to squat a heavier weight or learn a new skill, stress is a catalyst for growth. While volume is what helps us perform consistently and efficiently, stress is what expands our capabilities.
Learning to Learn
I’ve had the unusual pleasure of having 8 jobs in the past 7 years, with four “career changes” within. To survive, I’ve had to learn how to learn quickly. Experience has taught me that you can boil down getting good at something new into three simple concepts:
- Create pressure (intensity, focus, urgency, and stress). Pressure, within reason, is good. It encourages intensity and focus. Pressure might come from setting an aggressive goal or deadline, fear of failure, or even just being naturally competitive. Whatever the root cause, it has to exist. And if you don’t feel pressure, find a way to manifest it—more on this later.
- Do it a lot (volume and repetition). Repetition and putting in the hours is where we cement the capabilities we’ve acquired. While doing something a lot doesn’t stretch our boundaries, it does help us become consistent and efficient. There’s no way to avoid needing to do the reps.
- Reflect and rest. Recognize where you’re getting better (or not), and create time for true rest. I don’t mean sitting on the couch answering emails while watching a movie—I mean being “off.” Change your context for long enough to become an observer to your progress, and return with renewed focus and perspective.
We can certainly improve by simply doing something a lot (volume), but this isn’t enough if we want to learn rapidly. To double our performance, we have to embrace pressure. For many of us, this intuitively feels right: the times in our lives when we grow the most involve a high volume of doing the thing punctuated by periods of heightened stress and focus. So why is pressure so important? Let’s find out.
Your Brain Has to Know Something Has Changed
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.
We’ve all heard the trope that adults can’t learn new skills as well as children. In the ‘60s, David Hubel and Torsten Weisel won the Nobel Prize for proving it: they demonstrated that there are certain periods after which the brain loses neuroplasticity and cannot readily change, namely once we become adults.
Things get more interesting when, decades later, a neuroscientist named Mike Merzanic proved them wrong—at least in part. He found that adult neuroplasticity is only low in the absence of a compelling need. If we’re at risk of starving unless we learn to hunt with a bow, our brain will change rapidly to acquire that new skill.
In the words of Andrew Huberman, another neuroscientist and Stanford professor: to trigger learning, your brain has to know that something has changed, that something is different. Fear and anxiety drive neuroplasticity. Like many of you, I connect fear and anxiety with pressure. Fear of failure or anxiety about the future pressures us to be better. It becomes analogous to learning to hunt with a bow.
This is also why “highs” and “lows” persist in our memories—times when things go very well or very poorly. Intense experiences tell our brains that something important is happening, fostering plasticity.
Manifest Pressure and Embrace Stress
A little stress is a good thing. Stress is our mind’s way of signifying that we need to pay attention to something. According to Huberman, the strongest drive for neuroplasticity is focus and being in a state of stress—a narrow view of the world where you have to learn to survive. Most people step back when they feel stress, discomfort, or agitation. But Huberman argues that learning to lean into this stress—breaking down learning into small, focused, and intense events—helps the brain change.
- Urgency, focus, fear, and anxiety combine to create an intense experience and trigger neuroplasticity. Intensity helps us learn new cognitively-demanding skills rapidly.
- Volume helps us become consistent, efficient, and solidify our newly-acquired skills.
As an example, moving to a new country is a highly effective way to learn a new language. Not only does this make us do the thing a lot (volume), it creates pressure and urgency. If we don’t learn the language, we’ll have a hard time living there. This pressure creates plasticity by giving us a compelling need.
Fortunately, moving overseas isn’t the only way to create urgency. We have plenty of other tools:
- Artificial deadlines: Most of us aren’t saving lives, and most of what we do isn’t truly urgent. It’s easy to forget that we’re all competing for something. I often set deadlines (e.g., scheduling an important meeting) to create pressure and push myself to learn or create something new.
- Public accountability: Declaring a goal in public is a powerful way to create pressure and volume. This is one of the reasons I now publish a weekly newsletter to an increasingly large audience. It pushes me to write better, learn faster, and build the “content creation” muscle.
- Taking a leap: While there’s surely an element of survivorship bias here, the world is full of stories of people learning and adapting rapidly due to self-inflicted necessity. I find it hard not to believe that the fastest way to learn to do something is to need to do it.
When it comes to embracing pressure and volume, the body and mind follow the same paradigm. I spend a lot of time on the rowing machine, and I’m trying to row a sub-18-minute 5K (a similar goal to running a sub-20-minute 5K).
I could simply row 5K ad nauseam and make gradual progress, but there’s a better way of doing it: row a lot, with 80% at a moderate pace (getting in the “reps”) and 20% at a stressful pace (much longer or much faster than my usual pace). This 80/20 rule is widely used in sports because it works.
Rest Is Where We “Bake in” What We’ve Learned
Rest closes the learning loop. When we rest, particularly during deep sleep, we cement what we’ve learned. Coming back to the fitness world, there’s a saying that muscles are torn in the gym, fed in the kitchen, and grown in the bed. We can’t be on the gas pedal all the time: the world’s highest-performers all have routines for deliberate rest.
I won’t claim that we all need to sleep 8 hours a night, but we do need time for recovery. That doesn’t mean half-working. It means being “off.” Whether we’re recovering from exercise or cementing something new we’ve learned, rest is key. We can’t accrue sleep debt with the intention of paying it back on the weekend, either—deep rest should, ideally, follow soon after learning.
With rest comes reflection. Reflection is where we take time to consider the pace of progress, the direction in which we’re making progress, and the distance to our goal. Reflection why almost all world-class performers value good coaching. It helps them be observers of their progress. Only when we stop taking in new information and change our context can we truly reflect.
Bringing It Together
You can fit all of this on a sticky note as “VIRR” (yes, I made that up): volume, intensity, rest, and reflection. These all work in tandem, and they all compound. While we can make progress while neglecting one, it’s far from optimal. 4 to the power of 4 is 256, but 3 to the power of 3 is only 27.
- Volume is where we get in our “reps” and become consistent and efficient.
- Intensity is where we create plasticity through applying pressure, intensity, focus, and stress.
- Rest is where we recover and cement what we’ve learned.
- Reflection is where we make sure we’re growing in the right direction.
Put simply: Grow under pressure, become efficient with volume, cement with rest, orient with reflection.