Heavy Lifts and Slow Burns
Published at 17/01/2024

Heavy Lifts and Slow burns

When I was setting my new year goal, I realize there are two types of approaches I can use — heavy lifts and slow burns.

Heavy lift is putting in long concentrated effort even if it’s infrequent.

Slow burns is putting in small consistent effort over a long period of time.

People often preach for slow burns more as it embodies discipline.

But is that true? When should I use heavy lifts? what type of tasks should I use for each approach?

Heavy Lift

I believe heavy lift approach can still achieve similar progress with the slow burns on certain tasks — as long as the amount of total effort is equal.

Making long concentrated effort in one sitting can even have some advantages like reduced task-switching costs. The knowledge gained in the session is still fresh and you will have momentum and focus. For example, coding a program in one sitting for 12 hours might be more efficient rather than spending 1 hour for 12 days. You would get faster results as well.

However, the pitfall is that not all tasks can be done over a long period effectively. Some tasks have frequent and short bottlenecks.

For example, you cannot work out for 8 hours straight and expect the same result as working out 1 hour over 8 weeks. Activities like building muscle or fitness often have bottlenecks like rest which prevent you from making long concentrated effort. Yes, you may be able to work out for 8 hours straight, but the returns are extremely diminished as the muscles are already mostly stimulated in the first few hours, and you would need rest to build muscle.

The heavy lifts are suitable for tasks with infrequent bottlenecks and can be continuously done for a long time.

For example, coding, cramming, writing, creative projects, etc. One of the main bottlenecks would be sleep and mental fatigue. While mental fatigue can be recovered with short rest. Sleep is quite unavoidable. But just being able to put 4-12 hours of work in a day is a big boost compared to being limited to at most a few hours like in slow burn tasks.

Slow Burns

On the other hand, slow burn approach is more suited for tasks that have frequent bottlenecks. And the only way to resolve the bottlenecks is often time.

The closest example is muscle building. You would get a fairly similar result whether you work out the same muscle in 1 hour or 3 hours. Because after some point (in this case, muscle failure), your progress is limited by another factor, which is your body’s ability to recover.

Other examples of these are flexibility, memorization, and content creation.

You cannot just force your body to get a split in one day, that’s just asking for injury. You can cram for exam in one night, but this often only stays in short-term memory. Spaced repetition is essential for long-term memorization. Finally, although you can prepare and create a bunch of content in one sitting, you cannot just publish it all in one go. You would need to post it periodically to not overwhelm the audience and maintain their interest.

Thus, to maximize the progress with minimal effort, it makes more sense to only put in the small effort needed to reach the bottleneck. And do it consistently for a long time.

How to Apply

The common advice is to focus on a few things. This works well for heavy lift tasks. The fewer areas you focus on, the faster your progress in that area.

However, slow burn tasks are well-suited for multitasking. It’s feasible and often more productive to handle multiple slow-burn tasks concurrently. This way, you’re effectively utilizing the downtime in one task (like recovery periods in muscle building) to progress in another.

So in my opinion, I agree that we should focus on as fewest heavy lift goals as possible, but start the slow burn goals early and as many as we can.

The caveat though, slow burn goal can still distract us and make us do more effort than necessary. For example, even if creating and posting content only took 15 minutes, sometimes we still waste hours worrying or checking views. Or even if we only need a few hours working out, sometimes we end up wasting hours consuming fitness content because we were excited about it.

Anyway I decided to do 1-2 heavy lifts goal and 5 slow burns goal. And in case the slow burn goal consumed more time than I expected, I’d decide to drop the goal. The reason I have two heavy lifts is to take into account of burn out. By having two, I can switch to writing when I’m tired of working and vice versa.

Heavy lift goals:

Slow burn goals: