Sep 072011


Intensity Is Good, But Control It

Early in my life, I only knew one level of intensity:  HIGH.  I grew up in a very competitive environment and no matter what I did, I had to win.  If not, it was not pretty.  I made it ugly for myself and for everyone around me.  This required me to be very intense all the time, basically living in a constant state of stress.  It was a double-edged sword, as that intensity allowed me to accomplish some things that I may not have otherwise, but it came at a big price.  Due to my level of intensity and competitiveness, I was unable to enjoy anything just for the sake of doing it.  When I look back, I think, “what a horrible way to go through every day”.

The good news is that with time, I’ve been able to learn to have different levels of intensity based on the particular situation at hand.  This transformation has been part standard maturation and part daily battle with myself to “lighten up,” except when it’s necessary to ratchet up the intensity.  Don’t get me wrong, by most standards, many would say I’m still pretty intense a lot of the time, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be.  I think my wife and family would agree that I’m a little bit easier to live with now after this “transformation”.  The really good news is that this change to someone who is capable of what I like to call “dynamic intensity” has not lowered my productivity at all.  In fact, it has increased it, particularly in the area of creativity.  When I used to have just “one gear,” it was tough to get into a creative state of mind, as I was too busy “getting it done”.

The metaphor I like to use for this “dynamic intensity” is one I’ve heard attributed to the Navy SEALs, but I do not know if that is accurate.  I have not found an authoritative source that talks about its origins.  If anyone knows, please drop me a line.  The metaphor for “states of awareness” is color coded and goes like this:

Level White: I call it “zoned out”.  Living in your own little world, oblivious to what is going on around you.  This is basically a relaxed state with little presence of stress.  You can think of it as sitting on the couch watching a brain-numbing show that’s somewhat engaging.

Level Yellow:  This could be called “semi-aware”.  You know where you are.  You’re not “zoned out,” but there still is not much stress present.  You could think about it as being in the supermarket, where your biggest stress is whether you’re going to have a shopping cart accident with another shopper.

Level Red:  This is when you are very aware.  You have all your senses turned on and you’re paying attention to all of them.  You are assessing your situation to determine whether you need to act to protect yourself, either physically or in a business setting, verbally.  You can think of this one as walking down a dark street at night, alone, and hearing some noises that have you concerned.

Level Black:  At this level, you are in “fight or flight mode”.  It’s everything in Level Red, plus you are now acting based on your senses.  This is the primitive fight or flight response that fires up the amygdala and most likely sends a burst of adrenaline into your blood stream.  This state was covered in detail in another article I wrote about using the GAMES Approach to overcome your fears.  You can think of this one as being in that dark alley late at night and having someone walk up behind you and grab you around the neck.

I have found it very helpful to keep these four “states of awareness” in mind as I go through the day.  What I have found is that there is sometimes a tendency to perceive a situation as requiring a level of awareness much higher than it actually requires.  I have also found the opposite to be true, where it is tempting to not take a situation as seriously as you should and adjust your state of awareness accordingly.

One thing that has become crystal clear to me is that it is not healthy to always be in the same state of awareness.  It is very important to move between the states of awareness as needed, throughout each day.  Hopefully you will not have a lot of circumstances that cause you to go to Level Black, but if you do, then by all means ratchet up your awareness and be prepared to “do what you have to do”.

In my experience, many people go through most of their lives at Level White, never challenging themselves and thus never needing to change their state of mind from “zoned out”.  That’s a state I wouldn’t choose for myself or my loved ones, at least not on a constant basis, but “to each their own”.  We like to spend some time “zoned out” or “chilled out,” in order to relax from other more intense activities, but spending the majority of the time there would be unstimulating and boring, in my opinion.  Depending which activities and challenges I’m doing, I like to spend most of my time vacillating between Level Yellow and Level Red.  What I’ve become a lot better at with time is moving more easily between the levels and not carrying the “baggage” from the previous level with me.

How about you?  Where do you spend most of your time?  Do you find this metaphor helpful in thinking about controlling your “states of awareness”?

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin


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  • Thanks for sharing your own story of how you overcame living a life full of “intensity.” My techniques for staying in the flow are daily gratitudes, meditation, and prayer. I also surround myself with positive people. It’s so unhealthy to be in the black zone that I try and stay clear!

  • Suzy Huber

    Great article good read! Put it in perspective. I am also guilty of being intense a lot of the time. I will apply you different levels over the next few days and see how it goes.

  • Sound good, Suzy! Let me know how it goes! Intensity can be a good and necessary thing. As I point out in the article, in my experience, it all boils down to being about to move between levels of awareness at the appropriate times and without too much baggage from the previous level. Let me know now your experiment works out over the next few days! Paul

  • Thanks, Martha. It is important to find the approaches that work for you to be able to keep intensity at an appropriate level. It sounds like you’ve found yours — that’s great! I agree completely about surrounding yourself with positive people! It’s OK if someone provides constructive criticism and is really trying to help. What doesn’t work is when someone is incessantly negative and really doesn’t seem to be trying to have a positive impact. That does bad things for intensity and stress levels. 🙂

  • Hi Paul, great article! I am with Suzy above, I can be intense and this is great way to get a hold and control of emotions. I think I will be implementing this with the kids as well. Have a great day!

  • Thanks, Karla. sounds good. Yes, I didn’t mention it in the post, but this approach and metaphor for managing intensity and state of awareness can work very well with kids too. Thanks for stopping by. Paul

  • Knikkolette

    Hmmmm I think once I come home I’m pretty much in the zoned out mode! DOH! Perhaps I should stop and think about what kind of “mode” I’m in – I don’t really pay attention! Maybe that’s a double-DOH! 🙂

  • Truly enjoyed your use of 4 areas or being an instructional designer and facilitator, what I call quadrants. There is movement back and forth between all four and this is necessary as it works with the brain and physical demands happening within our bodies.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith
    Author of Be the Red jacket

  • Knikkolette – sounds like you have it under control, whether you’re thinking about it consciously or not! 🙂 We all need “double-DOH” mode from time to time, particularly if the rest of our day is filled with relatively high intensity! For me this metaphor was useful, because without it, I never reminded myself to cycle down and was always too intense and stressed. I think if you can move between the levels, whether it’s consciously or without being aware it’s happening, that’s ideal. Paul

  • Thanks, Leanne. Agreed. I think it’s healthy to have movement between the levels of awareness and intensity, although most of us would prefer to avoid Level Black as much as possible. As I mention in the article, I think it becomes unhealthy when we spend to much time, especially too much uninterrupted time, at one level of intensity. Paul

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  • Kenneth Lim

    I think that once you try to become aware of your state of awareness (if you will), then you lose the ability to move into either White or Black.

    The states of awareness you describe all have a certain level of consciousness about them.

    I think there’s also a degree of subconsciousness that plays a role, which allows you to discover things serendipitously for example.

  • Margaret (Peggy) Herrman

    Excellent as always. I assume an optimal state would be for people to be so aware of themselves, their surroundings, and the needs of others that they can pace their own levels of awareness and stress to immediate needs. I guess that also means people need to come out of their white zone. I wonder why people live in white zones either using electronic media or other addictive substances like booze or sex or hard drugs to zone out. Is life so painful people must zone out or are they fearful or ill equipped to move through change? I’m curious. 🙂

    thanks, love your metaphor. best as always, peggy

  • For many years I bounced between what you call White and Black. Either Go or Stop as I call it. Now I try to stay in the middle (Green for me) more even keeled and balanced. It’s an effort at times but much more pleasant overall.

  • Yes, Denise, I think the key is finding a rhythm of levels of intensity and awareness that work for you and are appropriate for the context of what you’re doing. It’s good to hear that you seem to have found that balance. Paul

  • Thanks, Peggy. You must see a ton of this issue in your practice on a regular basis. Don’t you think that inability to manage these zones of intensity and awareness is responsible for a great deal of conflict (internal and external)? Regarding the question you posed, I think that life is often painful for people DUE TO the fear they have of trying to create and “move through” change. Thanks as always for your insightful comments and questions. 🙂 Paul

  • Ken, I agree that it’s a bit of a conundrum. From my perspective, the key is that you are at least aware that there are various states of awareness or intensity, so that, if necessary, you can push yourself a bit to move between them. In my case, once I found a rhythm and wasn’t “always on,” the vacillation between the states happened quite naturally. It’s more like we have to get the engine started and then the motor will keep running; we don’t then need to keep reminding ourselves that the “motor is running” and at what RPM/speed. Paul

  • jason

    You’re dead right. The more you are aware of your state of awareness in day to day life, the easier it becomes to control it. That is, not only are you better able to shift between states as circumstances require, but also use them to your advantage. Most people can’t handle code black – it becomes detrimental to their ability to control a situation – but to someone who is practiced in being self aware it becomes a very useful tool.

  • Agreed, Jason. The key is to become aware of your state of awareness. Sounds funny, but if you’re able to do this, it can become a great tool. This really only happens through experience and practice. This key is that you have to know enough to be aware and to shift between states not just automatically, but also deliberately.