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7 Team Lessons from Shaun T.'s Insanity

Justin Mertes
July 9, 2020

In this blog, I walk through 7 different elements of the design of Insanity and apply it directly to productive, high-functioning teams. In summary, healthy teams are aware of:

  • A clear end goal
  • Micro-goals
  • Times of occasional rest
  • Next steps
  • Workload & effort

They also have:

  • A visible team
  • A capable leader

Check out this Loom Video summary of the blog!

It was 5:25 am and my alarm forced to stumble from my bed to my kitchen where my phone was sounding. I turned off the alarm, grabbed a drink of water, and began my morning routine. Soon Shaun T’s voice shouted in my living room, “Come on y’all, LET’S GOOOO!”

So began nearly every day for 7 weeks* as I worked my way through Beachbody’s famous Insanity workout program.

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This is an actual photo of me in my living room

Transparently, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. I’ve never been one for a completely-at-home workout program as I like variety in my workouts. Give me running and swimming and lifting, not pounding my body in my living room for weeks on end. Unfortunately, Covid-19 was forcing me to stay inside for the most part… so Insanity it was.

The question was, could Shaun T. keep me going? Short answer: yes!

…if teams can take a couple of pages from Insanity’s playbook, they too will be achieving results they didn’t think were possible.

It wasn’t until my oldest daughter began watching the ends of my workouts that I began to understand why I was able to keep going. She asked questions about the graphics on the screen, the numbers I was seeing, and what each color meant that. I began to think critically about how exactly Insanity is designed to keep you going, and in doing so I realized that Insanity uses thoughtful design & coaching cues to help you accomplish what you couldn’t do beforehand.

Here’s the point we’re talking about today: if teams can take a couple of pages from Insanity’s playbook, they too will be achieving results they didn’t think were possible.

Let’s open that playbook, shall we?

*Full transparency here: Insanity is a 9-week program, but my back and knees couldn’t keep it going for the last 2 weeks… so I’m only 78% insane.

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Keep that leg strong, Anna!

⬆️ That is a screenshot from Insanity. I’m going to use this screenshot to explore seven key elements of this that made Insanity not just possible, but successful.

1: A Clear End Goal

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In Insanity, 8:04 means you still have a lot more sweating left to do

At the bottom left, there’s always a little blue box that tells you how long the total workout is. As such, it is the first thing that really helps you wrap your head around what you’re about to go through. When you see “34:30” when you start your workout, it is fundamentally different from seeing “59:59.” By setting the stage immediately, you can prepare yourself for what’s to come.

It also provides context when you’re in the thick of a specific workout. You know when you’re halfway done, when you have a quarter left, or you’re just 5 minutes away from that sweet sweet moment when Shaun T. says “peace out.”

Without this clock, you’re just pushing yourself endlessly, with no goal to push towards or end in sight. This grounds you, provides needed context, and helps you push forward (“just 5 more minutes… just 5 more minutes…”).

At a base level, teams need to know what they’re working towards and how long they’ll be there. Without that, work feels endless, draining, and fruitless. If you’re on a team you should be hearing or speaking these principals. “We’re 6 months into a 12-month commitment,” “I’m asking you for 2 weeks of your time,” etc.

And though that’s good, it’s not enough. You need…

2: Micro-Goals

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The longest 16 seconds of Anna's life

Immediately after the big-picture goal, Insanity shows you how much time is left in this specific workout set. Sixty minutes goes a lot faster when it’s framed as 10 minutes of warmup, 10 minutes of stretching, three sets of intense 12-minute circuits, and 4 minutes of stretching.

Without these smaller chunks of time, that end goal feels impossible. By breaking things up, Insanity forces you to not lose yourself in the daunting big picture. You’re not sure if you can make it 19 more minutes, but you know that you can push for 6 more minutes.

Every team needs micro-goals. In the product world, Agile Sprints serve as a perfect comparison. “All we’re asking is for 1 or 2 weeks of work. We’re not going to spend too much time looking at the backlog because that may overwhelm or cause us to get distracted, and taking in everything at once can cause the quality of the work to go down.”

If you’re on a team, set small achievable goals along the way.

Once the team accomplishes the goals, it’s time for some…

3: Occasional Rest

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Ah, the sweet, sweet grey box of rest

There are few feelings better in Insanity than seeing that after this set, you get a 30-second rest. It helps you push harder because you know you’ll soon be rewarded, and it equips you to return ready for the next micro-goal.

Sometimes rests in Insanity are good water breaks, other times they’re perfect for flopping on the floor and sputtering out a few curse words. Regardless, they’re crucial.

An endlessly fatigued team is a team that simply cannot give their best. By providing breaks, you create a healthy perspective of work (work, work, rest… work, work, rest) and you create an environment that allows teammates to do whatever it takes for them to become the best version of themselves.

An endlessly fatigued team is a team that simply cannot give their best.

If you’re on a team, this means seeking out a couple of things:

  • Non-working time together. Spend time together not working at a happy hour, a baseball game, or a game night at your office. Provide an environment and culture that says “we work hard together, and we enjoy life together.”

  • Set boundaries. Unless you are working in a (legitimately) crucial role in a (legitimately) crucial company serving people who are in (legitimately) critical situations, you can probably spend less time working at nights and on weekends. If you’re on a team, try to set boundaries of when you will work, and when you won’t. Encourage the team to not check Slack on weekends (or leveraging this new Slack feature), or to set up email auto-responders and delete email from their phone while on vacation. Doing so tells them, “I value your work, and I value your rest as well.”

Don’t get too comfortable though — these rests aren’t forever! It’s time to get into…

4. Next Steps

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You mean my rest is already done?!

We rest so that we can work, not the other way around. Insanity forces you to take small breaks but doesn’t allow those breaks to be long enough for you to truly catch your breath. You’ll be done when the overall goal is completed. Until then, it’s time to buckle down and hit the pavement (or living room rug) again.

The good news is (you should be seeing a theme here) that you had an honest expectation of what’s next. You weren’t blindsided by them, and you knew what was coming.

Every team should know what’s happening “down the road.” Without it, rests risk becoming something worse: laziness.

Here’s the thing about knowing what’s next, though: it’s not enough to know what’s next. Teams also need to know…

5. Workload & Effort

Clearly, this part is only “really hard,” not “super freaking hard.”

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Clearly, this part is only "really hard," not "super freaking hard."

Insanity does a great job showing you the intensity level via how “filled” each respective workout is. This means that Insanity acknowledges that some workouts are 50% difficult, some are 75%, and some are 100%. Practically, this means that I know just what’s coming up next.

I don’t want to belabor the “an informed team is a healthy team” point (more than I already have), but I mention the awareness of difficulty here to argue that to be an “informed team” is a multifaceted goal. Not only does a team need to know the overall goal, the micro-goals, and the timing of their rest, but they need to have realistic expectations for what’s coming up next.

Imagine an employee telling her teammate, “I’m going to need your help next week.” Her teammate is not fully equipped to give their best. Instead, imagine if she told her teammate, “Next week I need your help… probably a couple of hours each day of deep focus on the way we visualize data with the new product we’re implementing.” The key difference is that her teammate not only knows when they’re doing work, but what kind of work it is they’re doing.

When a team is aware of the workload to come and the effort expected of them, they are better positioned to be successful.

I’ve just unpacked the graphics on the screen as you do the Insanity workout… but there’s more than just those graphics that make it successful. Below are the sixth and seventh aspects of Insanity that truly make it possible to achieve more than you thought you could…but they may seem a bit “obvious.” Do not be deceived: “obvious” does not “given,” and many teams do not have the luxury of these two crucial aspects.

6. A visible team

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Ah yes, the "school project" team makeup. Anna is doing all the work, and everyone else is slacking off.

I’ve done several at-home workouts over the years on YouTube, and none of them compare to the motivation I had when I did Insanity. Why? Because it wasn’t just 1 coach and two other participants. No, Insanity has a gym full of 10+ other participants.

I can’t express the difference this makes. When there was 10+ other people doing this with me, I felt like I wasn’t alone. I was pushed to go when I couldn’t go any further because I knew others were doing it too. Not only that, but I saw that they were hurting just like me. Sometimes they couldn’t go any further, and some had to stop for a water break. Other times someone was modifying their workout to make up for their lack of endurance or strength.

With transparency & visibility, teams become greater than the sum of their parts.

The important thing to note here, especially in a world full of increasingly-digital teams, is that it’s not enough to simply be on a team — the team must be visible to each other. Without visibility, you don’t see the struggles and successes. You don’t hear the frustrations and the clarifications. You don’t feel the energy and conviction. Simply put, unless teams are visible & transparent, it’s the equivalent of someone working out in a living room by themselves: an individual pursuit fueled by willpower. With transparency & visibility, teams become greater than the sum of their parts.

7: A Capable Leader

I’m most amazed that I found a photo of him with his shirt on.

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Plain and simple, teams without leaders are destined to fail. In Insanity, Shaun T. serves as the guide for all kinds of things:

  • What exercises we’re doing next: “Alright, now to scissor kicks.”
  • Correct form & posture: “Keep those legs straight, Josh!”
  • Encouragement: “You can do this, keep pushing.”
  • Motivation: “You’re doing this because you want to be different. Get fit, or get out!”

Perhaps most of all, though, Shaun T. is someone that each athlete can look to and know that it is possible to do what they’re trying to do, and he’s going to do everything he can to help them do it well.

Imagine if Insanity was those 10+ people, in the gym, going through the workouts as prompted by the camera crew. No singular voice to hone in on, no figurehead to keep their eyes on, no one walking around and correcting posture. It would be a mess! Without Shaun T., they would go from a “team” to a “group of people doing the same thing.” With leadership, they have clarity, purpose, and potential.

Teams cannot survive without a leader of some sort: someone who’s been there, who knows what’s next, and can guide you through the process.

In summary, healthy teams are aware of:

  • A clear end goal
  • Micro-goals
  • Times of occasional rest
  • Next steps
  • Workload & effort

They also have:

  • A visible team
  • A capable leader

Take away any one of these and Insanity becomes far worse. It becomes one of those 20 minute YouTube workouts that’s fine, but never ultimately becomes great, let alone extraordinary. Interestingly enough, we in turn never reach our potentials of great or extraordinary. We cannot reach our potential unless we’re a part of something that purposefully pushes us there.

To this end, Insanity has made me discontented with many workouts. I feel like I lack purpose and motivation because I don’t know how long I’m holding a pose. I don’t push myself harder because I don’t know when I’m getting a rest. There are only two people on the screen and they’re doing everything just fine, so all of a sudden I’m insecure that I’m not good enough.

So it is with teams.

We cannot reach our potential unless we’re a part of something that purposefully pushes us there.

When we’re on productive, high-functioning teams, it ruins us for all future ad-hoc committees we sign up for. We long for the leadership we experienced, for the clarity around expectations that we used to have, the respect for times of rest & disconnecting.

The good news is, no team becomes productive & high-functioning accidentally. It takes intentionality from people who have reached their limits and are hungry for more, people who have seen what’s possible and want others to feel the satisfaction of good work, exceptional work, done to its fullest potential.

If you’re stuck in a team that is not where you want it to be, reflect on the best teams you’ve been a part of. What made it successful? How were you so high-functioning? List those things out. My guess is that they’re going to line up quite nicely with the 7 things that Insanity used to keep me going.

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