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Too much pain for too little gain

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Harsha Misra discusses how High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is also applicable in business contexts. For the uninitiated, HIIT is a training style that emphasises longer periods of low effort combined with bursts of maximum or near-maximum effort. So, instead of doing 30 minutes of running at a medium-intensity pace, a HIIT runner will jog for 2 minutes, then sprint for 1 minute, then repeat that process for about 20 minutes. As Misra points out, the world’s elite long-distancers runners also employ HIIT methods in their training. Surprisingly, elite distance runners spend 80% of their time at low intensity, which “feels easy and relatively slow — like one is barely even trying”. The other 20% of the time they spend at high intensity, which is “running at or near one’s absolute limit”.

The mistake made by typical runners, that is, good but not great runners, is that they train at medium intensity, which “involves pushing oneself to the point of discomfort but far short of full throttle”. Elite runners want none of that, since they want to avoid “too much pain for too little gain”. It is so difficult to push yourself hard each and every day, even if you are not pushing yourself to your maximum. With the medium-intensity approach, the risk for injury is much higher. Plus, research has shown that an 80/20 approach also maximises performance.

When translated to business, a HIIT approach has its advantages and disadvantages. For investors, the 80/20 approach can be quite successful. Misra points to Warren Buffett, who is known was one of history’s greatest investors. Despite his fame, Buffett demurs when asked about the big moves he has made over the years. Instead, he focuses on how lazy he has been, how much of his success is due to “lethargy bordering on sloth”. In 2008, Buffett famously made headlines when he bet hedge funds that his investments in index funds (the lowest-intensity version of investing) would outperform hedge funds known for their intensity and proactive investing style over the course of 10 years. By 2015, the funds that had taken the bet conceded years before the 10-year deadline, because Buffett’s beloved index funds were so far ahead. To be clear, Buffett has been more than capable of switching into his highest gear when the situation has called for it; that is why Berkshire Hathaway has hundreds of billions in its liquid war chest that they are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to snap failing companies up.

But how does a HIIT approach apply to someone that is not heading the world’s largest investment firm, but instead is a manager or company owner? For managers applying an 80/20 approach, they run the risk of appearing as lazy to their colleagues, including their superiors. Moreover, it can be hard to motivate and get the best out of one’s team if they feel the person above them is lethargic. What has become clear is that certain industries and positions reward the 80/20 approach, whereas others rightfully disincentivise it. A sales leader who can slowly build interpersonal relationships with clients might benefit from an 80/20 approach if they can kick things into high gear when it comes time to close a deal with those clients. On the other hand, a person who is lower on that totem pole might need a medium-intensity approach if they are to succeed, because they need to hit their KPIs in order to keep their job. At the end of the day, unlike in distance running, no particular approach is inherently better or worse than another, especially since one’s personality type will influence what approach is sustainable for that particular person. But we should all be more open to the idea of how a HIIT approach can bring success.