Education & Career Trends: When Lower Intensity Leads to Higher Results

5 min read

Edition: January 24th, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

The ’80-20′ strategy for prioritising effort intensity is seen to work well in both endurance training and value investing. (Image Source:
  • Excerpts from article by Harsha V. Misra, published on Harvard Business Review

There is an unexpected connection between investing and running. This connection will make you rethink not only your approach to marathon running, but also your understanding of business management.

Running clubs have recreational types, but they also have competitive endurance athletes. For this competitive group, running is no hobby. It is akin to a full-time profession, one that requires dedicated coaching and serious training.

We always admire such competitive runners, marvelling from afar at their inspiring performances. But you will be very surprised by what you learn.

The Low-High Intensity Model

  • Imagine training intensity as having three levels:
    1. Low Intensity. This feels easy and relatively slow — like one is barely even trying.
    2. Medium Intensity. This involves pushing oneself to the point of discomfort but far short of full throttle.
    3. High Intensity. This is running at or near one’s absolute limit.
  • Recreational runners usually stick to medium intensity almost all the time. It feels challenging and engaging — uncomfortable, but not intolerably so.
  • In contrast, many competitive runners spend around 80% of their training time at low intensity. They are deliberately holding back, systematically building a base of miles at a pace so easy that it looks like they are not doing very much at all.
  • The rest of their training time — the other 20% — is mostly spent at high intensity. These are extremely focused, hard workouts with superhuman bursts of speed and power.
  • Indeed, scientists studying human endurance have found that the polarised, low-high training approach maximises race performance while reducing the risk of serious injury.

The Polarised Approach in Value Investing

Now, here are two different worlds, endurance running and value investing. Yet both seem to favour a polarised, low-high, 80-20 strategy for prioritising effort intensity. And both call for a deliberate avoidance of all things medium.

Polarised intensity produces better results. It simply serves a different purpose:
a) In endurance running, it allows the body to build stamina without getting injured due to over-training.
b) In value investing, it allows the investor to build conviction without losing money due to over-trading.

A similar idea also applies to a wider range of managerial work. Here are 3 examples of other fields in which this approach seems to work well:

1. Sales

  • In certain sales settings, where the sales cycle is long and the potential prize is large, seasoned salespeople tend to deliberately stay in a low-intensity relationship-building mode for long periods.
  • Most of the time, they remain unintrusively and unaggressively engaged with potential clients — the opposite of the stereotypical “hard sell.”
  • As they bide their time, they deliberately pass on medium-size opportunities.
  • But the moment that one of these large idling opportunities has the potential to close, they move rapidly.
  • These rare, high-intensity efforts pay off precisely because of the relationship base — a combination of trust and communication — built slowly by embracing the low-intensity work.

2. Mergers & Acquisitions

  • In strategic mergers and acquisitions, teams with the best track records tend to be the ones that say “nothing to report” in most leadership team meetings.
  • They spend time deliberately monitoring, learning, and tracking — the running equivalent of building base mileage.
  • When the right opportunity emerges, these teams’ low and high-intensity muscles come together to produce a winning outcome.

3. Research & Development

  • Similarly, in certain R&D settings, where the gains from success are life-changing but the cost of failure can be “game over,” one also sees evidence of polarised effort.
  • These teams spend lots of time on inexpensive experimentation, learning and tinkering. When the time is ripe, they are able to shift to a massive, operational-execution sprint.
  • Again, this high-intensity push wouldn’t be possible if not for the endurance capability created by the many hours of lower-intensity effort.

‘Pitfalls’ of the Polarised Intensity Approach

  • Even in cases where the polarised intensity approach works, it comes with a big “optics risk.”
  • The intensity of effort is always observable in the here and now, while the results of the effort are sometimes evident only over long periods of time.
  • The “low 80” can look like slacking off. And this can be a big problem when one works in performance management systems which reward effort relative to peers.
  • Another pitfall of the polarised intensity approach comes from the misconception that the long hours spent working at low intensity are somehow easy. They are not.

As you consider ways to improve performance and results in this new year, think about what a low-high intensity model may look like in your line of work. This polarised intensity approach is an idea worth exploring.


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(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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