THE BLOG
11/05/2013 08:27 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Are You Trapped on the Treadmill?

There is a certain type of admirable person - perhaps you are one - who is made for a certain sort of organization. The person is smart, hard-working, and highly motivated. The organization wants talent and trains it to operate in a highly disciplined and consistent manner. The person devotes a chunk of their life to the firm. In return the firm holds out the prospect of untold riches, or, failing that, an impressive paragraph on your resumé.

Who are the actors in this drama? If you've read this far, you probably have a picture of the people involved. They are what used to be called 'Type A' personality (not the same as the 'A' people I talked about two weeks ago). You know, ambitious, insecure, out to prove themselves, desperate for positive feedback, anxious to be successful. Yes, ambitious, but the ambition is usually rather non-specific. Often they don't really know in detail what they want to do or be. So for the firm to tell them what to do, for the time being at least, is comforting and energizing.

Who are the firms in this drama? They fall into two categories. The larger one comprises professional firms of all kinds - consultants, investment bankers, private equity, legal, accounting, public and investor relations, analysts - but the firms at the top of the tree. The second segment comprises entrepreneurial ventures still run by the founders, and a select few big firms which are highly prestigious and unusually intense and demanding. In other words, the best and brightest firms that business has to offer, growing steadily, or fast.

Does the contract between individuals and firms work? Well, it appears to work well. How could it not, when you mix the best people and the best firms? The results are typically good, and occasionally great. The ingredients are excellent, so the dish should be superb. And yet, the cooking often falls flat. It may even subtract value from both the person and the firm.

There are two problems, one shared by the firm and the people, and one peculiar to the people. The latter is the side-effect of working long hours and dedicating oneself to the firm. When in my mid-to-late twenties, I was at a great firm, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). But I worked 60-90 hours a week, and it was too much. My health and my relationship suffered. For sure, I liked most of my colleagues, and they were incredibly intelligent. I liked the problems we tried to solve. But I was not a success in the firm, and redoubling my efforts did nothing to change this. So my last two years there were pretty miserable. Yet I only thought about leaving when I was prompted to do so.

I joined another great consulting firm, and there I was a success. After three wonderful years, I left and joined two colleagues. We founded LEK, the strategy consulting firm which went on to become number four in the world in that field, behind only BCG, Bain & Company, and McKinsey. I loved my time at LEK, and we hired brilliant, dedicated young people, who worked very hard but appeared to thrive on it. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when one of them accused me and my colleagues of "running peoples' lives" by working them so hard and taking them away from their relationships and young families. It took me aback. I didn't think it applied too much in LEK - perhaps I was fooling myself though - but taking a longer perspective I do think that intense work and long hours do tend to mar or sometimes break up marriages. And that is too high a price to pay, not just for the individuals, but also their families and society.

Now, let us be honest about this. Sometimes the fault lies partly, or mainly, with the individual. Maybe the person does not realize how hard it is to build a great relationship, and how vital that is to health and life in general. I certainly didn't. And not everyone wants to hang out a lot with their romantic partner or their young kids. In this sense, work - even, or perhaps especially, if it is ultra-demanding and very well paid - can be easy, while life - personal life - can be hard. Work is often more glamorous and alluring than being home. At work you have great professional challenges, congenial colleagues, attractive assistants, sometimes exotic travel, and the ability to express yourself and achieve great things. At home - well, it can be less exciting. And if you are earning a lot of money, it's easy to assume that exempts you from the more mundane tasks at home.

The second problem - and one that is just not realized by most of the firms and individuals - is that hard work and long hours are horribly inefficient and ineffective. I can understand how firms that charge by the hour want their people to work a lot of hours. I helped to run such a firm, and greatly profited from it - it was a wonderful money machine. But the contract between the individual and the firm is not a good one for either side. In 2008, researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter conducted a controlled experiment at BCG, which they then reported in the October 2009 edition of Harvard Business Review (pages 102-9). On some case teams, consultants were made to take one day and one evening off from all work - no emails, no phones, nothing. Meanwhile, the 'control' team beavered away as per usual. After five months, the results from the teams were compared - and the clients of the less-hard-working teams rated their performance much better than the clients of the 'normal' (control) teams.

Less is more.

The truth is that you can only really achieve great results if you take the time to think. And hard work drives out thought just as reliably as spending hours on the internet drives out time with real friends.

This all accords with the 80/20 principle, about which, as you probably know, I've written a great deal. But please take the principle seriously, which almost nobody does (sometimes, not even me). If 80 percent (or 99%) of your great results comes from 20% (or 1%) of your time, then you are not short of time. You are just spending it on the wrong things. And the harder you work, the more certain this is to be true. Not only that, but since thinking is hard - in mental energy, not in time - we tend not to engage in it at a really deep and fundamental level. Yet all progress - all great new ideas, concepts, products, and business systems - comes from that deep thought and intuition. Intuition, too, comes from being relaxed and letting your subconscious mind range far and wide - and then listening to the ideas that pop up and do something about them. You don't do that - you just can't do that - if you are ultra-busy.

Real value comes from creation. Take the time to create, in your firm, and especially outside it.

So what do you do if you are trapped on the treadmill, happily or unhappily, in a high-performance and high-paying firm. If you are unhappy, the answer is easy - don't delay, resign today. But if you are happy? There's the rub. Either insist on a change in the way you work, or if that is impossible, get out before you want to.

Easily said, hard to do. But your potential great achievement in life may otherwise go by the board. As Warren Buffett said, working to build your resumé is like saving up sex for your old age. The same is true about working on the treadmill to achieve financial independence. Get out now, while you still have the energy and inspiration to create unexpected and glorious things.