The 85% Rule - When Giving It Your 100% Gets You Less than 85%

[ productivity til ] · 3 min read

For as long as I know, I’ve been a give-it-your-100% person (due to chronic not-good-enough and imposter syndrome). It’s served me fairly well; I’ve achieved a modicum of success by my standards.

With WFH, 100% Is Now More

No commute equals more time for other productive tasks. Lunch is compressed into a 30-minute workout and a protein bar, sometimes simultaneously. It’s easier to check on machine learning experiments just one more time (at night). The days start earlier and end later (solely due to me).

My home office (read: coffee table) is a few steps away from my work office (a standing desk). Right after work, I can watch conference videos (it’s on-demand now!) or do a course (currently doing fast.ai NLP—it’s awesome!) or work on my next draft. Else, I’ll be doing the 368th tweak to my site to give visitors a better experience.

But recently, I sometimes find myself low-energy and listless. I’ve noticed my breathing getting shallower and faster. I think I’m getting more done, yet, something feels off. I’m not relaxing and enjoying life as much as I used to.

The 85% Rule

Yesterday, I learnt about “The 85% Rule” from Hugh Jackman. He shared about it during his podcast with Tim Ferriss. Here’s how he explained it:

”A sprint coach was studying Carl Lewis, for a year, and couldn’t understand why Carl was always last or second last at the 40-meter mark, but then go on to win the 100-meter sprint.
 
Eventually, he realised that Carl Lewis did nothing at the 50-meter mark; his breathing and form was exactly the same. Other runners would try to push harder, clenching their fists, scrunching their faces. But Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same—and go on to breeze past the others”

Hugh observed that all great athletes have relaxation. He hypothesized that most Type-A athletes would run faster if they ran at 85% capacity—instead of 100%—because it’s more about relaxation, form, and optimising the muscles.

Tim agreed that in most activities, being overly tense works against giving your best performance. Hugh shared that he had that problem, of pushing himself too hard, and found the 85% rule to work well for him.

Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard

Giving your 100% usually leads to maximum performance and results. But overdoing it can backfire, leading to injury, over-exhaustion, and burnout.

Be kinder and patient with yourself, Eugene. Instead of working out every day, have off-days so your muscles can recover. Instead of consuming only “productive content”, enjoy the occasional light fiction or movie. Instead of compressing downtime (to get more done), schedule breaks, meditate, and have the occasional walk. Instead of checking everything off your to-do list, it’s okay to let them flow over.

This 85% rule will take some getting used to but let’s give it a shot. It could lead to better outcomes in the long run. At the very least, it’ll help with enjoying life more.

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