Try Hard, but Not That Hard. 85% Is the Magic Number for Productivity.

 Are you giving it your all? Maybe that’s too much.

So many of us were raised in the gospel of hard work and maximum effort, taught that what we put in was what we got out. Now, some coaches and corporate leaders have a new message. To be at your best, dial it back a bit.

Trying to run at top speed will actually lead to slower running times, they say, citing fitness research. Lifting heavy weights until you absolutely can’t anymore won’t spark more muscle gain than stopping a little sooner, one exercise physiologist assured me.

The trick—be it in exercise, or anything—is to try for 85%. Aiming for perfection often makes us feel awful, burns us out, and backfires. Instead, count the fact that you hit eight out of 10 of your targets this quarter as a win. We don’t need to see our work, health, or hobbies as binary objectives, perfected or a total failure.

“I already messed it up,” Sherri Phillips would lament after missing one of her daily personal goals. 

Last year, the chief operating officer of a Manhattan photography business began tracking metrics like her sleep quality and cardio time on an elaborate spreadsheet. It was only after she switched to aiming for 85% success over the course of a week that she stuck with her efforts, instead of giving up when she missed a mark. 

“It’s a spectrum of success,” she says.

The benefits of doing less

Once upon a time, bosses who preached total optimization might actually achieve it, says Greg McKeown, a business author and podcaster who’s written about why 85% is a sweet spot.

More recently, the available comparison points and choices in our lives have exploded. We read about someone else’s dream job on LinkedIn, watch a mom prepare a perfect lunch for her kid on TikTok, and then click over to scroll through thousands of products on Amazon. Constant comparison often means no end result ever feels good enough. Even searching for, say, the best umbrella to buy can become a time-sucking quest.

“We will drain ourselves,” McKeown says. “It’s a bad strategy. It costs too much.”

Test out doing a little less. If you turn in that project without the extra slide deck, “Does anybody care?” McKeown asks. If you make a decision with only 85% of the information in hand, what’s the result? Notice the time you get back for other things. 

“There’s a lot of inconsequential stuff that goes into going 100%,” says Steve Magness, an exercise physiologist who coaches executives and athletes on performance. When we care too much, even minutiae starts to seem “like an existential crisis,” he adds. 

Sometimes, the harder we try, the worse we get, injuring ourselves or choking under pressure, Magness says. Quit while you’re ahead, and the sense that your whole self-worth isn’t wrapped up in this one moment can actually make you more likely to nail it.

Relaxed confidence

The effortless success so many of us crave often comes from a relaxed confidence and a tolerance for ambiguity.

When economist Krishnamurthy V. Subramanian gave one of his first major addresses to the media as chief economic adviser for the Indian government, he prepared but tried not to overthink it. 

“It’s that Goldilocks balance,” says Subramanian, now an executive director at the International Monetary Fund based in Washington, D.C. “85% is not slacking.”

When two of his slides wouldn’t cue up at the last minute, he pushed away his nerves and reminded himself the speech would be OK even if it wasn’t perfect.

“I’ll wing it,” he told himself calmly. The presentation went just fine.

Just tough enough

Dialing in on the sweet spot of 85% can help us grow. In a 2019 paper, researchers used machine learning to try to find the ideal difficulty level for learning new things. The neural network they created, meant to mimic the human brain, learned best when it was faced with queries set to 85% difficulty, meaning it got questions right 85% of the time. 

If a task is too hard, humans get demotivated, says Bob Wilson, an author of the study and associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Arizona. “If you never make any errors, you’re 100% accurate, well, you can’t learn from the mistakes.”

Ron Shaich, a founder and former chief executive of restaurant chain Panera, is skeptical of people who hit 100% on bonus targets or sales projections. He wonders if the goals are too low. They should be ambitious enough that you won’t always get there, he says. 

Presiding over Panera’s quarterly earnings reports, he’d aim to exceed guidance eight out of 10 times. The same went for big goals at the company.

Now an investor, board member, and author of a coming business book that stresses 80% equals success, Shaich is convinced most companies don’t even hit that number.   

“They all talk about what they’re going to get done. Then they don’t do it,” he says. Reach 80% and, “You’re doing great.”

Know when to stop

Years ago, as a consultant at Bain, Grace Ueng learned the “80-20 rule.” The idea was to stop once you were 80% complete on a project, she says. That first burst of work often contained the real meat of the project. 

Now a leadership coach and strategy consultant, Ueng recently took up piano. She practiced for hours and grimaced when she performed for her music group. Then she started doing more targeted exercises, like tackling small chunks of a piece instead of running through the whole thing again and again.

Before a recent performance, she read a book and went to church instead of putting in extra hours at the piano. 

When it was time to perform, she played well—and actually enjoyed it.

“You have to have the wisdom,” she says, “to know when to stop.”

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