Dialing it Down

The 85% Rule

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

In a culture that applauds giving your all, it almost seems against nature to sanction anything less, which is why I’m a tad leery to bring forward a concept that does exactly that: The 85% Rule actually proposes dialing back our effort to 85%. Yes, 85%. I’m both captivated and scandalized.
Right off the bat a couple of concerns immediately rush to mind:
  1. Would I really want a surgeon to cut into me with anything less than 100% maximal effort?
  2. What about the people who are only giving it 50% to begin with? Might the mere mention of such a concept encourage certain people to lay back even more?
But Olympic sprinter and gold medalist Carl Lewis makes the case for 85% effort hard to dismiss. After all, his famously slow start is the secret to his success. While taking off out of the starting blocks with anything less than max effort may seem like exactly the wrong strategy for a sprinter who doesn’t have a lot of time to waste, in fact, a slower start let Lewis stay loose, calm and comfortable. As the other runners burned up energy through their clenched jaws, scrunched faces and tight fists, taking his foot off the gas just a touch allowed Lewis to remain relaxed. This relaxed approach freed up his awareness, his presence and ultimately his power, all qualities generally associated with success.
Ultimately 85% effort is not about being lazy or slacking off: it’s about calibrating the intensity of our energy in the service of effectiveness. For example, we all probably know what it feels like to walk into an environment where someone is bringing way more intensity to the equation than is useful. Not only might the person exhaust themselves, but too much intensity can exhaust those around them, as well. (No one has ever asked me to please bring just a little more intensity to a meeting or a party, I can tell you that!) The message here is that full-on intensity does not necessarily equal effectiveness or success and can work against it. 
Stretching is a good example. If you go at a stretch forcefully, the muscle you are meaning to stretch will fight you. But if you relax into a stretch, letting go a little more deeply with each exhale you go a lot further.
For me the genius of this approach has to do with the almost effortless way the stakes also get recalibrated when the energy intention is recalibrated. For instance, if I’m intentionally going into a presentation with anything less than maximal effort, that can only mean to my brain the stakes must not be all that high so then my brain lets me relax. (Especially useful for brains that think every stake is a high stake.) For some reason intentionally scaling back to 85% effort translates differently in the brain than, say, ordering oneself to relax which works absolutely never.
Recalibrating energy may also help life feel less effortful. When we aren’t spending more vital energy than is serving the purpose, then there is more energy and an easier kind of energy for other areas of our life that are perhaps not getting enough. 
Suneel Gupta talks about the 85% rule and other work and life enhancing strategies in Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do.
To tapping a little off,