The 85% Rule: Why You Should Not Do Your Best

Do your best and forget about the rest” is good advice. It prevents you from the anxiety of getting good results, but that’s half of the problem. The other half of the problem is the continuous pressure while performing at full-throttle. As counterintuitive as it may sound, you don’t produce your best work when you give your 100%.

As a kid I had figured out that it didn’t make any difference whether I scored 85% or 95% in exams. I would be considered a “good student” as long as it was above 80%.

While my teachers believed I had potential to score 90–95%, I didn’t want to lose any sleep over it since, going beyond 80% had diminishing returns. I didn’t need that kind of pressure in my life. So I studied enough to score 80 in all my exams, and focussed on having a relaxed childhood. Interestingly, even though I didn’t give my best, I ended up getting 90–95% all the time.

This reminds me of a story Hugh Jackman tells in an interview about Carl Lewis, the athlete. Lewis, the 9 time Olympic gold medallist sprinter, who was known as the “master finisher,” was considered to be a slow starter.

In a 100-metre sprint, he was either last or second to last at the 40-metre mark, but breezed past others before reaching the 100-metre mark. Contrary to common sense, he did nothing special towards the end.

His breathing and form remained the same throughout the race. While other runners were trying to push harder at the end—clenching their fists, scrunching their faces—Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same, and won the race.

It came to be understood later that while others were performing at full-throttle, Carl Lewis was running at 85% from start to finish.

“If you tell most of A-type athletes to run at their 85% capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run at 100%, because it’s more about relaxation, and form, and optimising the muscles in the right way.”

As counterintuitive and absurd as it may sound, you don’t do your best when you give your 100%. You do far better when you perform below your peak capacity, thereby giving you some breathing room to relax. It’s popularly known as the 85% Rule.

For example, while building a business, giving 100% would mean working 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is the equivalent of clenching your fist and scrunching your face all the time. This clearly isn’t sustainable. You’ll exhaust and get out of the game soon.

It’s counterintuitive to take your efforts down a notch, but that’s how you find a balance between relaxation and intensity. Relaxation is an essential element in order to do your best work. That’s why you see athletes dancing around with joy before a sprint while poking their tongue out. They are trying to achieve the right level of relaxation.

The goal is to enjoy the game, not to perform at full-throttle so that your head becomes a pressure cooker ready to explode.

For example, my weekly goal isn’t to produce the best essay I’ve ever written. That’s too big an expectation which sucks the joy out of the writing process. My goal is to write an essay that’s readable, and doesn’t waste my readers’ time. Every week I give myself some leeway so that it doesn’t become exhausting. This helps me relax and write better.

Similarly, your goal isn’t putting all the effort into a game until you reach exhaustion. It’s to perform at 85% capacity for a long time so that by the time most people are out of breath, you are still running like Carl Lewis or batting like Rahul Dravid. Performing at 85% not only takes the pressure off, it allows you to play the game for a long time. This gives you an unfair advantage over others.

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