The 85% Rule

January 31, 2021 • ☕️ 4 min read

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

I heard about the 85% rule on the Tim Ferris podcast with Hugh Jackman. It resonated with me because it speaks to an ongoing shift in my approach to work, and more generally life.

A meta theme I’ve noticed from writing up my lessons for the year is that a few of them seem too good to be true. I’ve written before about how taking more breaks leads to more insights and better work. Here I’m writing about my growing awareness that I don’t have to push so hard to get my best work done, that counterintuitively, pushing too hard hurts my performance.

Yet, it can’t be right that less effort can result in better output, can it? It goes against everything I’ve learnt about success.

It didn’t take me long on the personal growth journey to come across the idea that delayed gratification is the key to unlocking future happiness. This was the perfect advice for my younger self because I hadn’t built up the self-discipline muscles that all great work requires. It led to lots of positive results, I felt like I’d unlocked the secret to accomplishing my dreams.

What I’m only now understanding is that this insight was only a partial truth. Yes self-discipline is essential to building a fulfilling life and yes self-discipline alone will only get me so far. There is a limit to its usefulness.

Overcoming this limit is where I’ve experienced the wisdom of the 85% rule. As the quote above states, peak performance has more to do with relaxation than effort. For me relaxation is closely related to enjoyment. For this reason I am now on a constant lookout for how to make my pursuits just 1% more enjoyable. I trust that compounding gains will take care of the rest.

This quest for hidden enjoyment is a fun game to play. It’s related to the concept of lifestyle design, where we reflect on the constituent parts of our day-to-day lives, tweaking them according to our optimisation goal. Some examples from my life where I’m optimising for enjoyment:

  • I’ve stopped using a tracker app to log my runs. This was creating incentives for me to run faster, sapping the joy out of being outside, getting out of my head, and enjoying the sounds, sights and feels I come across.
  • I changed my workout music from the loud, high intensity one overheard in most gyms to chill yoga playlists. This affected how I approached my workout, making it an all round more mindful affair.
  • I changed my approach to getting back on track after a period of skipped workouts. Before I would feel guilty about having missed sessions and would try to make up for it by pushing harder. Now I recognise that I need to ease back in, giving myself permission to do shorter sessions.
  • I’ve changed my morning alarm and timers to gentler sounds. It’s been one of my favourite changes. Starting the day off in a soothing manner, rather than with the blaring sounds usually associated with emergencies, lets me kick the day off from a relaxed and centred place.

There’s nuance with this approach of looking for more enjoyment. A naive way to apply it would be to cut out activities that make me uncomfortable and replace them with ones, like eating ice cream, that bring me pleasure. Experience tells me that getting out of my comfort zone is how I grow and develop, so cutting discomfort out is definitely not what I’m advocating.

Rather, the goal is to find the hidden enjoyment in what I’m already doing. What I’m proposing is that there is untapped enjoyment potential in everything you do and that it’s not so hard to find if you set your mind to it.

A personal, and perhaps extreme, example is the joy I’m getting out of cold showers. I’ve been having cold showers for the last 2 years, yet my experience of them has shifted lately. Before I would try to make them last as short as possible. I wanted to push myself to do it properly, making sure I covered every inch of my body, but in the moment I also wanted it to be over as soon as possible, which led to some harried contortions in the shower.

Now I’m being slow and deliberate. I’m more mindful of how the cold water impacts my breathing and try to slow it down to calm myself. I’m being curious about how my physiology reacts to the freezing temperature, and while not perfect, I can see how I’m better able to detach from the pain. Observing myself and how I change through this process is inherently enjoyable.

What I’ve noticed from these experiences is that there are things within my control that make any activity more enjoyable. Slowing down, breathing deeply and developing mindful observation can be applied to any task to achieve this end. I’m having a lot of fun playing with these techniques to uncover hidden pleasures where I least expect to find them. Cold showers is just one example. I am constantly tweaking how I write my blog, how I process my email, how I listen to podcasts and how I meditate to find these pleasures.

As part of my annual review I reflected on what I wanted my theme for 2021 to be. Because of all its benefits, I knew that it had to be a variation on this more gentle approach. Thus, my take on the 85% rule and my phrase for the year is “Con Cariño”. The rough translation from Spanish is a mix of with care, with love and with tenderness.

It’s a simple way to remind myself, no matter what I’m doing, to look for that 1% more ease. It’s a constant reminder that I don’t have to kill myself to achieve my goals. Slowly that attitude is becoming a natural way I relate to the world, and for that I’m feeling very grateful.