To Give Your Best, Follow 85% Rule

Whether it is work, relationships, or some personal tasks, we try to give our 100% to make things work in the best possible ways. But, giving your 100% can really give you the best result you hoped for? There is a theory or a rule, the 85% rule, which tells us to use only 85% of your potential to achieve 100% in your tasks. Doesn’t sound practical, but it sure is.

Carl Lewis and His 85% Rule


Have you heard of Carl Lewis? He was a legendary athlete, a track and field star, who won 9 Olympic gold medals. In an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Huge Jackman (yes that Wolverine guy) was a guest and was telling a story of a sprint coach. That coach used to be very impressed and fascinated by Carl Lewis. The coach couldn’t understand why Carl always is in last or second to last in the first 40 meters of the race, but then in the rest 60 meters, he turns the table and wins the race.

There was an assumption that Lewis is a slow starter who saves his energy to accelerate the speed in the end moments. But video footage from a different angle showed a totally different picture and turned out it wasn’t the reason Lewis stays on top. Jackman explained the rule to the host:

“What he realized Carl Lewis did at the 50-meter mark, 60-meter mark, was that he did nothing. His breathing was exactly the same. His form is exactly the same as had been between meters 25 and 50. Whereas everyone else starts to push to the end — “Gonna try a little extra harder!” … their face would scrunch up, their jaw would tighten, their fists would start to clench — Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same, and then he would just breeze past them.”

This strategy of Carl became popular as the 85% Rule. If you follow this rule, you will find out that you are doing way better than before and now you have time to chill too. This will increase your creative thinking and give you better ideas to work upon.

Learning with Failure

No matter what your profession is, rushing toward your goals might slow you down. It is natural to us humans that whenever we pushed ourselves, we made things complicated. We might miss sometimes crucial or important points that could ruin the result. Instead of going forward, it might push you back a few steps.

Another practical example of the 85% rule can be found in AI and machine learning. The psychology of this rule is simple, “if you are doing things 100% right, you can not learn anything.” Robert Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, said, “If you have an error rate of 15% or accuracy of 85%, you are always maximizing your rate of learning in these two-choice tasks."

This research was done on AI, not humans. However, the research shows optimal learning in humans and animals too. Just like a monkey takes days to learn a task, but he does it with 85% accuracy.

A healthy dose of failure in the learning process is like the catalyst that boosts the reaction time. This failure also prepares you for the inevitable challenges of life.

Trim Unessential

If you are following this rule, all you need to do is trim down unessential tasks. In other words, set priorities for your tasks. Once in the 85% list should be the tasks that you must do, and the rest must be the tasks that are not much necessary, and not doing them are not going to affect anyone.

This trimming is explained well by Derek Sivers in his book ‘Hell Yeah or No’. The author tells the story of his son, who is fond of going on mountain adventures. He was trying so hard to finish his journey, but every time he tried, he got carsick. Here his journey is 85% we are reading in this article and watching moving things during the ride is that 15% he shouldn’t be focusing on.

So he slowed down his pace by a little and tried again. This time he reached on top and completed his journey. Yes, the person driving behind him got a little angry because of the author’s son’s pace. He eliminated this error by tilting his mirror toward the sky to keep him focused on his target.

Now you may understand how important this is to go slow a bit. Instead of giving your 100% to everything, give your 100% to your 85%. So, go below 100 to get above 100.
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