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

To do the best work of your life, take it down a notch

Tue, Sep 12, 2023 8:34amGrey Clock 4 min

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

So many of us were raised in the gospel of hard work and max 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 optimisation 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, 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

Dialling 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 to learn 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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By Callum Borchers
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Many of us can barely keep up with our jobs, never mind hobbies. Yet some top executives run marathons, wineries or music-recording studios on the side. How can they have bigger responsibilities and more fun than we do?

It can seem like ultrahigh achievers find extra hours in the day. They say they’ve just figured out how to manage their 24 better than the rest of us.

They also admit they take full advantage of the privileges of being a boss—the power to delegate and the means to do things like jetting to Denmark for a long weekend of windsurfing.

Dan Streetman trains as many as 20 hours a week for Ironman triathlons in addition to his job as CEO of cybersecurity firm Tanium. It’s a big commitment for anyone, never mind a corporate leader who travels to meet with customers every week. He pulls it off by sleeping fewer than seven hours a night and waking around 5 a.m., planning his exercise sessions months in advance, and switching his brain from work mode to sport mode almost as fast as he transitions from swimming to cycling during a competition.

“I tend to work right up until the day of the race,” says Streetman, 56 years old. “I remember being on a board call on a Friday night, and Saturday morning was an Ironman. That’s just part of it.”

Ahead of business trips, he maps running routes in unfamiliar cities and scouts nearby pools, often at YMCAs. He rides stationary bikes in hotel gyms and, if they’re subpar, makes a note to book somewhere else next time he’s in town.

Leaders who eat, breathe and sleep business can appear out of touch at a time when employees crave work-life balance and expect their bosses to model it. Today’s prototypical CEO has a full life outside of work, or at least the appearance of one.

Their tactics include waking up early, multitasking and scheduling fun as if it were any other appointment. When you’re a top executive, hobbies tend to disappear unless they’re on the calendar. One CEO told me he disguises “me time” as important meetings. Only his assistant knows which calendar blocks are fake.

Ben Betts calls himself a “spreadsheet guy,” which is a bit like saying Michelangelo was a paint guy. With Excel as his canvas, Betts creates cell-by-cell checklists for just about everything he does, from cooking Christmas dinner to building a coop for newly hatched ducklings.

Betts, 41, is CEO of Learning Pool, a professional-development software maker. The duck home is part of his ambitious effort to restore an 18th-century farmhouse in England. He’s been renovating for about five years and aims to finish this fall.

On a recent Saturday, Betts’s spreadsheet called for stripping overhead beams by 5 p.m. so he could refinish them. Otherwise, the task would have to wait until the following weekend, throwing off his whole timeline. His vision of the home as a cozy enclave—completed in time for the holidays—can only come true if he sticks to a precise plan.

“Sometimes I stand in the doorway, and my wife probably wonders what I’m staring at,” he says. “I’m picturing us on a corner sofa with our two kids and the dog, watching a film in front of the fireplace I installed.”

Back in the swing

John Sicard , president and CEO of supply-chain manager Kinaxis , got back into drumming many years after he let go of his dream to become a professional musician. He practices almost every day, but his sessions sometimes last only 20 minutes. He rehearses with bandmates two or three times a month. That’s enough to prepare Sicard, 61, to play Foo Fighters and Led Zeppelin covers at occasional charity gigs.

He also built a studio in his house, where he records up-and-coming artists. He finds time by sticking to this management philosophy: “The most successful CEOs do the least amount of work.”

For Sicard, that means letting his lieutenants take charge of—and responsibility for—their divisions. Many corporate leaders work harder than they need to because they micromanage or hire poorly and pick up the slack, he says.

Thomas Hansen , president of software maker Amplitude, is back to windsurfing, a sport he competed in as a teenager. He lives near the ocean in California but gets out on the water only about once a month, when the waves are just right. Hobbies don’t need to be daily activities to be fulfilling, he says, especially if they require training regimens.

To stay in shape for windsurfing, he rises at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week, for an hour of exercise. Hansen, 54, also guards his Saturdays and Sundays like the crown jewels of Denmark, his native country, limiting himself to two working weekends a year. Things that feel urgent can almost always wait till Monday, he contends.

‘Like a badass’

When Christine Yen isn’t calling the shots at work, she’s circling a racetrack at 80 mph on her Honda CB300F motorcycle. The co-founder and CEO of Honeycomb, which helps engineers diagnose problems in their software, took up racing a few years ago.

Prepandemic, her motorcycle was strictly for commuting in San Francisco—and making an impression. She loved pulling up to investor meetings in her hornet-yellow helmet and leather riding suit.

“It fits me like a glove, and it makes me feel like a badass,” says Yen, 36.

The keys to spending full days at the track are planning and being willing to work at odd hours, Yen discovered. Her favorite track publishes racing schedules in 10-week batches. As soon as a slate is released, she circles the dates when she expects her workload will be lightest, aiming to participate in roughly half of the events.

“I have also been known to bring my laptop to the motel and get some work done in the evenings,” she says. “It sounds boring to say hobbies can be scheduled, but that’s how I protect my time.”