We have heard it before: give 100% in everything you do.
Just the other day, a fortune cookie served me with the message that ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well’, and to be honest, I found it a bit hypocritical coming from a food that does not exactly deliver on the ‘cookie’ part of its name.
I agree with the premise—if we don’t put in the effort when we do something, we might be selling ourselves or others short. We might have to redo that thing because it wasn’t done effectively in the first place.
However, there is a difference between doing something well and doing something perfectly. In some aspects of our lives, the benefit we gain isn’t necessarily from completing something to the very best of our ability, but by merely doing whatever amount is realistic. For instance, if you read 75% of a self-help book but never finish it, isn’t that still quite a bit of knowledge gained? If you feel exhausted from a work day but still push yourself to do half of your usual workout, wouldn’t you commend yourself for the effort it took to be active, instead of collapsing into the couch?
For many things we do in life, a B-grade is more than acceptable because the value lies in the doing of that thing, not in doing it completely. Perfection simply isn’t needed in every task we do, so allowing ourselves permission to take on a more manageable chunk, instead of all of it, might actually prevent us from feeling bogged down by our own expectations.
I present to you the idea of 85% effort. This is what I have recently deemed to be ‘the sweet spot’ when it comes to doing basic tasks because it allows for some flexibility, while still making sure something is worth taking the time to do.
Can’t clean the whole house? 85% is more than enough. No chance you’ll make it through your entire to-do list today? I bet you would still feel pretty satisfied if you did 85% of those things.
Don’t stress, do less!
The other day I put this theory to the test on something I have been putting off for quite some time: my refrigerator.
Things had gotten bad. Things were going bad. On its shelves sat a collection of leftovers and unidentified take out containers, some curdled coconut milk, half a can of tomato sauce. And in the crisper: a hardened lime, a head of lettuce stripped down to its yellow inner core, a limp bundle of spring onions with zero ‘spring’ left in them, a liquefied English cucumber bound by its shrink-wrap sleeve.
Tackling it felt daunting. I knew it would involve a host of abhorrent smells, having to wash out containers of old curries and jars of salsa, chunks of tomato and onion accumulating at the bottom of the sink before the receptacles could be washed or recycled. I knew that I needed to take care of it, and if I took the time to clean it out, I might feel inspired to restock it with new groceries or cook something nice from the usable items I unearthed.
I knew that cleaning out and scrubbing every inch of that fridge would make me feel more at ease and less grossed out. But so would just cleaning most of it.
So I gave myself five minutes. My objective: to clean the fridge to an 85% standard, giving myself permission not to wash out the veg drawers and maybe leave the condiment shelves just a little sticky. I allowed myself this leeway because I am only human and I am doing well just by making an effort to make things better.
I moved quickly, reminding myself that this basic task would not require all of me, just 85% and several minutes of my time. This self-imposed constraint meant that there was little time leftover to dwell on my bad fridge habits or gag at the remains of dinners gone by. Instead, I was a ninja, in and out, focused, with a calm inner voice. No fuss. Just a bit of muss.
Later that day, I tried out the method again as I began writing this article. Truthfully, writing still feels intimidating to me. I am still getting into the zone of authorship, finding my voice and my flow. I can get caught up in wording choices and little details, feeling stuck and unable to move forward. But I reminded myself that not everything in life needs to be taken so seriously. That striving for perfection might actually prevent me from sharing my writing, and probably has in the past. Sometimes, just getting the message across in a more basic manner might be more valuable than being hesitant and only sharing those words when the presentation feels perfect.
Strive for eighty-five!
I focused on just getting my main thoughts down on the page, temporarily silencing some of those overactive thoughts in my head that are always so critical. I told myself that all writing begins with a rough draft, edits could be done later, the important thing was writing down the basic message that I wanted to share.
In both the fridge clean-out and writing exercises, I found that removing part of the expectation from myself made the act of starting something much easier. When I made the decision to just give 85%, I didn’t procrastinate like I often do, I got straight to work.
And if you think about it, that makes sense because procrastination is rooted in fear. At its core, procrastination is nothing more than the fear of failure. We fixate on the time it will take to do something and what might happen if we don’t achieve our desired outcome. What if we can’t do that thing well? We will be failures! (We are always so hard on ourselves for even the smallest things!) So we put things off, we stress and over-complicate.
But often there is value in simply making a start at something, in overcoming the obstacle of ‘beginning’, then building momentum. In changing the expectation, encouraging ourselves to take on only what is manageable and allowing ourselves to do less, we might actually find we are able to accomplish more.
The prospect of ‘giving it our all’ can take its toll on us. It carries the implication that if we can’t complete a task from start to finish in an allotted period of time, then maybe we shouldn’t even attempt it. It requires us to set aside the time to concentrate on something and complete it fully, and in our busy lives, that can be a tall order. What if that window of opportunity we think we need to do something never comes?
It’s time that we cut ourselves a bit of slack. When we allow ourselves some leeway, remind ourselves that nothing will be lost if that thing is only done 85% well, we might feel more capable of starting something because the stakes are lower. And potentially, as soon as we put in our 85%, we might be willing to contribute additional effort while we are at it.
Of course, there are most definitely aspects of our lives where precision, and possibly, perfection is required. We wouldn’t want our surgeons and pharmacists and pilots to be putting in less than 100% effort in their work, just as we wouldn’t purposely aim for only 85% on an exam, or in an interview, or feel right about driving a vehicle with only 85% of our attention on the road.
The trick lies in identifying which aspects of our everyday lives require our full attention and effort and which aspects matter less. Because the reality is that every single thing we do takes time and focus away from something else. And while the mundane things we do are still important, we should have a clear idea of whether they are 100% important or 85% important.
By recognizing the areas where we are unnecessarily using effort, by reminding ourselves that sometimes it can be just fine to strive for eighty-five, we might learn to be a little easier on ourselves. We might discover that we are capable of accomplishing more by doing less.
Here and there, if we are able to claw back an extra 15% of otherwise expended time and effort, we might just find that we have more of ourselves left for the things that matter most.