The 85% rule, or why you shouldn’t give work your all

Several researchers argue for establishing a work culture aimed at reaching the optimal, but not the maximum

Work Live Balance
Bea Crespo
Karelia Vázquez

Stay calm. You don’t have to have a passion. Much less chase after it. You can be a calm person with mundane hobbies and still be very good at what you do. Even the best.

This is not an argument against passion, but let’s stop fooling ourselves. The world is filled with people without overwhelming passions, and the majority do not die from their love for their work, nor do they vibrate with joy every day because of their interests.

Passion has only become a trend over the last decade. Research by Harvard Business School examined 200,000 job advertisements in the United States and revealed that in 2007 the word “passion” was mentioned in less than 2% of job offers. In 2019, that figure reached nearly 20%. Websites specialized in preparing job interviews train their candidates to successfully answer questions about their passion. A lengthy and involved response is expected. For example, if you are a good pastry chef, you should say something like: “I am interested in the process of searching and experimenting with new recipes. For three years I have recorded in writing the effect on the textures of desserts of baking at different temperatures. I cultivate the details and the science behind baking.”

“I like to make cakes in my free time” would not win over a human resources director in 2023.

Through mysterious and intertwined semantic paths, devoting yourself passionately to an interest has become associated with your commitment to work. “Mentioning a passion on a resume makes people think of dedicated people, willing to work hard if they like something. Employers love to hear that because they can exploit the fact that someone is following their passion to get more hours of work for the same salary, and that is not a good trend,” says Cal Newport, writer and professor at Georgetown University.

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport warns that “pursuing your passion” is “a terrible professional recommendation.” “It is assumed that everyone has one and the majority have none, even those who can identify their passion will soon realize that making it coincide with their work will not make them as happy as they think,” the writer reflects by email.

Being perceived as a 100% dedicated employee has its advantages. Research from Columbia University Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, led by Jon Jachimowicz and Ke Wang, shows that these workers are promoted ahead of others, and rewarded with training and positive evaluations. Another study, cited by The Economist, found that people who cry at work increase their chances of recognition, as long as this emotional display is attributed to their great concern for a project.

But according to observers of this phenomenon, being known as the passionate one in the workforce also causes problems and calls into question professional competence. Newport points out that matching your job with something you enjoy is “a poor indicator” that you will be happy while earning a living. “The sources of job satisfaction are much more complex, involving variables that are difficult to control such as autonomy, recognition, and connection with other people,” he says.

Researchers from Harvard and Columbia point out in their studies that companies often make the mistake of rewarding commitment instead of ability because they are “blinded” by exaggerated displays of enthusiasm. In their work, they discovered that, even when the performance of “passionate” employees was in free fall, these workers had greater chances of recognition than their more discreet or taciturn colleagues, who were perhaps more efficient.

Showing excess of passion also has a price. In these studies, the workers who were always available ran the risk of ending up doing tasks completely unrelated to their work, including bringing coffee or running various errands, or of keeping ungodly schedules, for example, answering a call from a client from Asia at 4 a.m. A survey conducted by academics at Duke University, the University of Oregon, and Oklahoma State University found that managers felt more comfortable asking “committed” employees to work overtime without pay. It was easier to ask employees who said they loved their job to do cleaning work in the office, because — managers argued — they would enjoy it more.

Interestingly, you don’t need to give your all to the job. The mantra “maximum effort, maximum results” is beginning to be upturned by a more realistic and moderate message: “optimal effort, better results.” Giving 101% has become outdated, now the magic figure for productivity is putting in 85% effort. In other words, a lot, but not everything. According to these new studies, to be the best, you shouldn’t put yourself under too much pressure. It is counterproductive and exhausting. Meeting eight out of 10 goals can be considered a victory.

Greg McKeown, author of the 2021 book Effortless: Make it Easier to do What Matters Most, is one of the proponents of the 85% rule. In his opinion, putting in 100% is the reason behind the burnout epidemic that’s ruining work life: “It’s frustrating: we will abort the mission at the first sign that we won’t reach our maximum,” he says by email. In his book, he argues that there will not be big differences if we make a decision with only 85% of the information, or if we give a talk with 85% of the slides available.

McKeown’s idea of effortless does not mean lazing around, but rather practicing the art of giving a little less, of knowing how to stop when we have reached 85% of our capacity. According to McKeown, after we cross that figure, we are more likely to make mistakes, probably due to fatigue, as our ability to concentrate plummets.

The 85% rule was tested in experiments by Robert C. Wilson’s team in 2019 at the University of Arizona, and the results were published in Nature. The researchers measured the error rate in learning new tasks and found that optimal accuracy for training was around 85%. Wilson called it a “sweet spot,” a point in which things are no longer easy, but not too difficult either. In the study, a neural network learned from a human brain; when the tasks exceeded 85% difficulty, the artificial intelligence imitated the brain: it became demotivated and threw in the towel.

“Relaxed confidence and a tolerance for ambiguity” are the qualities that must be cultivated to be able to follow the 85% rule, says McKeown in his book, which was on The New York Times bestseller list.

To build a work culture around of reaching the optimum — not the maximum — experts recommend that managers moderate some practices. McKeown calls for monitoring what he called “high-pressure language.” In other words, to be more careful about saying something is needed “yesterday,” “urgently” or “ASAP.” He advises managers to be honest about deadlines and to end meetings 10 minutes early. Finally, he suggests that they also reduce their intensity and passion to 85%. “Sending an email on a Sunday will never be a message of moderation. The world will not end if you wait until Monday at 10:00.”

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