Select Page

*Photo by Charlie Hammond

“Every dead body on Everest was once a highly motivated person…so maybe calm down.” –Anonymous

I was recently talking with one of my team members about her training for a marathon.

Now, I will say right up front that I am not a runner. I am fairly active, and I love exercise, but the idea of running (or training for) a marathon has never appealed to me. It sounds like pure torture.

Needless to say, I am impressed by anyone who achieves this.

I want to extend a huge congratulations to DSH’s own Lisa Giordano for finishing the Disney World Marathon in Orlando Florida on January 7th, 2024!

You might know that there is pretty clear science behind training plans for marathons. The internet is loaded with plans for exactly how you should run for several months prior to the big race.

As she was telling me about this, I was surprised to hear that the longest training run is about three to four weeks before the event—and is about 6 miles shorter than the marathon itself.

I guess I had always envisioned people training for a marathon race by running a bunch of 26-mile practice marathons for weeks leading up to the marathon day. But it turns out this is a terrible way to prepare—and might even ensure you can’t finish the run on race day.

The best way to perform at your peak is not to go full bore all the way up to your most important event.

If you run every day at full speed and distance, your performance will decline.

If you lift the heaviest weight every day, you will actually lose strength because the muscle can’t recover.

This isn’t just good athletic advice, it is great advice for work and other important areas of life.

Performance psychologists and executive coaches are now citing this type of research to help leaders understand how they can perform better, get better results, and not increase turnover by burning out their teams.

But to succeed they need to do something that is very counterintuitive to most high achievers—frequently give less than their best effort.

The sweet spot of 85%

A few weeks ago came across an intriguing Wall Street Journal article on this topic entitled Try Hard but Not That Hard: 85% Is the Magic Number for Productivity.

In the article they emphasize the fact that we live in a world where our choices and social comparison have exploded to levels no one ever dreamed of.

This can often lead us into the tireless pursuit of trying to optimize every single area of our lives. To be the best at everything.

The author ponders something I have unfortunately found myself doing, “Have you ever found yourself on a time-sucking Amazon quest for the perfect umbrella?” Ironically, the week I read this I was looking for umbrellas on Amazon! Only hours later I realize, did I really need to spend that much time doing that?

Did you give any work projects your absolute devotion this week that could have been done well at 85% of your max effort? Would anyone even have noticed or cared?

In a fascinating 2019 study, researchers used machine learning to find the ideal difficulty level when learning new tasks. To do this, they created a neural network that mimicked the human brain. They found that learning speed and accuracy was fastest at 85% difficulty.

What exactly does this mean?

The authors have suggested that we likely learn more—and sustain our efforts over the long-haul—when we are challenged at about 85% of our maximum effort.

Steve Magness is an exercise physiologist and world-renowned expert on performance who coaches athletes and executives. He has found that many hard-charging leaders are regularly giving 100% effort to minutiae.

No leader or team member can function at 100% performance 100% of the time. This is a clear recipe for burnout. Both personally, and for the people who may work under you.

Leaders would do well to apply this notion to their own performance—and their teams. After all, the first rule of leadership is that people do what people see. If your team sees you giving 100% to everything, the odds increase that they will do the same.

Advantages of giving less effort:

  • You become more productive for the most important things
  • You keep a sustainable pace that reduces the likelihood of burning out
  • You are less likely to burn out your team who may imitate your behavior
  • Your physical health is likely to improve (i.e. blood pressure, GI, or migraine)
  • Your mental health is likely to improve (i.e. less agitation, restlessness, distraction)
  • You will likely have a greater sense of calm and focus
  • Giving up the pursuit of everything helps to combat unhealthy tendencies toward people pleasing or workaholism
  • You preserve more time and energy to be present with your family
  • You put less pressure on yourself for something to be perfect, which paradoxically may improve the likelihood you will perform better

To do your very best work, or offer your highest contribution to the world, you might have to take it down a notch.

In a world where we are often bombarded with messages of “How you do anything is how you do everything” or “always give your best,” we need a new strategy.

Highly productive people that sustain a good pace over the long haul must have the wisdom to stop—the wisdom to know what things they can give less effort to.

This is the essence of true performance.

Take action now

If you find yourself always racing from one meeting to the next, or you are juggling multiple projects simultaneously with things spilling off your plate, or your work hours are drifting into nights and weekends—you can benefit from today’s lesson.

But you need to take action and change your habits for anything to change.

Here are three ways you can:

  1. Do a one-page business plan: The first step I recommend is to complete a 1-page personal business plan. My own executive coach had me do this years ago, and my team members tell me this is extremely helpful in keeping them focused. It helps identify what is supremely important so that you can let go of other alluring tasks. Email me and I can send you a generic template for it with some instructions.
  2. Identify the few most important actions and projects: Keep this list short. Stay focused on the tasks that produce the greatest results you are seeking (things like team morale, recognition, or staff retention—since people are the greatest resource for any organization). Taking on tons of projects dilutes your time and energy toward what matters most.
  3. Attend less meetings: These days, most leaders attend way too many meetings without time to think, plan, or spend time connecting with their team. Rarely is our input necessary for every meeting and often there are so many people in a meeting that a decision is unnecessarily delayed. Trying asking your boss if you can cut back on less important meetings and delegate some meetings to others. Also schedule meetings with yourself on your calendar because your time with yourself is vital to think and focus. The beginning and end of day are good times to do this to form a plan for the day or end the day by capturing important details.
  4. Experiment with B grade work. In the next week, try submitting something low risk with 85% good enough effort. Set a deadline or time limit on how long you can spend working on it, then stop at your deadline. Notice how it felt? Did you get any critical feedback? Were you more efficient? Then try the experiment again.

Have a great weekend!


Want more? Suggested Resources Below

  1. Wallstreet Journal Article Try Hard But Not That Hard
  2. Do Hard Things by Steve Magness








Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
Get the latest posts delivered to your inbox

Get the latest posts delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to receive the latest news and updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!