The 85% Rule

"A sprint coach was studying Carl Lewis, for a year, and couldn’t understand why Carl was always last or second last at the 40-meter mark, but then go on to win the 100-meter sprint.

Eventually, he realised that Carl Lewis did nothing at the 50-meter mark; his breathing and form was exactly the same. Other runners would try to push harder, clenching their fists, scrunching their faces. But Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same—and go on to breeze past the others”

With this story, Hugh Jackman shares the idea of the the 85% rule.

He hypothesized that if you tell Type-A athletes to run at their 85% capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run at 100%, because it’s more about relaxation, and form, and optimising the muscles in the right way.

At first, it was counterintuitive to me that I don't have to give my 100% when trying to perform at my best.

Because if I'm not putting 100% effort into my work, then won't I fall behind to someone who is? Isn't pushing myself to the limit the precondition to success?

But the more I think about it, the more it made sense.

When I practiced for my Grade 8 ABRSM Piano practical exam, I noticed diminishing returns as I practiced too much. My fingers would start tensing and start hitting the wrong keys. I forgot to relax. I was clenching my fists, pushing towards the finish line.

When I studied for my final round interview with Glassdoor, overoptimized on the wrong things. I studied everything I could about AB tests, read dozens of articles, memorized the concepts. I passed the AB testing case study portion, but failed to explain what I had on my resume with any detail. I was racing down the finish line with perfect form, but it was the wrong race track.

As I'm graduating soon, every day feels like a race against time. I'm running at 110%, but it's still not fast enough.

As an international student, I tell myself I have to stand out from the rest, I need to put in more work while everyone else parties and has fun, and I can have fun later.

But all this "productivity" is backfiring. I'm burntout and exhausted. And with GERD on top of everything, I can't remember the last time I felt healthy.

Hopefully, writing this out will implant the 85% rule into my brain.

Where I will learn relaxation by scheduling breaks and being outside more, and stop maximizing performance and perfection by doing just enough.


  • May 4, 2023: Found out the 85% rule is backed by a study in 2019 on Nature Communications