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Use the 70 Percent Rule To Be Happier and Prevent Burnout

Pushing your hardest can—ironically—make you less productive.

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On a recent getaway to Vermont, I went on a bike ride with my wife and daughter. We pedaled along rolling green farmland on our way to a local cafe, my wife ferrying our one-year-old daughter on her e-bike, me following behind on my analog bike. Then we hit the hill—and on that significant ascent, I began to lag behind. I tried to power through—after all, the cafe was less than a mile away—but the scent of fertilizer was suddenly overpowering and I began to sweat profusely, muscles burning. As I prepared to suffer the indignation of walking my bike the rest of the way up the hill, I remembered the 70 percent rule.

Bruce Frantzis, a master of the Taotist martial art known as Qi Gong, promotes this method of neither doing too much or too little: “You should only do a movement, or any qi technique, to 70 percent of your capacity.” It is the art of doing “neither too much nor too little.”

Giving 110 Percent Makes You Less Productive

As it applies to physical stress, it ensures that we don’t end up overexerting ourselves. Yet it’s also a good lesson for our day-to-day lives, helping us slow down and find joy in process. The social narrative that we should always give 110 percent has left us burned out and, ironically, less productive. Research shows that our brains need time to recuperate, and that we are more productive when we ease off the pedals.

By literally easing off the pedals biking at a more languid pace I conquered the hill. I was able to enjoy the sights of the countryside and reach the cafe with energy to spare and a sense of appreciation for the moment that carried through to breakfast with my wife and daughter.

Ever since that ride I’ve thought about how the 70 percent rule can help us find balance in arenas in which we have been trained to give it our all, in particular our jobs. As a physical education teacher at an elementary school, I have caught myself frantically cleaning up one activity while planning out the next, even though I’ve already mapped it out. Slowing down and paying attention to what I’m doing helps me become embodied, so that I’m not wasting energy mentally rehearsing what’s to come. This makes me a more patient and playful teacher, rather than a stressed and distracted one. And that calm energy has a trickle down effect, just as it would in an office, restaurant, or retail business. As researchers have pointed out, slowing down may be the fastest way to accomplish more.

Try the 70 Percent Rule

The next time you notice yourself gritting your teeth to complete a task at work, rushing to finish a project, or working 10-hour days, try this mindfulness practice:

  1.  Pay attention to the details of the activity without succumbing to hurry-up mode. Can you feel the keyboard as you type? Can you sense your posture? Are you thinking of what comes next or working with what you can right now?
  2. Tune in to your actions and intent to determine if you are maintaining a steady 70 percent effort. Are you going through the motions so quickly that you don’t notice the temperature of the room, the sounds around you, or the tension in your back? Clocking your speed traps is subjective, so there is no wrong answer here. The key is monitoring your level of effort so your attention is anchored in the present, where you can actually be useful and productive, and not plotting about what’s next or ruminating about that email you just sent out.
  3. Carry this intentional pace and presence into your next activity, and set a reminder on your phone so that you have other opportunities to check-in on your exertion throughout the day. Once you start practicing the 70 percent rule, you’ll find that there are so many aspects of our day that we approach like the hill…which means that there are also ample opportunities to find that sweet spot in which you can achieve the ease of doing neither too much nor too little. In the midst of strain, a deep breath and a relaxed approach can do wonders for yourself and those around you.