How to Stop Procrastinating Using the 70% Rule
Why ‘A’ Students Work for ‘C’ Students and ‘B’ Students Work for the Government
“Whenever you feel that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it is actually you who are ruining your life…Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in any way, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can — the so-called “iron prescription” — I think that really works.” Charlie Munger
In 2012, I had a job teaching English that I didn’t much like.
I had been thinking for months about getting serious about applying for others jobs but didn’t.
I was walking home from work one day wondering how to stop procrastinating when I listened to a podcast that made something click.
The podcast hosts presented an idea they called the drama denominator: you are the common denominator of all the drama in your life.
You haven’t had 5 crappy jobs or 3 crappy relationships in a row. They did not happen to you. You happened to them. You are crappy at your job or you are crappy at your relationships.
A few months earlier while I was working as English teacher, I had applied for one job that I really wanted and been turned down.
The interviewer did me the favor of being honest about why. I believe his exact words were “You have no marketable skills.”
I wasn’t upset so much as shocked. I had gone through 18 years of schooling. I got good grades. How did I not have a single marketable skill?
The day after I listened to that episode, I started reading the Moz Guide to SEO and bought a beginner’s guide to Wordpress.
The next week I did some keyword research, bought a domain, and set up a Wordpress site.
I created a website in the kitchen remodeling space, which I knew precisely zero about. But, I had decided I would figure it out. I would develop a marketable skill. I read about kitchen remodeling and started writing articles on kitchen remodeling. I practiced what I was learning about SEO on my site.
I wrote almost twenty thousands words about kitchen remodeling over the next few months. The site started to rank in Google and I started getting website visitors.
It was working!
I put Google Adsense, Google’s advertising program for publishers, on the site. I still remember the first time someone clicked on one of my ads. I made $1.25.
I promptly went out and bought a $6 bottle of wine to celebrate and was back in the red. I didn’t care. The market paid me. I had a marketable skill!
I cold emailed ten marketing agencies a month later after the site had continued to grow and said “hey, I know SEO and I can prove it. Here are all the stats of my site. I’ll work for you for free or cheap on trial. If you like it, hire me. If not, no worries.”
I got two responses. One agreed to meet for coffee and I walked him through my site and all the strategies I used and explained how I could do the same thing for his clients.
He hired me the next day.
It was an important moment for me not because it was an amazing job, but because it showed me that I could take control of my career and my life.
It was perhaps the first time in my life that I didn’t wait on someone to tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
Why ‘A’ Students Work for ‘C’ Students and ‘B’ Students Work for the Government
After I’d made a website and gotten a job that I really liked, I started to wonder: why did I procrastinate starting to learn SEO for so long?
If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said that “I wasn’t sure that’s what I want to do.” I didn’t know if I would be “passionate” about SEO or marketing.
Why do we procrastinate until we’re 90%, 95% or 100% sure?
Part of it is because schools train students to wait to make decisions until they are 95% sure. You don’t get A’s in school by going “I know about 70% of the material, I’ll just take a crack at this test and see how it goes.” You get A’s by studying until you are 95% sure you know all the answers.
There’s a saying that “‘A’ Students Work for ‘C’ Students and ‘B’ Students Work for the Government.” It’s sort of juvenile to poke fun at such a broad swath of people, but the saying contains a kernel of truth.
Why is that? Almost by definition, someone who makes C’s is right about 70% of the time. They are the people that said “I know about 70% of the material, I’ll just take a crack at this test and see how it goes.”
It turns out that, in most “real-world” situations, that’s actually the optimal confidence level for making decisions.
In his letter to shareholders back in 2016, Jeff Bezos gave the best advice I’ve ever heard on how to stop procrastinating:
“Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”
What Bezos is saying is that you should think like a C student. When you’re about 70% sure, you take a guess and see what happens.
Unlike on a test, you can course correct later. If you realize two weeks into a new marketing campaign that it’s not going to work, you drop it and start over.
In nearly all cases, that’s cheaper than spending months deliberating over whether it’s the perfect campaign or not.
Colin Powell has a similar rule for how to stop procrastinating. You should make a decision when you have between 40% and 70% of the possible information. He believes that with less than that, you are bound to make a wrong decision.
However, if you keep looking for information beyond 70%, then by the time you make the decision, it will be so late that you will have missed the opportunity.
“Part I:Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.”
Part II: “Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”
My free 3-part email course on productivity has helped hundreds of people stop procrastinating. If you want to choose, plan and accomplish your most important goal in the next 90 days, I think it could make a difference for you.
How to Stop Procrastinating with The 70% Rule
The most common reason you procrastinate, the reason I procrastinated, is that you want to avoid looking bad.
Why had I taken so long to learn a marketable skill? I couldn’t blame it on money. The domain and hosting I bought cost me less than $50 for the first year.
The truth was that I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I wrote a fifty page thesis on U.S. Cuban foreign relations during the Cold War and I thought writing about kitchen cabinets was beneath me. I thought I should be working on “more important” things.
No one thought I was cool when I told them I was spending my nights and weekends writing articles about kitchen remodeling.
I didn’t have the self-awareness to recognize this in the moment. It was only clear to me in retrospect that the main reason I had taken so long to learn a skill was because I was embarrassed.
At the time, I would have just expressed my procrastination as indecision: “I’m not sure that I really want to learn SEO.”
I was telling myself a story in my head — I was procrastinating not because I wanted to look bad, but because “I wasn’t sure if it made sense to learn this skill.”
In the years since I’ve procrastinated on many more projects and worked with others who have done the same. It is almost always the case that the root cause of procrastination is a fear of looking bad in front of others.
You’re not procrastinating on starting a business, launching a project, or asking for a raise at work because you “don’t know if it makes sense.”
You’re procrastinating for the same reason I was: you’re scared of looking bad because you don’t know all the answers right now.
Since then, I’ve tried to live by the 70% Rule: When I feel like I have 70% of the information, I make a decision and start.
The 70% Rule works for big goals as well as small goals because it gives you the momentum for getting started. As soon as you start a new project, the momentum gathers, and good things start to happen.
Courage is the Cure for Procrastination
In his account of an expedition into the Himalayas in the 1930’s, explorer William Hutchison Murray put it this way:
“… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money — booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.” William Hutchinson Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951)
- Are you 70% sure you want to write a book? Start writing the book, if only for a minute. You may find that a minute turns into an hour, which turns into a daily habit.
- Are you 70% sure you want to ask your boss for a raise? Set an appointment to talk with her. You’ll figure it out when you walk into the room.
- Are you 70% sure you want to start a business? Make a prototype and send it to five people and ask if they’ll buy it.
Courage is the ultimate cure for procrastination
You are afraid of failure, but by procrastinating you guarantee failure.
I was terrified when I released my first book that no one would like it. What got me to go through with it was the realization that no one liked my book already because it didn’t exist. The worst case scenario for releasing the book was that I would end up exactly where I already was.
It’s Not About What You Do, But What You Become
The 70% rule is a smart strategic tool, but it’s more than that. The most important part about the 70% rule is not about what you do. It’s not about whether you succeed or fail.
It’s about what you become in the process. By taking on a challenge that you are not sure you can complete, you stretch yourself. You grow. You become more fully you.
When I look back at periods of my life where I wasn’t following the 70% rule, I was miserable and filled with a sense of self-loathing. My actions were cowardly, so I walked through life feeling like a coward.
The real cost of not following the 70% rule is not suboptimal performance for you or your organization. The real cost is being miserable and making the people around you miserable.
The purpose of life has nothing to do with starting a successful business, helping the homeless, or being in a band.
None of that’s in our DNA.
What is hard-coded into human beings is the need to dance on the edge of failure.
What are you 70% sure about that you’ve been procrastinating on?
It’s time to start dancing.
I study business strategies and mental models then explain how you can apply them to your life and business. Drop your email here to get my best writing and a list of my favorite tools for entrepreneurs and creatives, free.