This “85% Rule” Will Change Your Perception of Effort and Performance

And Explain Why Highly Successful People Thrive in High-Stakes Scenarios

Javier Romero
The Startup


Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

I recently came across one of the best interviews I have ever listened to. It was Tim Ferriss’ conversation with Hugh Jackman on Ferriss’ podcast, The Tim Ferris Show, which is an endless source of wisdom for many areas of life.

Hugh Jackman is widely known as one of the most versatile and iconic actors of our era. The main conclusions you will probably draw from Jackman’s conversation with Ferriss, however, are not related to his professional skills, but to his charisma and tremendous knowledge of other topics such as meditation, well-being, and physical performance.

Jackman, like many actors, has to adapt to the physical demands of the different roles he performs, and is known for his ability to reach extraordinary levels of fitness.

The Need for Calm

When asked about his workout routines to get ready for roles like Wolverine, the actor provided valuable insight on how he approaches such levels of preparation.

“I can’t get injured, so I can’t prepare as a body-builder. I have to prepare as a really ripped athlete/dancer, because fighting is dance. There is more relaxation in a fight scene than there is strength. If you think about all the great athletes you see, there is relaxation. That’s why you see every sprinter poking their tongue out and dancing around with joy before they run 100 meters, that sense of having the right level of relaxation”.

Let’s watch an example of what Jackman is talking about. Here is Usain Bolt in action. Does anything stand out to you?

Notice just how focused yet calm, confident and relaxed Bolt is prior to this high-stakes race (the 200 meters World Championship final). He fist-bumps the water girl, he performs his ritual, he smiles to the camera. He is prepared and he knows it, that’s why he is so relaxed.

The 85% Rule

Jackman expanded on this point by explaining “The 85% Rule”.

“If you tell most of A-type 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 optimizing the muscles in the right way”.

There are many examples of Bolt demolishing his rivals and cruising through the finish line (or even stumbling at the beginning of the race only to win it) while giving out a tremendous sensation of ease and superiority.

But let’s switch sports and focus this time on Stephen Curry, one of the best basketball players in the world, and a prime example of control, flawless technique, and calm under pressure. Curry embodies the concept of “running at 85%”.

Notice, above everything, Curry’s serious, unflappable, and laser-focused facial expressions in this slow-mo video. Does he look like he’s rushed or under stress?

Stephen Curry Slow Motion Shooting Compilation

In case that wasn’t enough, here is another world-class performer executing the 85% rule. Look at how Michael Phelps is in no need at all to catch his breath or overreact after breaking the world record for 200 meters freestyle and winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Michael Phelps breaks 200m Freestyle World Record at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

We’ve seen examples of athletes being calm before (Bolt), during (Curry), and after (Phelps)their performances. The fact that these athletes are so cool and collected, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t go through grueling training sessions or workouts in which they sure had to give everything they had, but always under control, never with too much tension in their form or technique, just like it will happen in the game or in the race.

Of course they are putting extraordinary levels of effort into their performances and achieving incredible results (especially if compared to those of ordinary people), but that’s not what it feels like to them. Intensity, force, or stress never override the form, technique, and mechanisms they have developed to excel. This is why they are the best in the world, and why we, too, should strive to perform a little more like them.

How you can start practicing the 85% rule today

Yes, these people are unicorns, aliens, superhumans, the best of the best. But what is magical about the 85% rule is that it doesn’t just apply to elite athletes or performers like Bolt, Phelps, Curry, or Jackman. After hearing Jackman’s explanation, Ferriss hit the nail on the head and provided the key for common people with ordinary jobs who perform everyday tasks rather than competing for Olympic medals.

“You could apply that to sitting down and writing, or to almost anything where being ‘over tense’ is not your friend”.

Ferriss and Jackman mean that being too close to 100% is usually not a good idea. We should avoid feeling rushed, forced, or under too much pressure, and find a balance between intensity, focus, and relax. Whether you are pitching an idea, presenting a project, meeting with a client, or putting together a financial report, the results you get when you are spending 100% of your energy on these tasks are usually not optimal.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Instead, keep your form, optimize your systems, and aim for this 85% expenditure of energy, or at least create that perception in your head. Our perceptions of effort and tiredness have a large mental component, so this is more about feelings and sensations than actual energy. A 15% decrease from 100% might seem too little, but it is more about our mental models than actual numbers or quantities.

You should strive to feel like you are performing at a steady pace, always with this tiny bit of room to breathe, not like you are constantly catching up or struggling. This will enable you to avoid exhaustion from pushing the throttle too far.

Note: quotes were edited for brevity and clarity, but they convey the intended meaning. Nevertheless, and like I mentioned above, I encourage you to listen to the whole conversation between Ferriss and Jackman.



Javier Romero
The Startup

Sports, communications, and personal development enthusiast. I seek interesting concepts and ideas and try to put them into simple words.