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 (on how to stop procrastinating)
In 2012, I had a job teaching English that I didn’t much like.
I had been thinking for months about getting serious and applying for others jobs, but didn’t.
I was walking home from work one day wondering how to stop procrastinating so much on applying for a job. I flicked on a podcast that presented a somewhat obvious, but for me pretty transformative, 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. 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 thousand words about kitchen remodeling over the next few months. The site started to rank in Google and I started getting website visitors.
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 cheap, on a trial basis. If I do good, 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 part-time the next day and offered me a full-time job a few weeks later.
It was an important moment for me not because it was an amazing job (though it was a great job), but because it showed me that I could take control of my career and my life.
It was the first time in my life that I didn’t wait for someone to tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
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? It wasn’t that expensive. Buying the books I needed and setting up the website cost less than $100.
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 digital marketing.
I hear this all the time when I talk to other people getting started with their careers or making a change. Why do so many of us 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 right way to make decisions.
In his letter to shareholders back in 2016, Amazon CEO 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. If you realize three months into a new job that you don’t like it, you can look for another one.
In nearly all cases, that’s cheaper than spending months deliberating over whether it’s the perfect campaign or perfect job.
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Why We Procrastinate
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 books, domain and hosting I bought cost me less than $100.
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 most of 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 didn’t want 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.
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.
When I released my first book, I was terrified 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.
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, 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 real 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 trying to figure out how to stop procrastinating on?
It’s time to start dancing.
Choose, Plan & Accomplish Your Most Important Goal in 90 Days. Enter your email here to get access to my free 3-part email course that will let you plan and achieve your goals with ease, even if you’ve struggled with motivation, overwhelm, and focus in the past (as well as updates about future articles and resources)
Originally published at taylorpearson.me