The 80% principle
A principle for life and work
On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?
Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice called hara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”
However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).
I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.
As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.
I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.
When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.
During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.
I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!
And it all worked fine until…
You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.
As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.
There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.
The benefits have been huge.
First, and most importantly, I have space for crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.
Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.
Third, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.
Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.
Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?