Why You Don’t Always Need to Give 100%

The other day while I was working out at the gym, I saw this muscular guy wearing a t-shirt saying, “Always Give 100%.” This got me thinking, “Do I agree with this premise?”

The answer was surprisingly, NO. Upon deeper contemplation, this is something I have been considering for a while. However, this conventional wisdom has been espoused by well-meaning teachers, coaches, and bosses since I can remember, along with similar slogans like “go hard or go home.”

Two words that go with the concept of less than 100% is prioritizing and pacing.  What I have found is that often it is best not to give every last bit of what you have to every venture you encounter.

You need to prioritize.  You might be better served to aim to give less, say 90% to most things you encounter, saving your full capacity for only the most important endeavors. In fact, the mindset of “always give 100%” is flawed and might be standing in the way of the achievements you desire most to attain.

Many People in the United States are Brainwashed into Not Achieving their Best

Growing up in the US, I have been conditioned to value the sacrifice, even more than the results, and it took me a long time to realize that this was the case.  This mindset springs from the matrix that Tim Ferriss points out in The 4-Hour Workweek which is that people value personal sacrifice over productivity.

Haven’t you heard people bragging about how many hours they put in on a given workweek or how little sleep they can function on?  Or how have they left their vacation days on the table at the end of the year or worked through a cold (this is especially important during the current crisis)? 

People love to flaunt their suffering regardless of the outcome. Somehow suffering and giving your best is conflated but they are two different things. 

This insistence on the righteousness of the extreme blinds us to the reality of our actions. You cannot logically be your best if you are not well-rested or completely healthy.  So these personal sacrifices are working against the individual and the society at large without people fully understanding. When you prioritize, you save your best for the most important activities.

Sometimes You Can Benefit From Not Giving Your Absolute Best

Don’t get me wrong, occasionally it is important to give 100%, but like all things in life, we must strive for balance. Often we follow such conventional wisdom about things like giving 100% as if it is written in the heavens.  But those who perpetuate this doctrine are not always right in all situations. 

To illustrate this point consider another commonly accepted piece of conventional wisdom, often attributed to Nietzche, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Christopher Hitchens rightfully shoots holes in this fallacy in his book Mortality. If you have a massive stroke, paralyzing half your body and robbing you of vital functions such as the ability to talk and walk, are you stronger?

The Greatest Athletes Don’t Always Give 100% All the Time

The best athletes have mastered the art of pacing your activities.  We can all learn from them and utilize this concept in whatever endeavor you choose.

So, a way to illustrate that giving 100% is not something that is always advantageous is to watch and learn from the best. This is a lesson that I first learned watching great athletes growing up. Take Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis and Michael Jordan as examples. Terrell Davis was without question someone who outworked the competition going from sixth-round pick to have a Hall of Fame NFL career.

Hall of fame running back Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis Being Inducted to the Hall of Fame courtesy of Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons

If you watched him, he would famously ease-up slightly on long runs which actually allowed him to be faster than if he were pushing it to 100% because it would make his body looser and he’d therefore be faster.

It was precisely the skill of knowing when to give his all that enabled him to move from a middling prospect to an elite athlete. He developed a sense of knowing exactly when to turn it on.

Many times while studying Michael Jordan, as a way to improve my game on the court, I was initially perplexed when he would seem to slow down almost to the point of walking on offense at times when he did not possess the basketball.

Not only was he conserving energy for the most important moments, but he was also lulling the defense to sleep, and then when he’d make his cut to the basket, it seemed even faster and more surprising for the defense, yielding the optimum result. This is something that could not be achieved if he came with the sole mentality of giving 100%, always. I know this because I spent much of my career giving 100% at all times which held me back from the improvement I desired. 

Personal Experiences and Growth

It was not until I was playing college basketball that I really came to understand the ebbs and flows of the game and how to get in harmony with them and use them to my advantage. 

I had a decent basketball career for my mediocre athletic ability but was never close to becoming an elite athlete. But this is something that great athletes learn over time and a secret that is rarely shared with those who are still climbing the mountain to success in their given sport. It is something that we can apply to many aspects of our lives and achieve greater results by paradoxically expending less energy.

Why you should not give 100% while golfing

I was aware of this later in my hoops career, but I always experienced this in martial arts which I didn’t get serious about until I was twenty. If you are trying to give 100% all the time, you end up tensing up, making you less flexible and slower. For the best results, you must be loose when you strike. You are taught only to tense up at the very last second as you are about to make impact with your target.

the key to being a better martial artist

But if one is always focused on giving 100%, it can be hard to let off the gas. So it is perhaps best to strive for 95% or if you are a perfectionist perhaps 98% but not 100% so you can still remain loose and flexible. This is in line with the teachings of the Tao Te Ching which tells us to strive to be like water which can be a big powerful wave or all permeate the earth by slowly settling into every nook and crack. This prompted Bruce Lee to famously say, “Be like water.”

Mental Activities Need Prioritizing and Pacing

Great athletes are excellent examples of using these techniques to greater advantage, however, the lessons are important for other careers as well.  People who learn to prioritize and pace whether they are accountants, lawyers, writers, teachers, or nurses need to repeatedly take mental breaks.  Know when good enough will be sufficient and when the best is required.  You will be more successful.  

taking breaks can help you succeed  faster

Eventually, you will have an increased opportunity to have longevity in your chosen occupation.  My aunt, who taught special education for years, said she was lucky to be healthy and rarely missed a day at school.  But ever so often (maybe twice a year) took a “mental health” day.  The restoration that provided her made her a much better teacher and allowed longevity in her chosen career.

You Only Have So Much Time and Energy So Use Them Wisely

You only have so much energy, so it is impossible to give 100% all the time. As a result, you are setting yourself up for inevitable failure in some ventures because you are spread too thin. Although in your mind you might think you are giving 100%, in practice you’re actually not. You might give 100% to your first few tasks of the day but as your energy wanes along with your mental acuity, you are unable to keep the pedal to the metal. 

Frustration will eventually ensue and the output will suffer accordingly. You are better off conserving energy for what is really important, leaving room for the mental clarity and fortitude to know when the situation calls for 100% of your effort.  So, you don’t need permission to give less than 100% to some of your activities.

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I am the author of Academic Betrayal and the award-winning Death: An Exploration. Also, I deliver a newsletter with insider news, tips, and tricks for expanding consciousness and creativity.

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