We are all familiar with the concept of giving 110 percent, which has become a something of a mantra in recent decades, but experience suggests that it could, in fact, be counterproductive, argues Gary Cattermole.

While going the extra mile on occasion is to be applauded, and working flat out for defined periods can be both necessary and beneficial, working above our normal capacity for prolonged periods can be detrimental in the longer term, leading to that other well-known concept, ‘burnout’.

Finding an ideal balance between motivation and focus, and good mental health and wellbeing, is key. This is where the 85 percent rule, a sporting theory now gaining traction in the workplace, is proving valuable. So, what is the 85 percent rule?

In a sports and fitness setting, the 85 percent rule is a theory that this is the level at which fitness, effort and form are at their sustainable maximum. We can push above this level now and again, but operating at anything more than 85 percent effort as a norm will actually lead, so the theory states, to diminishing returns in fitness, form, and results, simply because it is not sustainable in the long term.

85 percent is deemed to be the optimum effort level for sports, and, increasingly, for the workplace in general – even for the home and relationships.

Quality rather than quantity?

Nine times Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis was famously the first high profile sportsman to practice this theory. Despite being widely regarded as one of the greatest 100m and 200m athletes in the world, he was equally remarkable for making a relatively slow start to each race. This was due to his principle of always operating at 85 percent of his maximum effort level throughout his competitive career. While his fellow competitors espoused high intensity and extreme effort, Carl Lewis achieved better results than his rivals by backing off slightly and leaving himself a small reserve, to ensure a higher quality of precision, focus and execution. His approach, governed by the 85 percent rule, resulted in prolonged, consistent, gold medal-winning form.

The key seems to be in allowing sufficient margin for time and focus to achieve a high quality in completing the task, as well as devoting sheer effort. The best results are achieved by attention to details and finesse, rather than solely driving force.

In a sporting context, the 85 percent rule equates to a ‘flow state’, defined by Headspace.com as, “that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.”

However, in an office workplace, peak performance works a little differently.

So how can we best apply the 85 percent rule?

The peak performance level of an office worker, manager or administrator is a similar 85 percent of maximum effort. Here again, attempting to work at a full out 100% leads to errors and inaccuracies and a general lack of quality and finesse. In contrast, working at 85 percent of full effort allows time for thinking, reflection, revision and checking work with an eye for detail.

Working at above 85 percent leads also to a lack of engagement with tasks and a feeling of spinning too many plates, the now familiar concept of ‘burnout’. Job burnout is defined by Maslach & Leiter (2006) as “A psychological syndrome that involves a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”

Major symptoms include:

  • Overwhelming exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job
  • A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

In 2019, a study conducted by Robert C. Wilson et al (2019) looked at the efficacy of the 85% rule in the context of learning, training and development, and found that it was an optimum level at which to learn new skills and subjects. They concluded that expending effort above the 85% threshold resulted in ‘learning errors’, stating “In many situations we find that there is a sweet spot in which training is neither too easy nor too hard, and where learning progresses most quickly. […] For all of these stochastic gradient-descent based learning algorithms, we find that the optimal error rate for training is around 15.87 percent or, conversely, that the optimal training accuracy is about 85 percent.”

There seems to be plenty of evidence in favour of the 85 percent rule, but, as a manager, how do you integrate it into your management style without signalling that less than an employee’s best effort is acceptable?

The main aim is always to get the best performance from the team, without their reaching burnout. While productivity and the bottom line must remain a priority, it is worth bearing in mind that burnout brings its own problems, either in terms of absence due to stress, or in needing to replace an employee who has chosen to leave.  Ultimately, burnout will adversely affect both the productivity and the harmony of a workforce.

The key is to achieve a balance between high quality and high quantity output. Management of the team cannot be divorced from the health and wellbeing of team members, something we are all increasingly aware of. This is not only for humanitarian reasons, as a more caring and appreciative approach is demonstrably good business.  A 2015 study conducted by study by Oswald, Proto & Sgroi of the University of Warwick found that happier employees are 12% more productive, and that lower levels of happiness are systemically associated with lower productivity.

The 85 percent rule can be viewed as a helpful rule of thumb in expecting a high level of quality and productivity, without pushing employees to an unsustainable long-term level of expectation.

Logic demands that if employees are consistently, accurately and productively performing at 85 percent, a healthy platform for sustained growth and progress can be achieved, with a stable workforce and robustly applied processes. It’s certainly worth considering.


Gary Cattermole is the Director of The Survey Initiative.





Gary Cattermole, Biography - Gary's initial grounding was in the areas of sales and marketing, in the mid nineties he joined Longman Software Publishing to head up the business development of SURVEYkits (the worlds first employee opinion survey toolkit). After spearheading its growth over an 18 month period, Gary joined EMPLOYeSURVEYS, the original developers of SURVEYkits, helping to establish EMPLOYeSURVEYS as a leading provider of employee surveys.
Following its successful growth, in 2006 employesurvey was bought by a leading consultancy group.

He has managed numerous employee research projects for a variety of organisations. He is a partner at The Survey Initiative (and enjoys sports, in particular table tennis and football).