Focus: stop kidding yourself, you can’t give 110%

During a client conversation last week, I poured some water into a glass, and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy he said, to which I replied, Not really, I always give 110%.

But I made the point because its one of my favourite bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase five times already, trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you can only spill 100%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

You can still only give 100%. If your effort output has increased, you need to recalibrate, so what you before called 100% effort, should now be seen as 91% effort. If we act generously and find a way to uncap the effort limit by arguing that the percentage given relates to average not maximum effort – then in fact 110% isn’t trying that hard.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon before Christmas and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2017. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. In giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language this way?

Why do we set these unrealistic expectations for ourselves? What makes me think that I am the exception that I have any more than 100% of myself to give? We can’t perform two tasks at 100% efficiency, crickey, I can hardly do one thing at 100% efficiency. Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort.

As well-renowned basketball coach-come-philosopher John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being. You can only give the maximum effort (100%) and need a balance in that.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention now, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. The guidance includes a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own experience in startup ventures and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, or the ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback It’s easy to give negative feedback and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, focusing on another challenge and when you return, creating the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

So, instead of simply keeping going, trying to squeeze more out, continuing to deny yourself and the great mathematicians in the sky, instead look at Dave Brailsford’s Marginal Gains Strategy. Brailsford’s approach is to take a holistic view on what you do and determine how to achieve 1% improvement in everything. His premise is that the aggregation of small gains across the board adds up.

And he is right. The maths here is compelling, which is nice. If you do something better by 1% a day for a whole year, the aggregated gain is surprisingly significant: 1.01365 =37.78. The compound effect of a daily 1% improvement yields a multiplier of nearly 38 times your original performance output.

So, stop pushing yourself relentlessly and instead ask yourself: Where can I achieve an additional 1%? Look at where you can make a step-up, and create a focus on continuous improvement, not the end result. Brailsford did this with the Omnium team, were the World Record was 4.00 minutes. His challenge was: how do we achieve a performance time of 3.56 minutes? And they did just that.

Gamblers trust to luck, entrepreneurs trust in their own hard work. Maybe now with the focus on mental health and stress, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to increase your focus and accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make up for the times when you were not giving of your best. It just doesn’t work. Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future, until it all catches up on you.

In his fine article regarding nominal and ordinal bivariate statistics, Buchanan (1974) provided several criteria for a good statistic, and concluded: The percentage is the most useful statistic ever invented.

I’m not sure about that, but Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that. 100% means the whole thing. Everything. All of it. Your whole self. Nothing left. Nothing more.