The myopic thinking of 110% effort

During a meeting I had last week, a bloke poured water into his glass and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy I said jokingly, to which he replied, Not really, I always give 110%. This is one of my utmost bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase twice times already – before attempting to fill a glass 110% – 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 spill 10% if you’ve given it 110%. 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.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon 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 2019. 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. But in giving greater than 100%, this 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.

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 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.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep the mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity.

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, and an 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 responses It’s easy to give negative responses 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 achievement 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 hard to do 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, and when you return, create 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.

Pragmatic optimism is not fashionable, yet virtually any problem that can be articulated clearly enough can be solved without overthinking and overworking it to 100%+ effort. Being comfortable with uncertainty is perhaps the most important trait we can develop in ourselves as entrepreneurs, and not default to becoming overwhelmed.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is startup life. Is every day peachy? Of course not . But do your best so that on balance be calm , by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple, leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make a difference long-term.

I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future. It just doesn’t work. 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.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment – and that’s 100% of today, nothing more.