Stop Giving 110%

Stop Giving 110%.  

Picture it:  1993.  Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is the song that proms are made of, and I’m interviewing for a college scholarship in my best dress from the pages of Seventeenmagazine with my hair freshly permed at Great Clips.  My high school guidance counselor is one of the interviewers.

He asks, “What is your best quality?”

I proudly respond, “I give everything 110%.”

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Afterwards, I go to his office to ask for feedback (and to seek a hint about the scholarship committee’s decision).  He says that he is confident I will get the scholarship, but is also worried about me because, as he puts it, “Giving 110% to everything is a bad long-term strategy.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained, “when you’re walking down the hallway, you shouldn’t be giving 110%.  You should walk down the hall and get to class on time.  You shouldn’t give 110% at everything, because you’ll burn out and not have the energy you need for the things that matter.  You have to learn to do just enough to get by at some things or you’ll never have the reserves to conquer the things you care about.”

I hurry off to class and promptly ignore his warning.  Fast forward to today, and I have seen his warning play out again and again.

I saw it in the times I found myself exhausted at work because I’d spent all weekend cramming for the (non-credit) literature courses I took for “fun” while also serving as the president of two large boards.

I saw it in the role model who bragged about how many more hours she billed than the rest of us, insisted she had to do everything at home because her spouse didn’t meet her standards, and in her “free time” was disappointed when she was anything other than first place in her age group in the triathlons she did for “fun.”  I aimed to be more like her, giving everything my all.  Until she was taken out of the office on a stretcher after collapsing from exhaustion.

I saw the warning in the colleague who cried in my office because he did an all-nighter making perfect baked goods for an event at his kids’ school.  He was exhausted and couldn’t go home to sleep because he needed to stay at work to finish a big project.  And when he dropped off the Instagram-worthy baked goods that morning, the PTA president’s response was “great, they can go over there.”  Years later, I remember his sobs as he said “why didn’t I just stop at the grocery store like all the other parents?  Why was I going for perfection?  No one even appreciated the spun sugar!!”

I saw the warning in the friend who called me one night from a drug store to say she’d hit rock bottom: she’d been so busy getting ready for Christmas that she had neglected laundry. Then, as she stood at Walgreen’s trying to buy underwear because it seemed more manageable than washing the clothes she owned, she realized she had forgotten to do a project for work that was due the next day.

I saw the warning in the professional who, in the midst of mourning the death of a close family member, stayed up all night perfecting a project for a non-profit board rather than asking for an extension or for help.

Does any of this sound familiar?  It does for me.  Because any of these could have been me before I learned how to stop my 110%-ism.

You would think seeing friends and colleagues struggle with this would have made me realize I was headed in the same direction if I didn’t stop wasting my energy on things that weren’t important.  But I only finally got the message for good after I was hurrying into work one snowy morning and felt a painful snap in my leg.

The emergency room doctor explained I had torn my calf muscle and would need crutches for many weeks. He told me I had one job: heal. Anything beyond that meant I would need surgery.  I responded by asking if I could go back to work that day.  He was not impressed.  Instead, he told me I couldn’t go back for at least a week and needed to put on hold anything beyond work, rest, and eventually physical therapy.

Fortunately, that time the doctor’s message got through the haze of pain killers.  I finally understood that this was serious, and since I knew I didn’t have time for surgery, I would follow the instructions (mostly).  Suddenly I had to look at my schedule much more critically.  At first I just cancelled everything to focus on rest.

But as I started to have more energy, I reviewed every item on my calendar and to do list critically, from the standpoint of “if I don’t make changes, I can’t add this back in.” I realized I didn’t need to spend 40 minutes round trip traveling to Spanish lessons; Skype worked just fine. And when the prospect of hobbling on icy sidewalks became stressful, I finally asked to dial in to work committee meetings by phone from my office.  I also stopped going to events solely out of obligation rather than need or desire. And beyond physical attendance, I reconsidered my level of involvement and energy in activities that weren’t related to my personal or professional goals.

Later, when I was off the crutches, I realized that none of the things I missed or modified had mattered to me or anyone else.  By making my health and my work the priority, I understood, finally, that giving 110% to everything was both unnecessary and keeping me from being as effective as I wanted.  

Tearing my muscle was the impetus for me to really learn how to stop aiming for perfection in everything, and instead focus my resources so I could give my best effort only to the things that matter most.  And giving some things less than 110% hadn’t hurt anyone; it had actually helped.

Here are three of my strategies that you can use to stop giving 110% to everything and start focusing your own energy on the things that really matter to you.

First, review your to do list.  Assess what you can eliminate, automate, delegate, or trade (review our post on taming the procrastination monster for more on that).  Then, ask what level of effort is needed for each task remaining on your list.  Do you really have to give 110% to making a dish for the office cookout, or could you give 50% effort and pick something up so you could just enjoy the event and not arrive late and frazzled?  Does anyone else care whether you personally hand select beautiful produce from the farmers’ market, or would Instacart suffice this week so you could free up time to go for a bike ride?  Do you have to be fully prepared for book club, or can you read a summary online, just go for the camaraderie, and use some of the saved time to read Harry Potter with your child?  Do you really need to be on that committee for yet another year, or would a junior colleague appreciate the opportunity and do a better job while you devote the time saved to improving your public speaking skills?

After you’ve done that assessment, then take another look at your to do list.  Ask again whether anything requiring less than 100% can be done by someone else.

Now imagine you’ve just been told that for four weeks you can only use 75% of your normal energy for 8 hours per day and 50% of your normal energy for 2 hours per day.  The rest of the time you need to rest.  What tasks would you suddenly be able to eliminate, automate, delegate or trade?  And what would you be able to do in that 50% window?  If there are tasks you coulddo with only 50% effort, why aren’t you doing that now?

Ask yourself, “who could do this if I couldn’t?  Would their effort be good enough?” And “if I had to acknowledge that I can’t give everything my best effort, what would I let go?”

Finally, give yourself permission to be bad at something.  For me, that’s running.  I will never win my age group in a 5K (unless I outlive everyone else).  I pick races based not on flat courses where I can set a new personal record but where I like the advertised medal and/or you get to see something interesting on the route.  I would undoubtedly be faster if I gave running more effort, but at this point in my life, I have chosen to just be glad I got out the door to run.  Having a hobby where I have chosen to not aim for 110% takes away the pressure and is a daily reminder that 110% is not only usually unnecessary, it’s often a waste of effort.  Instead, I focus my energy on the things that are more important to me than my 5K time: coaching my clients, preparing for speaking engagements, honing my skills, meeting with potential clients, time with friends and family, and taking care of my health.

And if being “bad” at something isn’t a comfortable standard, choose to aim for good enough. A friend once picked his kids up from a weekend with my husband and me and pronounced “it looks like a success. I dropped off two kids, and I’m getting two kids back.”  While humorous, it was a good reminder that unless you’re doing open heart surgery, perfection is often not necessary.  It’s highly unlikely that anyone cares how carefully you fold sheets, or that your office is always immaculate.  If you do, great, then continue to make those priorities.  But if it doesn’t directly advance your personal and professional goals, some days, and for some tasks, if no one is on fire, done might just be better than perfect.

By the time I got rid of those crutches (and the cane that followed), my leg was much stronger.  But my leg wasn’t the only part of me that was changed.  I had learned to let go of the things that don’t matter, to accept done as good enough for things that need to be done but aren’t priorities, and to save my energy for the things that matter most to my life and my career.

It took ending up on crutches to learn the lesson that guidance counselor tried to teach me: “Giving 110% to everything is a bad long-term strategy.”

Today, I almost never have to ask myself “why am I working so hard on this project?,” and I no longer find myself spending hours on things that aren’t important to my clients or to me.

Now, I help clients figure out how to advance in their careers and/or transition to jobs that are a better fit.  Along the way, it’s often necessary for them to free up the necessary energy and focus. Because it’s usually not an issue of not having the ability or motivation to advance; often people are spending those precious resources on the wrong things.  When clients come to me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from trying to do everything perfectly, or convinced they don’t have anything left to give to anyone or anything else, I use these strategies to help them redesign their lives.  I hope you can have the same success my clients and I have had, and hopefully without the trip to the emergency room.

Have you had to confront your own 110%-ism?  What happened?  Share in the comments.