Full Out at 70%

Full Out at 70%

I admit it; I’m a workaholic… a recovering workaholic, that is.  I worked for 15 years in what many people call Workaholic Central: The Silicon Valley.

I wanted to be the best at what I did. At Apple Computer I wore the “Changing the World One Person at a Time” T-Shirt proudly.  No matter what we did, we could do it better, faster, easier, cheaper – more incredible.  We were never satisfied.

To say the least, there weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week.  I was seeking peak performance by pushing my limits and then some.

The result?  We created some great things and some not so great things, and I also managed to burn myself out – twice.  It was not a pretty sight for my coworkers, my family or myself.

So my strategy for “peak” performance worked only for a short amount of time.  Ultimately it wasn’t very efficient, and it ended up causing more harm then good in the long-term.

A few years later, I was sitting in a seminar by the preeminent Chilean biologist Dr. Humberto Maturana.  During the seminar, he made a statement that went something like this: “After 50 years of studying living systems, I've learned to perform at 70% capacity maximum, no more.”

I was thrown aback.  My immediate reaction was to wait for a punch line; he had to be joking, but no, he was serious.  He then continued, stating his three main reasons why to work at “only” 70%.

First: Life is anything but predictable.  By experience, we know that sooner or later an unprecedented event will interrupt the flow of our doings. Things rarely go as we expect.  At that moment, if one is performing (going about work, home, hobbies… life) at 100%, there is no time/space to deal with the interruption.  So now we have two challenges: dealing with the interruption and dealing with whatever we will need to put on hold in order to deal with the interruption.

Second: In the same way that life is unpredictable, sometimes the interruption is a positive one.  We might find a great new opportunity in front of us, something with more benefits than what we currently have.  Again, if we are going at 100%, we will find ourselves without the capacity to take advantage of this opportunity.  One of two things will happen: either we take on this new opportunity and cause an interruption in our current tasks, or we will have to let the opportunity pass by.

Third: Probably the most significant consequence of performing at 100% is that we never have time to reflect, and hence never really learn.  When we are performing at 100%, the only thing that might happen is we become better at what we are doing in the way we are doing it.  We are caught in our habits and methods without reflection.  We become stuck, and whatever we are doing becomes monotonous, logistical, and even boring.  I have seen this problem at work, at home and at play, and is one of the contributing factors of my own burnout.

It’s not my common sense to operate “only” at 70%, but now I find myself reflecting about this way to approach peak performance.  It makes sense when I think about it, although our way of working and living struggles to accommodate this mindset.  I’ve decided to give it a shot, and start planning and performing my life with the outlook of operating at 70%.  It’s better then burning out, and quite possibly I may have some space to have a more peaceful, effective and, yes, productive life.

A year later

 I’ve been practicing going full out at 70% for a bit over a year now. The following outlines what I have seen and started to learn so far:

  • It is difficult to measure what is 70%.
  • The breakdowns or opportunities mentioned above come very quickly, and before I know it I am back at 90 to 100%.
  • The most difficult part is returning to 70%.
  • I am a recovering 100% person. My body and head continue to “feel” the urge to be going at a 100% all the time. My body physically wants another shot of adrenaline and my thoughts tell me, “I should be doing more,” or “I am not doing enough.”
  • Productivity is not measured by a packed schedule. Operating at less than 100% means I can manage the interruptions better.
  • My conversations with employees have become more effective – because I actually have a few more minutes to understand the challenges they face and how I can help.
  • I am actually not a recovering workaholic. What do I mean?

Allow me to authentically introduce myself: Hi! My name is Gabriel and I am a recovering inefficient performer.