(Photo by manny PANTOJA on Unsplash)

There is one simple rule which has been shown to lead to increased success across a range of disciplines: the 85% rule. This rule has allowed athletes to perform at their peak, it has increased learning in students, and it has even helped artificial intelligence to learn.

The 85% rule is about decreasing focus on perfection. If you’re learning something, aim to get it right 85% of the time. If you’re running a race, run at 85% of your maximum capacity. Taking the focus off perfect performance allows you to relax and use the proper mechanisms — whether physical or cognitive. You’re more likely to achieve states of flow because you’re not forcing anything. You’re relaxed. You’re focused. This is where success happens.

The 85% rule improves athletic performance

Tell athletes to aim for 85% of their maximum capacity, whether in a running race, during a fight or match, or lifting weights in the gym, and they are likely to hit almost 100%.

For anyone who has played a sport of any kind, or even just lifted weights in the gym, you know what pressure can do. You tense up, your heart is beating fast, and you flop. Aiming for perfection doesn’t allow for a relaxed state, but a relaxed state is exactly what you need for peak performance.

So telling yourself to aim for 85% of your maximum capacity will take some pressure off. You’re no longer aiming for perfection. You’re just aiming for 85%. And you can do that. That’s easy.

“If you tell most A-type athletes to run at their 85% capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run 100% because it’s more about relaxation and form and optimizing the muscles in the right way.” — Hugh Jackman

Jackman has applied this rule to his craft — musical stage performance. He explains “I prefer to go to Wednesday matinee six weeks into the run. That’s when you’re going to see the best show.” On the opening night, there is pressure for perfectionism. The Wednesday matinee show is when everyone has relaxed and taken that expectation of perfection off of themselves. That’s when the real magic happens.

Photo by Chris Kendall on Unsplash

The 85% rule increases learning abilities

In a similar way to telling athletes to aim for 85% of their maximum capacity, telling someone who is learning something to aim to get it right 85% of the time will take the pressure for perfection away. In fact, making mistakes is a more effective way to learn. Failure is helpful. This rule hits the sweet spot between a task that is too easy and too hard. Aiming to get something right 85% of the time also makes it less likely that someone will give up when they experience failure.

“If you’re doing something and you are 100% accurate, you’re not going to be taking as much from that as a situation where you are struggling a little bit. That’s the point at which you’re actually learning the most — struggling a little bit, but not too much.” — Robert Wilson, assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science

The 85% rule will help you get into flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, defines it as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Flow occurs when you’re engaged in a task that isn’t too hard, but isn’t too easy either. States of flow are where you’re going to get maximum success as well as enjoyment. The 85% rule cultivates this, because you’re not aiming for 100% — it’s not too hard — but it’s not too easy, because 85% is still quite a high performance.

Csikszentmihalyi explains this:

“The (flow) experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing… (when) one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.”