How to Win with 80% Effort

There is an old Japanese saying that I have always liked. It is hara hachibu ni isha irazu (腹八分に医者いらず). It advises, “Eat until 80% full and you’ll need no doctor”. The equivalent English proverb is “Feed by measure and defy the physician.” It is often shortened to just “hara hachibu” or “80% full”. In a culture where we eat until we are full and coached to “give our all”, the 80% full principle offers a surprising alternative.

Modern medicine is catching up with ancient wisdom. Studies have shown that there are health benefits, including reduced illness and longer lifespans, when consuming fewer calories. People may find it difficult to sacrifice the short-term enjoyment of eating rich, high calorie foods for the long-term benefits of health and lifespan. In a similar way, we are encouraged to work hard and give our all, even when there is evidence that building in slack boosts productivity.

As a child, I felt the wisdom “hara hachibu” whenever I took “all you can eat” restaurants literally. Delicious in the moment, but uncomfortable afterwards. Early in my working life, I learned to take it easy (less than 80%!) at the nightly banquets with Japanese sensei or sleep poorly and suffer on the shop floor the next day.

There is several pieces of practical advice on how to eat until 80% full. These apply as well to how we work.

Eat slowly. It takes time for the stomach to send a signal to our brain that we are full. When we eat fast, we get ahead of this signal and eat more than we need. Eating slowly helps our sensation of fullness to catch up with the fullness of our belly. Also, we can’t keep eating if our lunch hour is over. For work, this means setting a slow-and-steady pace that allows us to receive a feedback signal from the next process, as well as avoid mistakes due to rushing.

Chew your food well. This contributes both to slowing down our pace of eating and to good digestion. For work, breaking down our tasks into helps us to prioritize, delegate what we can, and make progress more smoothly on the tougher items.

Put down your fork, spook, chopsticks or plate. Also called “developing the arm strength to push away from the table” this is simply a matter of creating distance between yourself and food so that eating does not become automatic or mindless. The more time and distance between us and the next helping of mashed potatoes, the better chance we have to pause and realize that we are full. For work, the comparable lessons is to do one thing at a time to completion rather than filling our minds and hands with multiple priorities and tasks.

Reduce plate size. Fundamental to all of the above is how much food we have in front of us at any time. A giant plate full of food allows us to keep eating past the point of fullness into illness. Smaller plates and portions allow us to eat, reflect on how full we are, and choose if and what to eat next. For work, this means giving 80% instead of 110% at whatever we do.

This last piece of advice may seem counterintuitive. We are told to give 100% and expected to give 110% in order to succeed. Managers “raise the bar” after success, push for results, fill all available space in the calendar, into nights and weekends. This is in spite of evidence showing that scheduling projects and daily work beyond 70% – 80% of capacity actual worsens delays, quality and productivity. This is because we estimate time and resources optimistically and underestimate potential problems that will set us back. Often following a rule to leave 20% time or capacity unscheduled and uncommitted can allow us to work more effectively.

We can choose to stop eating when 80% full because we fill our own plates with food. At work, other people also put things on our plate. Applying “hara hachibu” to work takes collaboration. We need to work with our customers, colleagues and bosses to examine the purpose of our work, what problems we need to solve, and that are the “meals” for the day and how we know when we are getting full. Another approach is to set a target to do just as much work in 80% of the time. This is the classic activity of identifying waste that we can cut out of our work so that we can do more with less. Leaving some open capacity in our bellies, in our work and in our lives allows renewal in our cells, our selves and our relationships. Better focus and energy lets us avoid burnout, mistakes and rework and take advantage of opportunities as they emerge each day.