Perfectionism and productivity are uneasy bedfellows.

The pandemic, job insecurity, and mass layoffs that followed have exacerbated over-performance burnout, leading to a new thought pattern in employee welfare; one that nobody dared utter out loud until now.

What if we only gave 85% of ourselves to our jobs?

Is 85% the productivity sweet spot?

Devised by sprinter nine-time Olympic gold medalist, Carl Lewis, the philosophy behind the 85% rule is that to maintain a balance between excellent performance and excellent output, you don’t need to give 100% all the time.

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This is because working at 85% effort leaves 15% for crucial headroom that prevents workers from crashing through the burnout ceiling.

On the other hand, your employer might think that operating at 85% makes you wasteful, lazy, unproductive or ill-suited to the job.

Nobody wants to pay their workers to phone it in 15% of the time, so, which side is right?

Breaking free from burnout

Firstly, burnout is a real, tangible metric. In early 2022, McKinsey’s Burnout Assessment Tool showed that one in four workers reported symptoms of burnout.

Given that burnout can lead to paid sick leave or stress leave and high employee turnover, it makes sense to settle for a workforce that’s on track for a B+ instead of an A.

A little space for humans to be, well, human, seems an obviously sensible approach. If you need more convincing, the 85% rule has even become a hit with celebs: actor Hugh Jackman is among its advocates.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that if you’re not giving it 100%, you’re in the wrong job. This side of the debate advocates for a career switch-up that will make the pursuit of perfection feel like a passion, not a punishment.

However, there is very little holistic intelligence to this argument, and the giving-it-all approach is more likely to be adopted by CEOs and those who run their own businesses who either cannot afford to take their foot off the gas, or are seeing the immediate reward for perfectionism hit their bank account.

Earlier this year, Thomas Curran, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at the London School of Economics, published a groundbreaking book on the subject, The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough. In it, he uses a decade of research to argue that perfectionism is a damaging trait with its roots in the darker side of capitalism and a warped value system that belies human nature.

Societal conditioning that leads workers to overstretch to satisfy the appetite for non-stop growth is an external, non-human economic force.

For human beings, being good should always be good enough.

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