"It’s OK to fail—as long as you give 110 percent.”

Ever since little league softball, we’ve had those feel-good cliches—never give up, leave it all on the field, blah blah blah—drilled into our heads. And for good reason: when we do fall short, we can take comfort in knowing that we couldn’t have possibly done anything else to achieve the outcome we wanted.

That doesn’t make sense all the time, though. Not to sound like a quitter, but sometimes, it’s worth slacking—a little. Because the truth is, it’s physically impossible to operate at 100 percent all the time.

You Can't Give 100 Percent 24/7

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Whenever I see advice on how to “maximize your productivity” or “optimize your work environment” or otherwise work at 100 percent capacity 100 percent of the time (and don’t get me started on those articles about working “110% all the time”), I feel as if everyone is trying to program themselves for optimal efficiency like some well-oiled machine.

Turn the self-discipline knob left, turn off the social media switch, and just cut the cat videos out of the equation, and BAM! Get a promotion or your money back.

The more self-control we spend on one work task, the less mental energy we have for the next one.

If it were that simple, we’d all be CEOs by now. But we’re human: we get tired, burned out, pissed off at our coworkers, and some days? We just feel inexplicably unmotivated. Research confirms this. The more self-control we spend on one work task, the less mental energy we have for the next one. So no nifty lifehack or timesaver or cool app can help you every single time—at some point, you just need a break.

The Power of the 80/20 Rule

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But if you’re at the “paying your dues” stage of your career, every ounce of your hard work matters, right? The extra desk time, that third or fourth double-check, the late, late nights—all necessary to stand out, impress your boss, get that promotion, or whatever...Right?

Not quite. Turns out that you can achieve most of your results with a lot less effort.

You can achieve most of your results with a lot less effort.

It’s called the Pareto Principle, a concept taken from economics. The Pareto Principle goes like this: 80 percent of our output comes from 20 percent of our input. Translation: You can achieve most of your results without the midnight cubicle marathons, the stress-induced migraines, the conference calls that just. won’t . end.

Think of it like trying to squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube. Just press your fingers together, and you’ll get most of the paste onto your brush. No sweat.

...But then you hit the bottom of the tube. All of a sudden, you’re twisting and turning your wrist, and basically giving yourself carpal tunnel, to squeeze out just enough toothpaste to cover your morning breath. Which is fine, but when you’ve got five minutes to apply your makeup, do your hair, and catch your train? Like, just splash some Listerine and stop at CVS on the way home.

Our productivity works the same way. When you first start a project, the ideas just spill onto the page. But once you’re “tying up the loose ends,” double- and triple-checking, agonizing over your word choice, or generally trying to turn pretty good into perfect, you stall. And stall. And stall.

Cost/Benefit Ratio

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Don’t get me wrong: some situations call for our full effort. And sometimes, that sixth double check is the one that spots the potentially embarrassing mistake.

At some point, though, the costs start to outweigh the benefits. Sure, you managed to stumble on the word that’s been on the tip of your tongue—maybe it will make your manager marginally happier than they would have been before. Maybe. But the migraine it caused and the extra time and energy you spent on something so small—one word!—will keep you from accomplishing anything else that day.

Pour 100 percent of your energy into every task and you won’t just waste time, you’ll stress yourself out.

Or let’s say you’ve ignored all of the busywork that’s clogging up your inbox because you’re not in the mood to “give it 100%”. So everything piles up. Situations like those stretch eight-hour days into 10 hours with after-hours emails. Pour 100 percent of your energy into every task and you won’t just waste time, you’ll stress yourself out and eventually, make yourself sick—which certainly won’t help your productivity.

But once you apply the 80/20 principle to your work, you’ll find that most projects requires less time, energy, and stress than you think.

Now What?

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So the 80/20 rule makes sense in theory. But when you’ve got six things to do before noon and your boss is breathing down your neck, how do you choose when and where to back off? Not like you can tell your manager, “I can get 80 percent of my output with 20 percent of my effort—so I’m leaving at 10 a.m. today.”

Instead, use the 80/20 rule to prioritize. When you sit down each morning, realize that you’re spending 80 percent of your time on tasks that don’t contribute much to your bottom line. So think about the jobs that suck up your time and compare your effort to the potential payoff. Productivity expert Scott H. Young recommends a straightforward method for doing this:

●︎ Write down all the broad categories of tasks you do at your job and the number of hours you spend on each (an hour for email, an hour for researching new leads, an hour for check-in meetings, etc.)

●︎ With a percentage, estimate how much you believe it contributes to your results.

From there, you can cut out the high-cost, low-reward activities—like the demanding client that never pays on time, or an unnecessary layer in an approval process. Treat it like a shopping trip—look for the bargains. For the projects you can’t eliminate, this exercise can encourage you not to get bogged down in the details.

Your Little League coach was right: you can—and should—give your all. But give your all to everything and you’ll have nothing left to give. Instead, start living by the 80/20 rule and save the stress for the things that are worth it.

This piece originally appeared on Career Contessa.


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