Why giving 110% is a guaranteed recipe for failure

Every single person reading this (presumably) has heard someone in their life say “give it 110%!”

Somehow ignorantly insinuating that doing so, will yield 10% (or more?) results than if you gave it everything you had.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with “giving 110%”.

No, this post won’t be filled with quotes like “don’t burn the candle from both ends”, or “burnout is real”. That’s not the point I’m trying to convey. The real danger of 110% isn’t how hard it is and how much effort you’ll put forth, no.

It’s that giving 110% allows for 10% of failure.

Let’s talk about capacity

One of the most common (I have no source for this) scales referenced in regard to effort is 0-100%.

0% represents “you did absolutely nothing productive at all to move towards a goal”, and 100% means “you did everything humanly possible to achieve the goal”.

Defining 0% effort

It’s generally impossible to do less than nothing.

Even if you’re thinking “what if you actively try to do ‘worse’ towards your goal?”, what you’re actually saying is your putting effort towards sabotaging one’s self, which would be considered effort (positive number) towards an opposite goal (sabotage).

So, if we can agree on the above, the absolute least amount of effort you can put forth towards something is 0%.

Maximal effort as an asymptote

Ready for a high school math refresher? Here’s the TL;DR:

An asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero, but never fully reaches zero.

English translation?

Like the red lines in the header image above, effort can continuously head towards 100%, but it may never reach 100%, and certainly will never cross it.

What does 100% 99.9% effort look like?

For the purposes of this article, let’s discuss types of effort in 2 categories: physical and mental.

Let’s start with physical effort.

What does it mean to give 100% physical effort? Well, if we use 100% of the available energy/resources in our body, chances are, we’re going to die.

Since it’s safe to assume we want to avoid death, what does “as close as possible to” 100% physical effort look like? Take into consideration “The Crawl” where 2 world class triathletes reach almost full body failure as they approach the end of an Ironman race. With their bodies failing before they’re eyes, these olympic-shaped athletes are reduced to crawling across the finish line, unable to do basic human activities like “standing” and “walking”.

With barely any energy resources left in their bodies at the end of the race, they’re both carried into medical tents, tended to, and nursed back to relative health.

I’d argue that they gave (a very, very respectable/commendable/don’t think I’m downplaying how hard this was) 99% effort.

The remaining “1%”, was what they needed to survive and keep their bodies from going into a irreparable state of fatigue/dehydration.

Ok, the physical effort example was extreme. What about mental?

Ok so I’ll avoid the “life/death” references for the mental examples. So for this, let’s use decision fatigue as our example.

Studies are popping up everywhere, like this one from Roberts Wesleyan College, that attempt to quantify our ability to make decisions.

Studies like the one from RWC indicate that we as adults make up to 35,000 decisions per day (in contrast, children make about 3,000).

Such a volume of decisions can lead to something being called decision fatigue. Decision fatigue doesn’t mean we eventually run out of the ability to make any decision (like the women in the physical example ran out of the necessary energy to be able to walk), but rather, the quality of our decisions begin to deteriorate.

Those out there constantly on the go-go-go, are probably making decisions fueled by knowledge, understanding and expertise, but some of those are probably more so fueled by caffeine (for example).

Ever wonder why people like Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day? It’s to save the decision of “what to wear” for something deemed more important.

So if it is in fact the case that we can only make a certain number of decisions per day (say 100), it would be impossible to make 110 without sacrificing something like quality.

To summarize effort limits

  1. It’s impossible to do less than nothing (any effort to do “worse” would be positive effort towards a counteractive goal)
  2. It’s impossible to give more than 100% without (in the simplest) sacrificing at least the quality of something or (in the most extreme) dying

So here’s the real issue with 110%…

All attempting to give 110% does, is allow someone to say “well, I never quite hit 110%, but I still managed to give it 100%”, which by it’s very nature of not hitting a maximum boundary, makes that statement frustratingly not true.

Giving 100% is impossible. Striving to give 100% is very real. 

Striving to give 100% forces you to pull at every single available resource, memory, or ability that you can muster. It forces you to leave no rock unturned, because to miss even a pebble, would sacrifice points towards 100%. It forces you to consider questions you’ve missed, muster strength you didn’t know you had, and seek every corner of the universe for a solution or a push forward because anything less, wouldn’t be 100%.

Inevitably, we’ll all miss something, we’ll run out of steam, we’ll get fatigued, we’ll make a mistake, or something will happen that will keep us from crossing over our asymptote, and that’s ok. Because we did everything we could to hit 100%.

Consider this the next time you hear someone asking you to give 110%. Consider not giving yourself a 10% buffer to relax. Consider how much harder you might work & how much deeper you might look without that buffer.

It’s ok to remove the safety net and land somewhere in the 90%. It’s ok to know you’ll never get to 100% effort in anything.

But isn’t that the beauty of it? That’s the journey. Embrace it.