The 100 Percent Rule That Makes Life a Lot Easier
The key to avoiding needless decision fatigue.
Posted April 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Clayton Christensen, the former famed Harvard Business School professor, had a powerful statement: “It's easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”
This quote makes a lot of sense in light of research on decision-making and willpower. Take, for example, a diet. If you're only 98 percent committed to a diet, then that means you haven't yet made the decision. If you haven't made the decision, but are only partially committed, then you don't know what the outcome will be in future scenarios. Not knowing the outcome of your behavior can create problems in your confidence and identity.
Here's an example: If you're only 98 percent committed to a diet, in every future situation you're in, you have to ask yourself, "Is this one of those times I'm going to eat outside the diet?" By asking this question, usually, while you're in the heat of the moment, you have to weigh back-and-forth in your mind what you're going to do. This whole "back-and-forth" decision-making process leads to decision fatigue or a loss of willpower. In many cases, more often than you probably would like to admit, the situation ends up winning. That's something social psychology research has found repeatedly for decades: Situations are often more powerful than internal desires.
By only being 98 percent committed to a goal or principle, you lack the ability to adequately predict your own behavior. You often enter situations where you don't know what the outcome will be. You deal with decision fatigue in the heat of unideal decision-making situations, such as when you're being offered your favorite dessert. By watching yourself repeatedly fail on your "commitment," your identity becomes confused as does your confidence. With lower confidence, you'll lack the wherewithal to commit fully to the decision or goal. The author Robert Brault has a quote for this: “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”
Motivation requires simplicity. Complexity kills motivation. Consequently, you want to make a decision, have a clear outcome, and carve a clear path to getting what you want. As you make progress, you'll begin to develop efficacy or confidence that you can complete. These notions of motivation come from Expectancy Theory.
Instead of dealing with decision fatigue at 98 percent, one could make a decision at 100 percent. Although difficult, this could solve a lot of willpower problems. By committing 100 percent to something, like say, a diet, even for a short period of time, you can predict your behavior in future situations. You can know that regardless of what is being offered, the decision has already been made. That decision was made in better conditions than in the heat of the moment. Therefore, you don't have to deal with the back-and-forth struggle of decision fatigue in unideal decision-making conditions, such as when your best friend is offering you a soda.
Michael Jordan has a great quotation that brings this idea together: "Once I made a decision, I never thought about it again." That's the key to building confidence. You make a decision and move forward with that decision, 100 percent. Each time you follow through, your confidence increases, thus further increasing your motivation and resolve to continue. Your identity becomes clearer and resonates with the future self you strive to become. Self-signaling is the notion that you judge yourself based on your actions. By watching yourself act according to desired goals, you begin to perceive yourself as that type of person.
If you do find yourself in the heat of the moment and are struggling with your resolve, there are two helpful strategies. One is called "Implementation intentions," and what it means is that you've created a pre-planned response when you're triggered to do something you don't want to do. You create an "if-then" scenario, such as, "When Steve offers me a soda, I will tell him I'm on a diet." The other strategy comes from Hal Hershfield at UCLA, who has studied the idea of having a "future self" concept, and how that helps decision making. Rather than making a decision based on what your current self wants, you could ask, "How would my future self want to remember this?" Or, "What would my future self want me to do?" These questions have helped me be more intentional with my kids when I get home from a busy day at work and am exhausted, wanting to veg out.
Conclusion: The 100 percent rule by Clayton Christensen is a very useful strategy for avoiding decision fatigue and for building confidence.
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Christensen, C. M. (2017). How Will You Measure Your Life?(Harvard Business Review Classics). Harvard Business Review Press.
Gneezy, A., Gneezy, U., Riener, G., & Nelson, L. D. (2012). Pay-what-you-want, identity, and self-signaling in markets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(19), 7236-7240.
Hershfield, H. E. (2011). Future self-continuity: How conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235, 30.