There is an old Confucian practice called hara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”
The people of Okinawa Island use this principle and eat only about 1,800 calories per day. Not surprising, their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dementia are much lower than those in the western world. Many Okinawans live to be over 100.
As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.
For years, I would go to the office and spend every ounce of creative energy I had there. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things.
When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Master's Degree.
I was addicted to being busy, firing on all cylinders, spinning all these plates in the air.
When the buffet of life presents you with all these opportunities, it's hard to say no.
The problem with overeating at the buffet is you can't fit anything else in. When you've squeezed your schedule, finances, energy, and family to the limit, there's no margin.
Inevitably, a crisis will emerge, and then all those plates you've been spinning will come crashing down.
Since learning about the Okinawans, I've been trying to practice a form of "hara hachi bu" in my work life.
Specifically: I'm conscious of the amount of mental energy I spend at the office. I try to pace myself, to "eat until I'm 80% full."
There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.
When I maintain this practice, the benefits are clear:
First, and most importantly, I have space for a crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.
Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.
Third, it helps sustain me for longer periods. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.
I’m still not a master, but I keep trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.
At the buffet of life, we don't need to fill our plate with every opportunity that comes our way.If you leave some space, you'll feel better.
hara hachi bu.
Originally published on June 20th, 2013.