The 80% principle

The principle that changed my life

On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?

Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice calledhara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”

This means Okinawans eat only about 1,800 calories a day. The result? Their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dimentia are much lower than the western world. [Source 1] [Source 2]

However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).

I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.

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.

I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. 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. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.

When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.

During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.

I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!

And it all worked fine until…

…I cracked.

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.

As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.

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.

The benefits have been huge.

First, and most importantly, I have space for 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, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.

Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.

Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?

You can reach me on Twitter here: @mijustin or 

Photo credit: Michael Himbault

Justin Jackson believes

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Leave a Reply

  1. Wow, thanks for that very inspiring post.
    (I recommend you to to read as well!)

  2. Makes perfect sense, Justin. Based on what I believe is supported by neuroscience, that little thinking part in the front of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), has a relatively small energy storage area. Driving it hard for an extended period will have you running on “fumes” so to speak, and the value of your work will be less than optimal as well.

  3. Very inspiring! Thank you. I linked you on our blog

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