The 20% approach.

20 percent approach | kourtney thomas life coach

I’ve had a nagging shoulder injury for…eeeeehhhhhhh…about a decade now. One of those things that bugs me most of the time at a low level, periodically flaring up. But mostly I just push through and ignore it because it doesn’t really affect or limit what I want to do. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not the worst thing in the world, so I deal with it.

And yes, I know the consequences of continuing down that path of pushing through. And I also know what to do about it. I know how to stretch and rehab and stand up straight. I know how to change my workouts to strengthen and rest the appropriate muscles. But damn if it doesn’t feel like too much to do. Like the alternative of just dealing with it is so much better.

This, I can say with a throbbing soreness as we speak, is not the best approach.

About six weeks ago, I had an opportunity to meet with a new physical therapy practice here in St. Louis. The PTs there share a similar philosophy to mine, and there was all kinds of synergy from the minute I walked in the door. When they offered to walk me through a session so I could be clearer on their process and how it might be beneficial for my own clients, I jumped at the chance.

In said session, the therapist and I shared an hour’s worth of good laughs at my long-standing tradition of bad decisions when it comes to my shoulder health. She was equally surprised and stern about my strength and function. At the conclusion of our session the message was basically this:

You’re fine, but wouldn’t it be great if you felt better?

And, uh, yeah. It would be pretty great. I would love not to be annoyed at how much it hurts to break up ground turkey on the stove. But also, fixing 36 years of shitty posture seems daunting AF, y’know?

We chatted a little more, and as she walked me oh-so-patiently through the little things I can do before and during my workouts, when I’m at home watching TV, when I’m sitting at my desk or standing in line at the grocery store, I started to feel overwhelmed again. I started to get that feeling of this is too much to do, and I’m going to go back to just dealing with it as soon as I walk out this door.

And then, as I was complaining about how hard standing with good posture is for any length of time (And I get that that sounds ridiculous, but seriously, it was never drilled into me as a kid, and if you have struggled with posture, you know holding good posture is an endurance sport of its own.), she gave me this little nugget:

Start with 20%.

I know you’re a 110% person, she said. But you don’t need to go that far. That will be too hard, and it won’t be sustainable, and you won’t be able to do it.

All you need is 20%.

I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Like, here’s a professional physical therapist who works in all this highly specialized, detailed, regimented stuff, and she’s telling me I can do 1/5 of the work and still make progress?!? I almost dropped to my knees in relief.

As I left the office with my little plan, that recommendation stuck with me. And over the past several weeks since my visit, it’s allowed me to stick with the plan without getting overwhelmed. That, in turn, has facilitated healing in my shoulder and improvement in my posture. And that’s a total game-changer for a lot of things.

Of course, it’s one of those things that I’ve known on some level for years. I often encourage my clients to figure out their bare minimum task or process that will move them down the path toward their priorities. I don’t put every single fitness client on a high-intensity or high-volume program. I don’t force every coaching client to follow a strict schedule for self-reflection work. And yet – every single client makes progress. Every single client feels better.

Like anything else, though, it’s tough to take your own advice, and I needed to hear it in a different way from a different source. But the bottom-line message is the same:

All out is not always your answer. And in fact, it’s most often never your best one.

This is a particularly relevant message to receive and remember right about now. It’s likely that you’ve set a goal or a target or a vision for yourself somewhere in your life for the new year. You’re probably feeling jazzed about it, and you may have even selected an aggressive approach to accomplish it.

I want to invite you to consider a more conservative, 20% approach.

How might you reduce the amount of work required daily or weekly? How might you reasonably decrease the investment needed in your approach so that it’s manageable long term and still perfectly able to drive progress?

As an example, if you were totally all over the place post-holiday and went all in to not eat out at all for the next three months, ask yourself if that’s asking a bit much. Not eating out at all? Ever? Does that even fit your life and preferences and fulfillment? Might you have to go out for coffee or a lunch meeting for work? Do you already feel like you’re about to head to Shake Shack for three burgers and a large chocolate shake because it’s all too much? So, what if you gave yourself some leeway? How about two weeks of not eating out at all to try to cultivate some strong healthy habits, then incorporating a lunch and a dinner each week with intention and planning in February? Honestly, that’s even still an aggressive target, but you get the picture. What would a 20% approach look like here?

How about that goal of going to the gym five times a week for an hour…when you haven’t really been going since early November? Is that a jump? Maybe it’s not. But, maybe it is, and maybe you’re already white-knuckling and/or exhausted and finding excuses to not go. So, what if it’s more like three times a week to the gym for 30 minutes, and ten push ups and ten squats three mornings a week right when you wake up? 20% is all it takes. If you’re focusing on a health, exercise, or food priority, what does a 20% approach look like?

Work stuff is another great example, and I feel this personally too. I was feeling very determined about growth for the year, very confident about some changes I wanted to make in systems and approach. I attacked everything with gusto on January 2, and a week later, felt totally stuck, so I wasn’t following through on anything. Shocker! 110% doesn’t work. I backed it way off to 20% by getting clear on my one important daily task, setting conservative monthly targets, and zeroing in on only three quarterly focus points. I have yet to miss completion of a daily task, I’m already exceeding monthly goals, and I’m making huge progress toward quarterly focuses less than a month in. This might be the one that makes you the most itchy to think about, but if you’re focused on career right now, what does a 20% approach look like?

I know 20% doesn’t sound like enough to make a difference. I think our fast-paced, high-pressure society has a lot to do with the stress we often feel to perform at a high level all the time, everywhere. All or nothing is the way to go, and if you can’t do that, you’re a slacker. There’s a perception that that’s the only way.

It’s not.

I know that for a fact. I also know it’s absolutely possible to detach from that pressure. We do have the option to slow down, to back off, to put in our 20% and make meaningful progress. Ultimately, that practice, consistently, is what will allow us to cultivate the feelings and the lives we want to live in the way we want to live them for the longest amount of time possible.

So by all means, set the intention. Make the plan. Do the work. But know that while your 110% hard-hitting approach might provide a jumpstart, it also might break you. And without a doubt, your continued 20% commitment approach will be the one that gets you out of dealing with it, and keeps you steadily and confidently moving toward your version of happiness, balance, feeling better, success…and pain-free turkey cooking.

So, what’s your 20%?


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