5% Rule Of Growth


"When making plans, think big. When making progress, think small." —James Clear

The best way to grow over time and across domains is to go just a little outside of your comfort zone over and over. Go to the point where you start to get a little bit uncomfortable and go just 5% further.

As the saying goes, "The comfort zone is a beautiful thing, but nothing ever grows there."

Why It Works

  • Every time you go outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone grows.
  • Because it isn't too hard, it's easier to stay consistent.
  • Over time, you'll be able to do things that were impossible before.
  • You'll be able to handle shocks to the system that would've made you crumble in the past.
  • When you try to expand your comfort zone too far too fast, you risk injury, burnout, and trauma.
  • When you push too hard, your body pushes really hard back and really resists the new habit. You are not consistent as a result.
  • When you stay inside your comfort zone too long, you stagnate.

Why It Matters

Going from 0 to 1 is hard and almost no one does it. 5% gets you into action.

In my previous career as an entrepreneurship educator, I saw that 1% of the people who wanted to start a business actually ever made a sales call and got started.

In my career teaching people to create content, I've noticed that people love learning about writing, but few people actually publish that writing.

Most people agree that going to the gym and eating a healthy diet are critical, but few people actually do these things consistently.

It's way easier to learn about something than it is to actually do it consistently.

We humans ARE impressively good at making excuses... especially to ourselves.

We can't forget that an essential part of Learning How To Learn is taking action and the bottleneck to taking action is often resisting going out of our comfort zone and then making excuses.

Burnout is tragic and not worth the risk

"[When it comes to running] you're walking a fine line between adequately preparing for races and overtraining, which leads to injury [and] burnout... Running is all about not getting injured. So you have to rein in all these tendencies — your obsessiveness." — Malcolm Gladwell

I have always thought that burnout is tragic. The individual has noble intentions. They are one of the few people actually taking action. Not only are they taking action, they're putting everything on the line. Then, in that moment, they hurt themselves so much that they have to stop 100% for weeks, months, and even years (for particularly bad traumas) and lose all of their gains. As the saying goes, "Too much of anything is bad."

Right now there is this idea of the 40% Rule going around. This is the idea that if you feel like you can't go any further, you're only at 40% of your potential. This term was coined by Navy Seal David Goggins. I'm a huge fan of Goggins and his book, Can't Hurt Me. However, I think the for the average person the cost of pushing yourself too far isn't worth the risk. If you keep pushing yourself to the brink, you will get injured over and over, which is something Goggins talks about in his book.

For example, in 1996, Benjamin Quinto, in his early twenties, started a project that evolved into a nonprofit. He built it up to a staff of 29 people who were creating a large, global impact on the world. In his late twenties, he got burned out to the point where he felt like he was losing his mind. He left the business temporarily and even went to a mental health clinic. When I asked him what he learned from the experience, he said, “Pay attention to the early signals. When you think you might be burning out, you probably are.”

5% Rule Case Study: Writing Habit

You only go on to the next step once you're firm in the previous one...

  1. Post a daily quote in your private journal
  2. Add related stream-of-consciousness thoughts to the quote in your private journal
  3. Start posting publicly
  4. Format the stream-of-consciousness thoughts
  5. Add research
  6. Add a compelling title
  7. Submit it to a publication

Areas To Apply The 5% Rule To

  • Learning
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Having difficult, important conversations
  • Starting a business
  • Starting to write
  • What else? (share ideas in comments)

See Also...

  • Exposure therapy
  • Post-traumatic growth
  • Tiny habits
  • Flow
  • Desirable difficulty
  • Antifragility

If you're interested in going deeper on the 5% Rule, I very much recommend our Mental Model Club. We have a whole manual and class on applying the 5% rule. You can check it out for just a $1.