The 70/20/10 Rule of Success: Do Important Work or None at All
Ip Man, a Kung Fu movie about the legendary martial arts teacher of the same name, is rated a staggering eight out of 10 on IMDb and considered a cult classic among fans. The movie is almost two hours long, but if you skim through it, you’ll notice something: There’s not a lot of fighting.
Isn’t that what Kung Fu movies are about? Apparently not. You’ll see the master having tea, helping his friends, and struggling with everyday life. You’ll see him muse about politics, about war, and about philosophy. You’ll see Ip Man training and spending time with his family.
Why do people love this movie so much if, as it turns out, there are only three major fight scenes? They love it because each fight means something. Ip Man doesn’t fight just to fight. Only if the fighting serves a higher goal does he break out his fists: In the first fight, Ip Man must defend his home against an intruder. In the second, he avenges a friend to send a message. In the third, he makes an example of the leader of the occupying forces.
Family, loyalty, and culture. Those are the themes behind Ip Man’s fights, and they’re much bigger than himself. There are a lot of lessons in the movie about values, about civility, and about the true philosophy of Kung Fu, but the main one may be: “Don’t fight when it doesn’t matter.” Focus your energy on the biggest obstacles so you may overcome them when they appear.
Hidden in the movie’s timeline lies a rule for how you can do so in your everyday life. Call it the rule of 70/20/10. Imagine, every week, your schedule would look like this:
- 70% of the time, you rest. You get eight hours of sleep and, for another nine hours each day, you rest actively. You create. You think. You go outside. You spend time with friends and family and just try to enjoy life.
- 20% of the time, you train. That’s another five hours a day. I know, right? A week is long if you know how to use it. You work out. You educate yourself. You level up your game and mentally prepare for what’s ahead.
- 10% of the time, you fight. You attend the tournament. You run the marathon. You sit at your desk for eight hours to finish the project. Whatever it takes, you raise all hell and use every skill you have to succeed — and you do that for two eight-hour days each week.
That’s an accurate representation of how Ip Man spends his time. It’s also the opposite of what most of us do each day: We sacrifice rest for more training and fighting. Often, that’s a mistake. The opposite of important work isn’t busywork — it’s rest.
When you trade all your rest for busywork, you have no energy left to do what matters. This applies in the micro sense — an overworked consultant will make a fatal mistake when presenting to the client — as well as the macro: If your to-dos don’t add up, you’ll quickly waste a year or two. As the entrepreneur Sam Altman put it in an interview with the Y Combinator podcast: “It’s very easy to spend a decade being incredibly busy and stressed every day, feeling like you’re working incredibly hard, and creating a ton of movement — but not moving forward.”
You don’t want to be the hot-headed challenger, traveling to a new town just to provoke every Kung Fu master into a fight. When we’re productive only to create motion, we too are fighting windmills. We see every task as a challenge, and we decide to spend 100% of our time in fighting or training mode. But, inevitably, we’ll hit a wall and realize: We’ve lost our sense of direction, and our peace of mind right with it. We so furiously dug away at opportunity, we developed tunnel vision and missed the bigger picture.
It takes a lot of time and tranquility to maintain a good sense of said big picture, and that’s what the rule of 70/20/10 provides: space to cultivate the “why” of your life.
On rare days, I finish my to-do list early. When it happens, I feel the pull of busy: Come on. Write another article. Send another email. It takes a lot of willpower to decline, to be able to say: No! You’re just busywork. I will not sacrifice my precious rest.
Rest is the most important part of a Kung Fu master’s day. Practice matters, too: After all, you never know when a fight will show up on your doorstep. Whenever the challenge appears, however, the master remembers it is a necessary but unwanted one. He’ll deal with it swiftly to protect what’s on the line, but he won’t needlessly prolong it.
Don’t fight just to fight. Don’t be a soulless action movie. Be a cult classic. Be a true Kung Fu master.
Practice the rule of 70/20/10, and remember the opposite of important work is rest. As long as you do, you’ll always know which one to choose.