Hara hachi bu, or 80% full applied to work

Hara hachi bu, a Japanese phrase, means “eat until your stomach is 80% full.” Can this phrase, which centers on eating, be applied to how we work? I set forth to explore the possibilities…

More than a phrase, it is a way of eating for many Japanese people, but most closely associated with those from the Okinawa region. When world dieticians, nutritionists, biologists and others set out to explore why Japanese people from this area lived longer, healthier lives, they discovered what became known to the Western world as the Okinawa Diet. In addition to eating fresh vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods, the practice requires one to stop eating before feeling full. This allows for food to start the digestion process, and the stomach receptors alert the person that they are, indeed, full.

My husband first introduced me to this concept many years ago. He lived in Japan for over a decade, and learned the practice of hara hachi bu during his time. Recently, he mentioned it again and I wondered how it might apply to other parts of our lives, like work. I conducted an online search to find an official definition and to seek information about the philosophy behind it. Most of the information I found centered on the dietary aspect, and I concluded that hara hachi bu conveys a sense of “moderation.” How could this notion be applied to one’s work? Here are three ideas.

  1. Presentations, speeches, and meetings: I read this blog column dedicated to hara hachi bu as it applies to the length of presentations, speeches and meetings. The author suggests we aim to fill only 80-90% of the time allotted. No one likes speeches that run too long, and who has time for long meetings – especially when many of you have several scheduled back-to-back! Generally, people appreciate gatherings that finish a few minutes early. So, using a food analogy (since this is where we started), conduct meetings and write speeches that are full of “healthy,” relevant information and skip the information that leaves your audience feeling stuffed.
  2. Waiting before reacting: You likely encounter situations throughout the day that rile you (think commuting, co-workers, discovered errors, etc.). Instead of reacting to these immediately, wait. See how the situation sets within you before you decide how to respond. It may even be wise (depending on the situation) to respond with moderation, rather than how you really feel. Few exemplary leaders react without thought or moderation to tense situations. Instead, this ability to step back, consider options, and respond reflects high EQ, for which great leaders are known.
  3. Scheduling your time: Consider scheduling only 80% of your time at work. Most likely, the other 20% also will fill up with impromptu requests and demands, but now you have the time to respond. And, if you don’t feel too overwhelmed because you left the space to deal with such matters, you probably are less likely to react without thought (see #2).

I also thought of one instance where hara hachi bu should not be applied – engagement. At work, when we use our personal strengths and experience flow, we feel “fullness” in the moment. We strive for these moments of engagement which result in positive emotions, because (research shows) this leads to increased creativity, problem-solving, and productivity. Sometimes feeling full is good!