The 90-10 Rule: Change Begins from Within

The 90-10 Rule: Change Begins from Within

Last update: 01 November, 2017

In psychology, there is something called the “90/10 rule” which says that the way we react to events is much more influential than the events themselves. In fact, only 10% of our life is determined by what happens to us: making a mistake, a delayed flight, or traffic jams that make us late to work, for example.

The other 90% is directly related to how we react to the 10%. We know that different people react very differently in the same situation. Depending on their initial reaction to the triggering thing that just happened, their day could end up pleasant or unpleasant.

Our reaction in the face of adversity can make the rest of our day, week, or year better or worse. It all depends on us.

Keeping this rule in mind is important because it helps us remember that we control the majority of our lives: 90%. It also frees us from feeling useless emotions by making us see that we don’t have control over 10% of our lives. 

If we are capable of using our willpower, we could turn something negative into just a one-off thing, or we could even take something positive away. Would you like to know how to do this? Keep reading…

An example of the 90-10 rule

So we have a better idea of how we can put this wonderful rule into practice, let’s look at an example we can identify with. Imagine you’ve been working all day on a project your boss sent you. You have to turn it in soon, but you are finally almost finished. Just when you are about to save it, the power goes out and your computer suddenly turns off.

It turns out that your wife turned on the stove, which always causes a fuse to blow. You get mad, anxious, and you feel like the world is over. You take it out on your wife and you end up having a bad argument.


Now you feel nervous, so you go to the kitchen and you end up knocking over the cups on the counter. Unexpectedly, your favorite mug breaks, the one you use every morning to drink your coffee. You get even angrier and you blame your son for having used it and left it out.

After a few minutes, you try everything you can do get your recover your work but you can’t. Everything is lost. You become furious, you curse, and you head outside for some air, slamming the door behind you. You are now mad at your son, your wife, your favorite cup is broken and your project isn’t done. You are having a bad day.

What happened? As we can see, there is a trigger which makes up 10% of the situation. The stove was turned on and the fuse blew. This is the event that has nothing to do with us. It is an uncontrollable thing that someone else did with no bad intentions. It was a simple mistake.

What does depend on us is everything that happened afterwards. That is the 90%, what turned a normal day into a horrible day. Our protagonist turned a single problem into several more.

Instead of investing energy into redoing the project, asking your wife for help, or telling your boss about what happened and asking for more time, you’ve opted for a non-productive reaction. The whole family ends up fighting because of a one-time, uncontrollable event. Is it worth it?

When to put the 90-10 rule into practice

There are many situations that could trigger dysfunctional reactions. These are times when it is important to remember this rule and use our willpower so we don’t get carried away by emotions. The true key is to accept that frustrations are part of the game of life.

If someone judges you

You can’t control the judgment and criticism of others because they have the right to think whatever they want. What you can control is the value you place on those judgments and the importance you give them. If I can’t control what people think of me, why waste energy on it?

If you make a mistake

You can’t control your mistakes. You can learn from them, but even so, you will still keep making them. That is our nature. You can only control your reaction to your mistakes. You decide if you accept that you are fallible, how severely to punish yourself, and if you are capable of tolerating your own mistakes…

If others don’t do what you want them to

Other people’s reactions are completely out of our control. Demanding that someone be different than she is is unrealistic and will only make us frustrated. It will also jeopardize our relationship with her.


If you experience adversity

Living goes hand in hand with experiencing adversity. Studies say that each human being will experience 20,000 misfortunes during the course of their lifeThese can be mild, like stepping on dog poop, or serious things like losing a loved one. It is a something we should include in our plans, and it is impossible to control. We are only responsible for how we are affected by these setbacks.

So when you find yourself dealing with something that you know you can’t control, put the 90/10 rule into practice. You know that 90% depends on you. If you manage not to let yourself be carried away by the 10%, whatever happens will remain a molehill. You will have freed yourself from making it into a mountain.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.