The Pareto Principle and How it can Apply to Life as a Student (and beyond)

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was taking a leisurely stroll in his garden. He was examining his pea plants, and he noticed a pattern: 20% of the pea pods contained 80% of the peas. He developed a mathematical model for this pattern, and he produced what is now known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. This causal relationship is rooted in the fact that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Pareto then applied his model to land ownership in Italy, and he determined that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. A modern day example of this can be found at the root of the wealth distribution of many nations, where 80% of the wealth is controlled by 20% of the people. While the Pareto principle is an economics theory, it can be applied to your life at school and help you improve your performance by optimizing your time use.

The Pareto Principle Distribution
The Pareto Principle Distribution

If you apply the Pareto Principle to one of the keys of academic success, studying, you will find that you get 80% of your studying done in 20% of your time actually spent studying. This might sound shocking at first, but bear with me for a moment. Think to when you’re studying: you spend a lot of time being distracted, re-reading, thinking about other things, daydreaming about your future, or you leave to go grab a coffee. Let’s take a 5 hour study session at the library and break it down:

20% of 5 hours is 1 hour, so in theory, you only need 1 hour of studying to achieve 5 hours of “studying”. The rest of the time will be spent on your phone, waiting in line for coffee, checking Facebook or another website, or simply zoning out in moments of lost focus. Starting to make sense?

Let’s attach this to a different example in the not so near future: you are now in the process of starting your own business. The Pareto Principle predicts that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your customers. This is why as a business owner, it is imperative that you work harder initially to retain your regular client base than worry about complaints from one-time customers, as they will not provide as much business as your core 20% will. How large that 20% will become is up to your skills and abilities in sales and marketing, but the fact remains is that you want to treat your best customers the best, as they will essentially keep you afloat based on how much business they provide for you. This is why many companies employ a VIP system or preferred client program; they understand the value of a regular customer.

While the Pareto Principle itself is hardly cutting edge (I mean, it has been around for over 100 years), the applications to which it can be applied are always changing. In today’s world, there are so many outlets for our energy, and we simply have to learn how to harness this energy to make the best use of the 80/20 ratio.

The first way to do this is to not over-indulge all of your time in one thing; diversify your portfolio, so to speak. So instead of spending your entire day studying, break up your day into a variety of activities, otherwise you’ll simply be damning yourself from the beginning to accomplish less. Divide your day into smaller chunks of time in which to accomplish your goals for that day. Keep your mind fresh by constantly changing things up.

For example, let’s say that you have to study for two midterms, have an essay due, and also have some routine homework to accomplish, and let’s say it’s all due in a week’s time. Instead of stressing about one thing over the other, allocate a balanced amount of time to each until you accomplish the task. Maximize that 20% of your time each day to achieve 80% of your work. Keep things changing to limit distractions and other contributing factors to the wasted 80% of your time. By managing your 80% “waste time” effectively, you can accomplish 80% of multiple things in the same time as you would normally have accomplished 80% of only one thing.

Our brain traditionally gets bored of doing one thing after only half an hour to an hour, so by changing up the activity, you’re essentially resetting the clock on the 20% of your time to accomplish 80% of a new thing. This is also why I’ve always lived by the philosophy that I’m more productive when I’m busier and mildly stressed about how jam-packed my day is. Perhaps you’ve noticed this too: if you have extended periods of down time, despite all that available time to accomplish whatever tasks you have on hand, you in fact accomplish less because of the lack of motivation, the lack of urgency, and natural tendency to procrastinate. If you want maximize the benefits of the Pareto Principle, simply do more things and manage accordingly.

So with the coming exam season, during your day-to-day routine at work, or your next work-out, try to introduce a bit more variety into it to reset the 80/20 clock and invigorate your mind to accomplish more in the set amount of time you have each day. Each task will feel fresh and fun, your motivation to accomplish things will increase since your list is more challenging, and you’ll accomplish more things in a more efficient manner. This article is living proof that the 80/20 principle works. I wrote it in about 25 minutes in class when my mind started wandering from the course material.

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