80/20 - How to Increase Your Productivity by Doing Less

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The 80-20 rule states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Sleep, eat, school, homework, volunteer; rinse and repeat. In my early years at university, I was under the impression that any time not spent on work was me being lazy and not trying hard enough. In reality, this was counter-productive and a terrible mindset: studying too much made me hate school for everything I had to give up to be good at it. Doing something that you hate for extended periods of time tends to result in you hating it even more. For me, that made my studying even less productive which forced me to spend more time doing it. As soon as I realized that I was spinning my wheels in this vicious cycle, I knew I had to change the way I was approaching things.

In this post, I’m going to be discussing one of the time management tactics I implemented this past year that helped me cut down my studying time to less than 1/2 of what it used to be while improving my grades at the same time. The one rule that I implemented that has had the biggest impact on my study habits is Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. Put simply, the 80-20 rule states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Sometimes this is even more extreme – sometimes close to 99% of the effects come from less than 5% of the results. This is true in both social and scientific contexts. Some cool examples:

  • ~20% of seeds planted result in 80% of the flowers
  • ~20% of the world has ~80% of the wealth
  • ~20% of occupational safety hazards lead to ~80% of the injuries
  • You wear ~20% of your clothes ~80% of the time

***These numbers do not need to add to 100. This rule is to show you the skewedness of cause and effect.

So, how does this apply to academics? Simply put, 20% or less of the studying you are doing is leading to the majority of your results. Furthermore, 20% or less of your course content comprises the majority of the content on your exams. Remember, professors (whether they know it or not) are applying the 80-20 rule to their exams. Due to time constraints, they need to test your knowledge on their course on only a few pieces of paper. Without a doubt, they are going to do their best by testing the most important ideas of the course which tends to be about 20% of the material they teach.

The key here is to be using the tactics that are leading to the majority of your results all while studying the core content that is going to be on the exam. While this sounds amazing in theory, how do you actually apply it? How can you learn to recognize which study tactics are working for you and which parts of your courses are the most important? With regards to understanding which study tactics are working for, you are going to have to do a little bit of self-experimentation.

Try out a couple different methods and then evaluate how helpful you found each one. You may find that for each course you are using different strategies – this is completely normal as the nature of learning something like math is very different than that of learning biology. Going into depth about different study tactics is outside the scope of this blog post, but by strategies I am referring to things such as how much pre-reading you’re doing, how many practise questions you’re attempting, where you study, if you study in groups versus being alone, etc. Onto the second matter – how do you figure out what 20% of the course content is the most important?

Here are a couple tips that I use:

  • In almost all my classes, only content discussed in class is on the exam. If it is not talked about in class, you probably do not need to spend copious amounts of time studying it.
  • Note down how long a professor spends talking about a topic – if they talk about it in-depth and for a fair amount of time in class, it is probably something you are going to want to remember for the exam.
  • When a professor says this is the type of question you’ll see on the exam, take note of it! They often aren’t kidding. In a class with hundreds of diagrams in it, I was able to ascertain exactly which three were going to be tested on the final simply by looking at my notes and seeing when my professor said "possible test question."
  • Do not memorize, UNDERSTAND! The only way this rule is going to work is if you seek to understand the material rather than simply memorize it. If you can understand the core idea of the material, you can often-times derive the rest of it with the little bit that you do know. This applies not only in math but in biology. For example, the amount of material in BIOL 112 may seem daunting but if you seek to understand the logic behind many of the mechanisms that work, deriving a procedure from just knowing what happens at the beginning of the process becomes a lot easier.

Please note that I am not asking you to simply ignore 80% of your course content – that would be silly. Do still read the material, but make sure you are spending the majority of your time on the key ideas that matter! Learning how to think things through is a much better use of your time than memorizing everything. I cannot stress this enough: memorizing everything takes a lot of time whereas understanding everything will allow you to apply your knowledge to questions displaying things you may have never seen before.

Before I end this blog post, I have to mention one more thing. The hardest thing to do that I listed here is eliminating things. It seems inconceivable that by doing less you can learn more, like one of those ridiculous promises on infomercials. Most people I tell this to are fascinated by what I’m saying, but refuse to apply it as they are afraid of what might happen if they eliminate some of the incorrect things. While I certainly messed up a few times at first when trying to apply the 80-20 rule, I can definitely say that the long-term benefits of learning how to apply it properly in my life FAR outweigh the short-term struggles. I now have the time to do the things I enjoy and my grades have improved; not learning the rule would have cost me that.

Need help with some of the things I mentioned in this post? Want to learn some new study tactics? Need some help in figuring out what’s working for you and what isn’t? Perhaps you would like some assistance in figuring out what parts of your courses are more important than others? Meet with a Science Peer Academic Coach at the Tutoring and Coaching Pavilion on weekdays.

Jason Dhami, the author of this blog post, was an UBC undergraduate student integrating Parthenogenesis and Host Anatomy, as well as a SPAC coach. During his time working as a Systems Analyst at McDonald Realty and as the Program Manager of the Learning Buddies Network, he became interested in increasing his productivity at work. In this quest for knowledge on this topic, he learned about many of the principles presented in this article and adapted them to academics to free up his time to do the non-academic things he loves.

Partially adapted from Juran, J. M. (2004). Architect of Quality: The Autobiography of Dr. Joseph M. Juran. New York City: McGraw-Hill.