Have you heard of the 80/20 principle? It’s an old economics idea that’s been recently popularized by a guy named Richard Koch. Koch wrote a book in 1999 called The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less, which outlines some of the major ways that the 80/20 Principle influences our lives. I read it a few weeks ago and have been fascinated with “80/20 thinking” ever since.
Koch’s big point is that the relationship between cause and effect is not as direct as you’d think. In most situations in our lives, a small minority of causes produces the majority of effects. For instance, 20% of the salespeople at a store usually make around 80% of that store’s total sales. We wear our favorite 20% of our clothes around 80% of the time. Around 80% of the work you get done happens in 20% of the time you spend on it (thanks, Facebook.) The exact relationships vary, obviously, but it’s surprising how many imbalanced cause-effect relationships fall right around the 80/20 range.
Koch says, get rid of the idea that putting in X amount of work will get you X results. X work might get you 4X results, if what you’re doing is really efficient. Or it could get you .2X results if you’re not using your time wisely. Maybe you’ve experienced this while writing an essay (or a blog post.) You struggle with words for ages and not much good is coming out…and then, in a burst of inspiration, you bust out four paragraphs in 20 minutes and feel like a rockstar. In a small percentage of the time you put in, you accomplish most of your success. The key to being more productive at everything, then, is figuring out how to milk those rockstar moments for all they’re worth, while cutting out the time you waste getting zip done.
Although Koch’s book, particularly the first part, is a good read, the big takeaway can be summed up easily as I did above. The more interesting thing to do is take the 80/20 concept and apply it to your own life. So, I started thinking about college: I could have really benefitted from this 80/20 stuff my freshman year. When so many people and assignments and opportunities are thrown at you at once, it can be really stressful and overwhelming. Luckily, you can apply the 80/20 principle to get the most out of your time.
1. Choose depth over breadth when it comes to activities.
This isn’t high school. You no longer need thirteen thousand items on your resume to make it into Dartmouth. The things you do outside of class aren’t for padding an application, they’re to help you grow. The large majority of learning and satisfaction that you derive from extracurriculars will come from the small minority of opportunities that you deeply invest yourself in. So don’t waste time juggling ten clubs. Instead, find one to three that really speak to you and give them your all.
2. Prioritize your perfectionism.
You can do a satisfactory, probably even pretty good job in 20% of the time you spend on a big project. It’s when you say, “oh! And I can do this too…” or, “but it’s not COMPLETELY 110% done yet…” that things start to go haywire. “It is the inclusion of the ‘nice to have’ features that turn potentially sound projects into looming catastrophes,” says Koch, meaning that it’s easy to blow tons of time on little odds and ends of an assignment that, while nice, aren’t worth the time you’re spending on them.
There are certain projects–ones that have big implications on your grade, your career, or your success in some other way–that are absolutely worth being a perfectionist about. But–you guessed it–a small number of projects carry a huge amount of weight in life. This is true in college classes, where an essay can be worth half of your grade, and in most other areas as well. You can’t possibly give every single thing on your to-do list the star treatment, so you need to be smart about which tasks deserve your heart and soul and which you ain’t got time for. Regarding projects that aren’t really going to give you much in the long run, it’s okay to do a satisfactory (80%) job in a small amount of time (20%) and then move on to something else that’s worth your attention.
Not everything can be, or should be, done perfectly. That’s hard for a lot of overachievers, myself included, to swallow.
3. Try working by time rather than by task.
You’d be amazed at how much of the work you do can be accomplished in so little of the time you usually give it. On a particularly busy night, try giving yourself time slots to work on assignments instead of diving into one and only moving onto the next when the first one is complete. For instance, work on three tasks for only an hour each. Having a deadline can really boost productivity, so you might be surprised by how much you accomplish in just the hour. Even if you don’t finish, at least you know which assignment needs the most additional work and how you can best spend your remaining time. You’ll make significant progress on all of your tasks instead of finishing one and ignoring the others (my biggest studying issue.)
4. Selectively socialize.
The second half of Koch’s book, where he talks about how to apply 80/20 thinking to social situations, gets a little confusing. But the basic 80/20 concept definitely applies to college social life. From how it looks in the movies, you’d think every night at college is a party. For some people, it is. But the truth is, to get good grades, to really learn and grow in the way you’re supposed to in college, you have to work a lot. You’re going to have to say no to some invitations.
When I think back on my freshman year, I can count the “wow, that was a really great day/night” moments with my friends on both my hands. The large majority of the happiness I got from socializing came from a minority of the time I spent doing it (and, it’s worth mentioning, the majority of those great moments happened with a very small group of people.) When you’re busy with other stuff, you’ve got to prioritize if you want to feel fulfilled socially. Only say yes to the stuff that actually sounds like a good time (and people you actually like.) Life’s too short for lame-o parties, you feel?
5. Put out the right fires.
80% of all your problems can be solved by fixing the peskiest 20% of the issues causing them. If you feel down in the dumps around February (everyone does), take a good look at your situation and figure out what’s causing the most trouble. That history class is super-stressing you out? Make an appointment with your TA and clear things up once and for all. That guy you got involved with is causing way too much drama? Buh-bye. Even if you can’t fix everything that’s going wrong, fixing the few things that are causing the most issues will make a huge difference.
6. Build on your best 20%.
Koch’s mantra: run with what works, ditch what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to abandon things that are “just fine” to dive into something else that you’ve fallen in love with or are really good at. Figure out what your top-20-percent activities are and give them the time/energy/resources they need to be the very best for you…even if doing so means taking resources away from stuff that maybe “you technically should” be doing. Cut out the least productive/satisfying activities you do–YouTube, a boring club, a useless assignment–and give that time to the things that are giving you the most success. Your overall productivity and happiness will multiply.
Have you read the 80/20 principle? Do you have any tips I missed?