How to study efficiently with the 80/20 rule

by | May 13, 2021

Ever feel like your life isn’t as fulfilling as it could be? That you could be more efficient in how you spend your time?

Whether it’s developing the relationship with your loved ones, scoring good grades for your exams, or excelling in your CCAs, sometimes doing less is better.

And you can do that by applying the Pareto principle aka the 80/20 rule.

“Do not try to do everything well, do one thing well”
Steve Jobs

Founder, Apple

The 80/20 rule is a technique that’s guaranteed to improve your efficiency, productivity, and happiness as a student!

In this article, we will be walking you through how to study efficiently using the 80/20 rule.

Simple. The 80/20 rule is about how 80% of results come from 20% of the inputs.

This principle can be applied to various situations and scenarios, like shopping, setting life goals and even dating.

But it’s important to recognize that these 2 figures (80% and 20%) are not part of the same unit. 80% + 20% does not equal 100% because they are of different units (Output and input respectively).

I say this because it’s a common misconception. Oftentimes in real life, the 80/20 rule will fluctuate by a small amount.

For instance, 30% of a topic could make up 85% of a coming examination. Some people get confused as they sum these figures hoping to get 100% but got 115% instead.

Remember that they are of different units and therefore, cannot be expected to sum up to 100%.

How did the 80/20 rule come about?

The Pareto principle was introduced by an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto in 1960.

He used this principle in macroeconomics to describe the distribution of wealth in Italy in the early 20th century.

How did he come up with the whole 80/20 idea?

Well, Mr Pareto had noticed that 20% of his pea pods amounted to 80% of his peas. He went ahead and used the principle to describe how 80% of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20% of the population.

Afterward, the principle was used by various other professions as bit by bit they realised the Pareto Principle could be applied in many aspects of life.

What are examples of the 80/20 rule in the real world?

Let’s look at some real-life applications of this rule.
Tim ferriss experiment
In one example, in Tim Ferriss (an American entrepreneur, investor, author, and podcaster)’s 2013 TV series “The Tim Ferriss Experiment”, he challenged himself to learn a new skill every week.

Using the 80/20 rule, he learned to play the drums. Parkour. Professional poker. Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. A new language. All in a week each, with little prior experience.

Dr Joseph juran
In 1940, Dr Joseph Juran who was proficient in operations management used the 80/20 rule for quality control in business management.

He proved that 80% of the defective products were caused by 20% of problems in the production methods. By tacking these 20% businesses could increase their overall quality. 

Covid 19 transmission
In 2020, a research article published on Nature medicine about the COVID-19 transmission stated that “17%-19% of infected individuals were responsible for 80% of all transmission events in Hong Kong”.

Although each of these situations is unique with unique circumstances, they all seem to follow the 80 20 rule. That similarity can be pretty scary…

But with that said, let’s look at how the 80/20 rule can benefit students!

How to study efficiently using the 80/20 rule?

Here are three ways this rule can benefit you:

1.) Manage your time effectively

Time management
The Pomodoro technique is a technique to manage your time well. Simply take 25 minutes to focus on work. Then take a 5 minutes break. That sums up to 30 minutes for one Pomodoro!

Then repeat the Pomodoro cycle until you finish your task!

5 out of 30 minutes make up 20% of the total time (5/30), and that 20% will translate into an 80% reduction in procrastination.

This is because the short breaks help to improve focus. A 2011 study conducted by the University of Illinois found that diverting attention away briefly from a task significantly increases concentration.

When our brain is constantly stimulated by something, we start to lose awareness of it. In this case, prolonged attention to our studies reduces concentration.

What happens then is that we’ll be more likely to get distracted and procrastinate. Therefore, a study break acts as a good refresher to the brain and in turn, helps to maintain concentration levels.

Simply put, by using the Pomodoro technique, it would be much easier to maximise the time you spend studying and minimize the time spent procrastinating.

You can check out a more in-depth article about how the Pomodoro Technique can benefit you here!

2.) Study Smart

Study Smartly
Ever get frustrated at the sheer amount of topics to study for an exam? I know I did. And so did Richard Koch, founder of L.E.K Consulting.

In an interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, when he was studying for his graduation exam from the University of Oxford, he chanced upon a book on the Pareto principle.

He then applied it to his studies. Instead of studying the 550 topics that were taught, he identified 6 common topics among 20 years of past exams.

And he decided to focus on them hoping they would appear again.

…And they did.

He managed to ace his test and graduated with top honors from Oxford.

His lessons stem from the statistical tendency that 80% of your exam success will come from 20% of the topics. Lecturers/teachers wouldn’t be able to cramp everything they taught in exams due to time constraints.

So they’ll test the most important ideas of the lesson which tends to be about 20% of the material they teach. This usually shows in past year’s papers.

The key is to figure out that crucial 20% to reap the 80% of benefits.

Pay more attention to specific topics, concepts and questions that lecturers spend a lot of time on. When they say “this is the kind of question that will be appearing on exams”, take note of them and practice similar questions.

Of course, this does not mean ditching the other 80% of materials!

Needless to say, preparing properly and reviewing your notes are crucial in understanding that 20%.

Once you figure out that 20%, less time will be spent on trying to cramp, learn and memorise everything which increases productivity overall.

As an extra tip! When studying, make sure to minimise all possible distractions (like your phone), find a good workspace for you to focus and set clear goals for the day.

3.) Present effectively!

Presenting online
Don’t just focus on the aesthetics. Most people spend 80% of their time focused on making the slides while 20% of the time is spent on the delivery of the presentation.

No matter how aesthetically pleasing the presentation or great the content, no one will enjoy it if it’s not presented clearly.

Most of your time should be spent on 20% of the presentation — the oral delivery. And you do this by rehearsing. Practice eye contact, pronunciation, gestures and pauses. Avoid filler words like “so” or “like”.

80% of your presentation’s success boils down to that 20%. If presented in a strong manner, you are likely to captivate the audience’s attention and stand out among many others. This means that whatever you are presenting has a higher chance to score better grades.

Do not spend too much time decorating and creating slides with words, graphics and photos. Tom Rielly, the co-founder of PlanetOut and Ted talk’s director of partnerships, mentions that having “less is more”. Steer away from long paragraphs, and slides cluttered with images.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the Pareto principle works because the idea is to focus on the things that really matter. That one thing that will change everything.

As long as that 20% is fully worked on, getting 80% of results would not be difficult.

We hope that this small article helped you understand that doing less is better!

You can read more articles here to see other tips on various subjects.