Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who unintentionally discovered an incredibly useful productivity and prioritisation tool.
He recognised that 80% of Italy’s wealth was held by 20% of its population, and found that this 80-20 relationship (or similarly-weighted distribution, such as 70-30 or 90-10) also applied to many other aspects of life.
80% of the output is produced by 20% of the input.
80% of the results are produced by 20% of the effort.
80% of the revenue is created by 20% of the customers.
80% of computer crashes are caused by 20% of the bugs.
So, what does this mean for us?
In the context of studying, this 80-20 rule is immensely powerful!
It means that roughly 80% of our final grade can be achieved by choosing the right way to apply 20% of our time/effort. Meanwhile, the remaining 20% of our grade may require roughly 80% more time/effort!
It is up to us to identify which tasks, subjects and study methods compose that vital 20% of time/effort, in order to ensure that we receive maximum benefits for minimal effort.
These will differ between individuals, as we all have preferred studying methods that influence our optimum study technique. In my book, The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success, I discuss several tools and techniques that you can experiment with to identify your preferences and find out which methods work best for you.
Once we've done this, we then need to prioritise this 20% over our other tasks.
For example, I found that for Mathematics, doing Past-Papers was far more effective than re-reading my notes. I realised that I gained approximately 80% more value for my time by completing and reviewing a 2-hour past-paper than if I spent the same 2 hours re-reading through my notes.
So, I prioritised doing Past Papers over creating revision notes in my plan. Roughly 80% of my total Maths revision was purely Past Papers and practice questions, and the other 20% was creating and reviewing revision notes.
I used a similar process for allocating study time to different subjects.
My Cambridge offer required an A* in Further Maths – a subject that I was failing according to my December mocks (I scored 28%, a U-grade!). I only required an A in Physics, which I was on track to attain.
Naturally, Further Maths became a higher priority than Physics. I decided that if I was to spend a total of x hours on Physics and Further Maths, roughly 80% of that time should be dedicated to Further Maths, and only 20% to Physics.
In addition, given that so little relative time was being spent on Physics, I knew that I had to maximise the value I would gain from the short amount of time I was spending on it.
In my case, I felt that I would be gaining 80% more value for my time from copying out and memorising Physics past-paper mark schemes, than if I were to write detailed notes on each topic or complete each individual past paper.
Doing this allowed me to attain my A* in Further Maths and meet my Cambridge offer, while ensuring that I met my A-grade requirement in Physics.
In practise, do not worry too much about keeping rigidly to 80% and 20%. It is just a guideline to get you thinking about the most productive way to use your time and prioritise your short-term tasks, in order to move you closer to your goals.
We’ll be back soon with another blog post on how to exactly choose the short-term daily tasks that you prioritise on your plan...
...but if you can’t wait until then, grab my free eBook on Overcoming Procrastination for students, where I detail why we procrastinate and the steps we can take to begin overcoming it! It’s just part of the 1st chapter of my book, The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.