The Pareto Principle: 80/20

The other day, my sister expressed her fears that she’d be quickly outpaced by her new graduate school classmates.  Unlike most of her young and childless peers, my sister has two very young children and cannot reasonably devote her full waking day to her studies.  The ONLY SOLUTION she could come up with (false, of course), was just to “power through” and stay up all night for so many years straight (which is impossible, of course).

Being pregnant and in graduate school myself, I could empathize with her fears quite a bit.  But, I said to her,…

1. Worries are not facts.

2. Worries are not destiny.

3.  So, stick to the Pareto Principle

4. Remember Parkinson’s Law and Time Box

…and you’ll be okay

Today I wanted to blog a little about #3, the Pareto Principle.  Next time I’ll cover #4.

The Pareto Principle is briefly discussed in the “Elimination” chapter of Timothy Ferris’ deeply flawed but interesting best seller The 4-Hour Workweek.  Wikipedia has the most succinct explanation but as ways of a brief introduction, it is basically that just 20% of actions create 80% of consequences.  Some common examples:

  • 20% of your clients bring in 80% of your business revenue.  The rest of your clients bring in negligible profits.
  • 20% of your clients bring in 80% of your complaints and problems.  The rest of your clients do not.
  • 20% of your effort/time lead to 80% of your results.  The rest of the effort/time spent brings negligible benefits.

This is how it applies to my own life, now that I’m ABD.

20% of my sources (secondary or primary) lead to 80% of my doctoral argument.  The rest are stray citations and random notes.

-This has helped me cull my out-of-control lit review and the gnawing fear that “I just have to read one more book!”

-This has also helped me to streamline lecture notes for teaching.  I choose the top 5 sources for the lecture and build from there.

-This has also helped to ground myself in terms of scholarly conversation.  Who am I in dialogue with?  These finite-number-of-people.

20% of my To Do’s cause 80% of my problems, unhappiness, and time-suckage.

-I really hate washing dishes. It takes so much time and I find it really annoying because I inevitably splash dirty water all over myself. Even though kitchen knives are not meant to be put in the dishwasher (they rust and dull) and many other utensils are not “recommended” for it, fuck it, in they go. It is a far better use of my time and energy to buy new knives in 5 years. (Of course, we don’t put in non-dishwasher safe items).

-I really wanted to tackle this difficult Modernist poet for my dissertation. It would have taken me months to translate and decipher the dense, creative poetic language of a short story I deemed “maybe relevant.” I stressed so much because, you know, WHAT IF!?!?! Alas, farewell!

-I have to get car maintenance this week and then drop by the DMV…2 things that will take up any number of hours. I asked my husband to get the car smog check because the way the errand is broken up is not conducive to any on-the-road reading (15 min drive + 30 min apprx wait + 15 min service + 15 min drive home). I’ll go to the DMV and read a book while in line.

The bottom line?
The Pareto Principle is not a cure-all for high stress and busy schedules but it helps in pushing you to prioritize and viciously cut what is just not contributing to your goal.

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