The 80/20 Rule – from Peas to USMLEs

The Pareto Principle originated in 1896, when the esteemed Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto demonstrated how 80% of his peas were derived from 20% of his peapods.  This since has been widely investigated; with mathematicians proving that this principle follows a power law distribution applicable to many natural phenomena.  Currently, the most prevalent and proven applications of this principle take place in the business world, following the rule of thumb that, “80% of a company’s sales, come from 20% of their clients”.  So how would a doctor or medical student use this natural principle to their benefit? To answer this question, one needs to re-evaluate their effectiveness on a daily basis….

During undergrad, my main method for studying material was to re-write the content several times, so that by the end of my studying, I could recall and write down most of the testable content.  This technique carried over into to medical school, and surprisingly enough, got me through a successful first year.  That being said, I was fed up with hand cramps, fear of the infamous “2nd year”, and the monotony of arduous writing, I explored more efficient methods outside of the realm of typical studying techniques.  This led me to the 80/20 rule, which I thought I could steal from the business world and use to my advantage.

First, I had to ask myself, what aspects of my studying contribute the most to retaining the material I was attempting to master?  Upon self-reflection, I concluded that most of my recall came from simple, made-up mnemonics (mostly converting acronyms into visual representations), which I only utilized during my later rounds of re-writing the material. The light bulb went off; this is my 20%!  Now focusing on the 20% of studying that contributes to 80% of my retention (and cutting out the rest), I have saved countless hours of study time (and healthcare costs by avoiding my inevitable treatment of focal dystonia from handwriting), ultimately creating more time to live a happy and balanced life.

This principle can be applied to any aspect of your life, including relationships. For example, try to identify the 20% of meaningful conversations/activities that contribute the most to building a successful relationship and work towards increasing the frequency of those moments.  So whether it be growing peas in your backyard or studying for the USMLE steps, applying the 80/20 rule can dramatically increase your effectiveness; leaving you more time to devote to things that matter the most.