Every college student knows the stress of an upcoming deadline. Most students could describe a time when they failed or nearly failed to turn in an assignment. Last semester, I put off a paper until the day it was due. I got it done, but I finished it eight minutes before the deadline.
I hadn’t procrastinated, I worked hard, and somehow it wasn’t enough. I didn’t have time to rest, but I also didn’t have time to finish my paper. And this happens to college students all the time. So what’s the problem?
There is too much to do. You are going to run out of time, guaranteed. No matter how hard you work, how much you “hustle,” you can’t do everything.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is this: even though it feels like everything carries equal importance—it doesn’t. But how do you decide what not to do?
It’s called 80/20
The 80/20 rule or Pareto principle was first popularized by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto. He discovered that 80 percent of Italian landholdings were owned by 20 percent of the population. And it turns out, the 80/20 rule applies to more than just Italian real estate. The 80/20 rule applies to most things, from sports to taxes to music, it seems to be universal.
The 80/20 curve looks like this, where R is results and E is effort. It’s not linear. Twice the work doesn’t get you twice the results. The initial 20 percent of the effort gives 80 percent of the improvement. This is usually called diminishing returns. Once you reach 80 percent results, it takes exponentially more effort to progress.
This is good. We get most of our results from just a few things. The improvement from 60-100 percent effort is minimal, so that stuff matters far less. At some point—working really hard gets you almost nothing.
Applying 80/20 at School
You probably shouldn’t aim for 80 percent on your homework unless you’re happy with a B minus, but it doesn’t take 100 percent effort to get an A.
Choose what you won’t do. off. Ignore something that costs 1 percent of your grade so you don’t lose 15 percent when you run out of time. Save your best energy for what’s most important.
I have a class where we read and discuss ancient literature. My professors prefer that I take notes inside the books, but they don’t require it. I only lose a small amount of comprehension by not taking notes, but I read about three times faster. So I stopped taking notes in my books. My grade is unaffected and I spend much less time doing homework.
Here I can reasonably assume that taking notes falls under the 80 percent effort/20 percent value. But it might not be the same for everyone and it’s not the same for every class. With some professors, I find I remember lectures much better if I take notes by hand, with others it’s the opposite.
Experiment. Find what’s essential in each class and focus on that. Ignore the rest.
Don’t worry—if you have time you can circle back. But start by doing what affects your grade most instead of spending time on stuff that doesn’t. Choose what you won’t do so that you can focus on the high-value stuff.