Distracted while studying again? Apply the Pareto Principle

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Think back to the copious amounts of time you spent in the Kennedy Library last Spring Quarter during finals week. Do you remember the notes you were reviewing or all of the Snapchats you were sending to your best friend about how much more you needed to study? How much time did you spend actually studying— not on your phone, or in line for coffee, or staring blankly at your textbook? Maybe about 20 percent? This idea that the majority of an outcome is a result of 20 percent of efforts made did not come from studying humans, but rather pea pods. After noticing that 20 percent of pea pods produced 80 percent of the peas in his garden, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto established the Pareto Principle. Also known as the 80/20 rule, it states that in many applications of life, 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of effort.

Studying forces us to sit down and focus on one thing for a long time. By focusing on a single detail or task, our brains become more likely to get distracted in search of a new stimuli. By diversifying the activities we are engaging in, we allow our brains to rejuvenate and not become complacent with the same task. Acknowledging our complacency is the first step– acting on it is the second and far more difficult undertaking. Rather than spending countless hours studying in the library, procrastinating with every Instagram scroll as you semi-consciously type an answer into Quizlet, the 80/20 rule can help refocus your attention and reinforce productive study habits.  

To make the most effective use of the Pareto Principle, the following habits are recommended:

  1. Minimize Distractions
    1. Find your study groove. Reflect on where you study best–– in a group or individual setting? In absolute quiet or with background noise? Can you turn off your phone all day or do you want five-minute Instagram breaks every hour? Acknowledge what worked and what did not work for you last quarter and strive to consciously avoid these bad habits.
  2. Create a To-Do List
    1. Be clear with what you need to get done. Schedule that date or surf time with your friends, but make sure to write down exactly what you need to get done before leaving. By prioritizing and documenting your tasks, you are less likely to get distracted. Furthermore, having an end in sight to your studying will motivate you to get everything done prior to leaving your study session. Even better, you will feel a sense of relief knowing you finished what you set out to do.   
    2. The importance of documenting what you have to get done is motivation in and of itself as well. By writing down exactly what you want to do, you act with intent and purpose.
  3. Reflect on yourself
    1. In order to be most productive, you must first understand yourself. Are you more engaged at 7 am or 10 pm? Does sitting in a cubicle give you anxiety or calm you? Recognize what study habits truly help you and which may actually be hindering your performance. Then, take these into practice!
  4. Take a break
    1. Using the Pomodoro Technique you can revolutionize your own productivity rates. This technique suggests setting a 25-minute timer and working only on one task for the entirety of that interval. Then, take a five-minute break, and repeat this four times. After four iterations, the technique states to take a longer break because you earned it! Here are a couple fun longer breaks I recommend: Grab a couple friends for a quick volleyball set on Dexter or make plans to take a class at the Recreation Center midday.
    2. While taking a break is always a great idea, remember to make these breaks count. A five-minute break does not necessarily mean a five-minute Instagram scroll session! Next time you take a study break, entertain the option of taking a walk around campus with a friend to quickly catch up, or letting yourself lay down for a second on Dexter Lawn. I promise, a digital break is always worth it.

As the school year begins, take control of your 20 percent. I challenge you to sit down and think about the ways in which this year will be different than the last. Review your study habits and start applying productive measures prior to the chaos of exams. The 80/20 rule is not only applicable to studying, but can be used in a general applications to life as well. For instance, 80 percent of your time is most likely spent with 20 percent of the people you know. Recognizing these patterns allows you to reflect on your daily habits. Certain habits can be beneficial, but others can become detrimental, and consciously being aware of the way the Pareto Principle applies to your life can help you make better, healthier decisions. What’s the 20 percent of the food you’re eating 80 percent of the time?

Acknowledging the legitimacy of this principle allows us to understand that efficiency is a part of every action. With that comes control and therefore a channel for improvement. What changes can you make as this year starts? How are you going to be an active participant in your life, both academically and personally?

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