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The Pareto Principle: A Complete Guide to Studying Smarter

Imagine achieving 80% of your desired results with just 20% of your effort. By incorporating the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, into your study routine, you can enhance your academic success simply by understanding and prioritizing key tasks.

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The bottom line
  • The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, proposes that in order to enhance learning efficiency, one should concentrate on the 20% of material that is most essential for achieving academic success.
  • The 80/20 rule, which is a component of the Pareto principle, does not provide precise numerical data regarding the tasks or subjects that should be prioritized in order to enhance academic achievement. Instead, it suggests that the most substantial improvement (80%) can be achieved by concentrating on the most critical (20%) concepts.
  • Applying this idea to the study process can result in a number of positive outcomes, including improved learning efficiency, but it is important to weigh these benefits against drawbacks to achieve the best results.
  • Combining the Pareto principle with other study time management strategies like the Pomodoro and Flowtime methods yields the best results.

Have you ever experienced the disappointment of diligently studying for a test only to receive a grade lower than you had hoped for? Adding the Pareto principle to your arsenal of study techniques can help you deal with this all-too-common problem. This principle, alternatively referred to as the “80/20 rule,” suggests that the majority of outcomes are typically the result of minor factors that hold significant importance. This principle does not require an exact 80/20 ratio; rather, it merely points out that small actions can yield significant outcomes so long as they are directed toward top priorities.

For many years, the Pareto principle has been proven effective in many areas, such as business, economics, and time management. But beyond the corporate landscape, the Pareto principle also found relevance in other aspects, most especially in education, offering a transformative approach to study habits. In this article, we explore the origin of this principle, how it differs from other study methods, how to strategically apply it to common academic challenges, and their pros and cons.

Table of Contents

The history of the Pareto principle

While studying land ownership in Italy in the early 20th century, economist Vilfredo Pareto came up with the “80/20 rule” because he found that 20% of the population owned 80% of the land. This unequal distribution intrigued him, so he set out to look for other examples of it. It is important to bear in mind that the 80/20 rule serves more as an approximation than a precise measurement of the distribution. Pareto, for instance, noted that:

  • From 20% of the pea pods, 80% of the peas in his garden were harvested.
  • A small part of the population was responsible for a lot of economic output.
  • A relatively small number of people earned the vast majority of the money.

In time, Pareto’s observations went beyond economics and showed a consistent pattern: most effects were brought about by a small percentage of causes. Thus, in the middle of the 20th century, this idea was quickly discovered and popularized by renowned management consultant Joseph M. Juran, who used it to improve efficiency and quality control in the corporate world. Later on, this idea gained recognition in different fields, eventually earning the term “Pareto principle.”

Even though it is in no way an exact science, it’s a principle that holds generally true across a range of fields and which can be very useful for helping with prioritization.

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The Pareto principle in education

Applying the Pareto principle to education, learners can expect to gain 80% of their knowledge from focusing on the most vital 20% of course materials. This approach streamlines studying by emphasizing key concepts and avoiding unnecessary time spent on minor details. To illustrate, imagine a student studying for a test who spends too much time memorizing an entire chapter (80%) but neglects fully understanding the crucial points contained in it(20%). The Pareto principle suggests prioritizing key topics, as exams typically emphasize foundational principles rather than every detail. Learning the fundamental ideas first makes it much simpler to pick up on the specifics and ultimately master the material.

The 80/20 rule in the Pareto principle is applicable in more ways than just studying habits. In other educational contexts, such as research essay writing, focusing on mastering the most important 20% of skills can cause a big 80% improvement. For instance, developing stronger abilities in essay writing and efficient research methods, which represent the subject’s central components, can have a significant impact on the final grades.

Furthermore, unlike the Pomodoro and Flowtime study methods we’ve discussed in previous posts, the Pareto principle doesn’t address the challenge of staying on task during dedicated study periods. To recap, the Pomodoro and Flowtime techniques share the objectives of increasing output, focusing on one’s study session, and avoiding distractions. The Pareto principle, on the other hand, can help you figure out what to prioritize and where to put your energy to avoid spending too much time on less important subjects. In essence, it advocates narrowing one’s attention to the core of the course material that is being studied. When used as part of a regular study routine, these different methods can actually help each other, giving you a complete plan for focused and useful study time.

6 steps to applying the Pareto principle in your study sessions

As a guiding principle for studying, this helps learners zero in on what matters most for successful learning outcomes. Let us go over some essential steps to keep in mind as you work to incorporate the 80/20 rule into your regular study routine.

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Set your goal.

Getting started with the Pareto Principle means figuring out what your goal is. Specific goals help you focus your time and energy on the things that matter during a study session. You may want to study for a test, complete a project, improve your grades in a particular subject, or gain proficiency in a particular skill, to mention a few.

Know what your goal is about.

Look at how you study and the materials you have access to figure out which tasks and/or ideas will help you reach your end goal the most. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and looking for patterns in the way you study can help you do this.

For instance, your objective may be to achieve a high score on an ecology-related exam. Identify the primary subjects and the extent of the examination that will be covered. Take some time to go over your readings, lecture notes, and assigned work.

Prioritize the key components.

Jot down the ideas or tasks you discovered that are helpful in achieving your goal. You can rank them from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most important and 10 being the least important. Determine the top two; according to the Pareto principle, this represents your critical 20%. Once you know which 20% are the most important, put these tasks or ideas at the top of your study list. Investing more time and energy in these high-impact activities or concepts—be they study techniques, assignment types, or subjects—may result in significant gains in your academic performance.

Using the example from step 2, you can see that the essential 20% of a successful biology exam score related to ecology is comprised of concepts like mastering ecosystem dynamics and comprehending ecological relationships. If you devote your study time wisely and focus on these key areas, you can expect to earn 80% or more of your total score on the exam, regardless of whether it takes the form of an essay or multiple-choice questions.

It is worth noting that the pivotal term in the Pareto principle is “prioritize.” While it is true that the 80/20 rule requires you to prioritize the most important elements, that does not mean you should forget about the rest. Having placed the most critical aspect first, it is still necessary to thoroughly cover the entire subject or topic. Once you have a firm grasp of the fundamentals, everything else will be a breeze to do or comprehend, saving you precious time and effort.

Organize your learning materials and resources.

Not all study materials are created equal. Before you start studying, sort the materials you have into two groups: core resources and supplementary resources. Aligning your tasks with your clear study goals will help you better manage your time and take a more structured approach. Find the best resources, like textbooks, online articles, or lecture notes, and put them in order of importance. This makes sure that the time you spend on materials is well spent, as they will help you learn the most. Make sure that the topics you’re studying are related to the ones that were talked about in class or that the teacher has specifically asked you to study. When you study, focus on quality over quantity.

Minimize distractions.

Implement strategies to minimize distractions. Consider breaking down your study sessions into focused intervals, emphasizing the most crucial topics during the peak periods of your concentration. This strategic approach ensures that you are consistently investing your energy where it matters most. Leverage tools such as the Pomodoro or Flowtime study methods to maintain focus.

Complement these methods with apps like Cold Turkey, Freedom, or RescueTime to effectively minimize digital distractions. These applications empower you to create an optimal study environment by blocking access to distracting websites or tracking your online activity, ultimately helping you stay on track and maximize your study sessions.

Establishing a dedicated workspace is also essential for a distraction-free environment. This designated area signals focus and ensures you have a well-equipped, comfortable space for effective study sessions. Consistency in using this workspace helps train your mind for heightened concentration and productivity.

Practice active learning.

Engage with the study material actively. Instead of passively reading, practice techniques such as summarizing information in your own words, teaching concepts to others, and solving problems. Taking an active role like this can greatly improve learning outcomes. Using active study methods such as SQ3R and PQ4R can help you with this.

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The pros and cons of the Pareto principle

Though the Pareto Principle holds great promise for learners seeking optimal academic performance, it is not without its drawbacks. Here are some benefits and drawbacks to think about as well:

The pros

1. It helps with your efficiency

According to the Pareto Principle, the most important factors are the top 20% of inputs that account for the majority of outputs (80%). This helps learners study faster and more effectively by focusing their attention on the most important ideas.

2. It helps prioritize your study time

Learners can better manage their study time by focusing on the most important subjects and concepts. This will prevent them from wasting time on less important material.

3. It encourages a deeper understanding

Placing emphasis on fundamental concepts promotes a more profound comprehension of the topic at hand. Learners are prompted to understand basic concepts and principles rather than just memorizing facts at face value.

4. It is strategic

The Pareto Principle emphasizes priorities, which promotes strategic planning. Learners can make study plans that help them reach their goals, which makes the process more purposeful and focused.

5. It lessens information overload

Learners are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information when they concentrate on the most important components. It can help make schoolwork easier to handle, which can reduce stress.

The cons

1. It risks oversimplifying your approach to complex subjects

The 80/20 rule is a broad idea that sometimes risks simplifying how you study a bit too much. Some topics need a more in-depth understanding, and it can be risky to ignore certain details.

2. It can be subjective

Determining the critical 20% can be subjective and different for each individual. Different learners may approach their coursework in different ways because of differences in how much importance they place on various factors. Study materials, tests, and class notes should all be evaluated to help objectively identify what is important to concentrate on.

3. It is possible to miss important details

Focusing too much on the 20% could cause you to miss out on important details that are not part of the most important points but are still necessary for a full understanding of the subject.

4. It is not always applicable to all subjects

Although the Pareto Principle may be useful in some learning situations, it may not be so useful in others. Some fields might need a more evenly spread-out approach to properly cover a wide range of topics that are all connected.

5. It sometimes lacks flexibility

Sticking to the Pareto Principle too closely may make it harder to be flexible when studying. Some topics may become less important over time, and sticking to the 20% that was first determined might not take these changes into account.


The Pareto Principle, which stresses the importance of the 80/20 ratio, provides a helpful framework for effective studying. There may not be many studies that prove this principle works in education, but it is still a useful way to improve learning styles. By consistently using the Pareto Principle along with other time management strategies, you can get the most out of your study time, learn more about yourself, and get yourself set up for long-term success.

With the Pareto principle as a valuable tool, focus, fulfillment, and success in different academic endeavors can be yours with the right understanding and attention to the factors that matter most. So, as you forge ahead, remember the mantra: “Study smarter,” and let the journey to excellence unfold with well-defined priorities.