Is it useful or beautiful?

by Christina on May 25, 2011

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” ~William Morris

I’ve been reminded recently of the 80/20 principle. The idea behind this is that 20% of the effort results in 80% of the outcome.

For example:

  • Less than 20% of the population owns more than 80% of the wealth.
  • 20% of clouds produce 80% of the rain.
  • More than 80% of scientific discoveries come from fewer than 20% of scientists.

Tim Ferriss talks about it in his book – and how it’s often actually closer to a 95/5 principle:

“In practice, the 80/20 principle is often much more disproportionate.

To be perceived as fluent in conversational Spanish, for example, you need an active vocabulary of approximately 2,500 high-frequency words. This will allow you to comprehend more than 95% of all conversation. To get to 98% comprehension would require at least five years of practice instead of five months. Doing the math, 2,500 words is a mere 2.5% of the estimated 100,000 words in the Spanish language.

This means:

  1. 2.5% of the total subject matter provides 95% of the desired results.
  2. This same 2.5% provides just 3% less benefit than putting in 12 times as much effort.

This incredibly valuable 2.5% is the key, the Archimedes lever, for those who want the best results in the least time. The trick is finding that 2.5%.”

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind as I’ve been de-cluttering my life for my move to California and the start of residency.

Here’s an article I recently found that I stashed away years ago – it’s about applying the 80/20 principle (from the Life Optimizer blog in 2007 (you can read it here).

Reading it again re-inspired me, and here are 7 ways I’m trying to apply the 80/20 (or ~95/5) rule:

  1. Read less: A handful of my books (and really only a few pages of those books) provide most of their value. Most books on my bookshelf have been untouched for months. I’m keeping only the highly valuable books that I refer to regularly (and will be skimming any new books that come my way).
  2. Memorize less: Only a fraction of the facts and knowledge we learn in medical school is used in the day to day of caring for patients. I’m focusing on learning the most important medical information and (more importantly) learning how to quickly look up what I need to know.
  3. Exercise less: <20% of our exercise efforts yield >80% of the effect. I’m moving towards 10-20 minutes of high-intensity workouts (squats, pull-ups, sprints, etc) instead of a 1+ hours running or at the gym.
  4. Buy less: I tend to wear the same clothes every day (much less than 20% of my clothes are worn >80% of the time). I’m giving away anything unworn in the past 2 years and avoiding buying anything new.
  5. Spend less time with people (but make more memories): A small part of our time with people provide most of our memories. I want to focus on quality time: 5-10 minutes of a quality conversation over a rushed and distracted 60 minutes.
  6. Do less:Few of our activities actually provide us with value and meaning. I’m working on saying no to more things.
  7. Work and study less: <20% of “work” time gives >80% of results. I’m focusing on the productive chunks of time and actively NOT working or studying outside of that.

The next 3 years of residency will be a practice of identifying and focusing on the <20%.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark May 25, 2011 at 2:57 am

I think the 80/20 principle holds true for residency, having now nearly completed mine 😉 80% of your time will be spent doing things that are not directly teaching you anything…filling out paperwork (H&Ps, DC summaries, pt forms, soap notes, office notes, an even lectures — where you retain very little of the actual info that is presented). I support your philosophy to use small chunks of times as productive. It will help you much more and still allow you to be as balanced as one can be in residency 🙂 Hope your new step in the journey has begun well!


Adam May 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I am printing this out, this is great.


Ali Marcus May 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Tina, read less? really? I have some concerns about that one. Many of the others make a lot of sense though.

Welcome to the west coast! 🙂


Emily Douglas May 25, 2011 at 6:48 pm

LOVE the 2.5% stat (especially when it comes to learning Spanish)!

I also like the less-time-with-people-but-more-memories idea (especially when one of my favorite people just moved across the country)!

Great photo by the way – hope you are having a blast!!


Melissa May 26, 2011 at 1:31 am

This is a great post. I too take exception to the book rule. How do you find the worthwhile parts of the book unless you read the whole thing? Good luck with your move!


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