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80/20 Rule: The Concept That Will Change The Way You Learn

Everyone has struggled trying to learn something new. If you say you haven’t, you are lying.

Studying long and hard, only to witness no meaningful results, can be pretty demotivating. After consecutive learning failures, the correct word would probably be demoralizing. This particular point is where most people start accusing various external factors. They accuse their genetics or their mood or other people.

Eventually, they quit.

Before getting on a downward spiral, though, you should consider changing the approach. As Einstein has said:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Most people forget this simple but universal truth. Changing your approach is most often the correct way to go. Quitting is not.

The primary mistake most people commit is jumping right into learning without any preparation. While this might be the only viable solution the night before an exam, in most occasions it won’t be enough. For example, imagine trying to become fluent in a new language in less than 3 months. The amount of studying material is immense. You need a strategy to choose the most effective material to help you achieve your goal, as well as put it in the right sequence.

The best and easiest to use strategy is the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. The 80/20 rule states that 80% of the outcomes derive from 20% of the inputs. This rule is based on a power law distribution and has been proven true in business, in relationships and most importantly, in learning. The main concept lies in identifying the few most effective strategies and material that will allow quickly becoming adequate in the chosen subject.

In the learning a language example, there are various ways this rule can be applied. To begin with, before choosing the material, it should be used in choosing a studying method. In learning a language, one can choose from many different approaches to study. Some learn with a teacher, others learn on their own using textbooks and/or apps like Duolingo, and others try to immerse themselves with native speakers. Immersion has proven to be the most effective way to learn a language.

Therefore, choosing the best method to approach your learning subject is a great way to start. Though in case the considered “best” method is impossible for you at the moment, the 80/20 rule still applies just perfectly. Actually, struggling to use an approach not suited to your current situation beats the 20% input concept. So, devote some time in identifying the various studying methods available to you, and choose the one most effective.

Beyond studying methods, the 80/20 rule can be extremely useful in choosing the right material. Again in the language example, we know that the top 100 most common written words in English constitute approximately 50% of the total written content. This is true in all the other languages as well. By learning the top 300 words, you will be able to understand most written or spoken texts, while having studied way less than 20% of the commonly used words.

I’ve compiled some such lists for Spanish. You can download them right below:

Remember, you should not be afraid to change what you’ve been doing until now. It’ll be worth it.

Actionable Advice:

What I’ve mostly missed in life-improvement and learning posts and blogs is actionable advice one can get and utilize immediately. Seeing results quickly is a huge factor in succeeding. Thus, I’ll be providing actionable advice in most, if not all, of my articles.

Up to now, I’ve been using learning a language as an example to bring the point across. Most of you, though, are not here to learn how to learn a language. The 80/20 rule can be applied to anything you are trying to learn, and not just learning itself. Below I provide a simple formula to actually use this rule as a technique.

Go ahead and identify one, or more, thing in your life you are trying to learn at the moment.

Even if you are not currently learning something actively, like a language or a musical instrument, chances are you are trying to get better at something. It could be a new task by your boss or teacher. It could be a video game. Identify the learning subjects in your life, and be open to discovering more than one simultaneously.

Make a list of the 5-10 things you use in learning.

For each of the above-identified items, identify the 5-10 things you are currently doing in learning or improving. Below you can find my list of things I do in learning the guitar right now.

simple list for guitar

Identify the one or two items that provide the best results.

Now identify the 1 or 2, depending on how big your list is, items that provide the best results. Keep in mind, the goal right now is not to get to mastery, but rather getting to 80% as quickly as possible. Excitement and motivation will help you go on from there. In addition, you will now be more familiar with the subject and be able to make more educated decisions. So choose the 2 items that will provide just that “quick fluency”. If no items in your list satisfy you, go ahead and discover something new, like the most common words example mentioned above. For the simple guitar list, I have found the app to be the most fun and the easiest way for me to learn.

simple list for guitar with choice

Practice only what you chose for the next two weeks.

Now, having chosen the items, go ahead and practice using only those for the next two weeks. You will find yourself be much further along the way than you expected.

Call to Action

As soon as you start using the 80/20 rule in your life, you are going to witness results. I’d love to hear from you about your achievements and/or your struggles. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

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