Maximizing Efficiency the 80/20 Way

Golden Section Ratio by Patrick Hoesly

No complex math is needed to put the 80/20 principle to good use, just a bit of forethought.

If you’re familiar with anyone involved in the realm of Lifestyle Design (See our Recommended Reading list), I’m sure you’ve come across the Pareto principle before. For anyone who hasn’t, the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule) essentially states that in almost every situation 80% of the effects are a result of 20% of the causes.

For example, 80% of profits come from 20% of customers, 80% of problems are caused by 20% of clients, 80% of the weight you lose is a result of 20% of your behavioral changes, etc.

Of course, actual ratios are rarely so consistent. It may be 95/5, 70/30, or whatever. The consistent part, the part that’s important to take away, is that in every case a majority of effects are brought about by a minority of causes.

So, why is this important?

It’s important because it means that, in general, there are two types of actions – those which fall into that 20% that cause 80% of the results, and those that fall into the 80% that are only responsible for that last little 20% of results. I call the first, the 20% with the big effect, High Return Variables and the latter, the majority responsible for that paltry 20%, Low Return Variables.

The 80/20 Rule in Practice: Examples of High and Low Return Variables

The two easiest real-world examples of this principle that come to mind are weight loss, and language learning. Alright, that may be because I’m right in the middle of a weight loss challenge and a language learning challenge, but still.

Weight Loss – Losing weight is, at its very essence, a chemical process. More calories need to be burned than ingested and insulin levels need to be kept low enough to keep the body in a state conducive to fat loss and muscle building. While exercise is important for this, being mindful of what goes into your body is even more so. The person who exercises obsessively but eats a diet of junk will not lose nearly as much weight as the person who barely exercises, or even never exercises, but has a carefully controlled diet.

Language Learning – You can never learn a language just by studying, you have to get out there and use it, but you can roughly break language down into two components – grammar and lexicon. Grammar is learned, really learned, by chatting with people and getting corrected. Lexicon, by coming across new words or actively picking new words to learn.

In both grammar and lexicon, there are High Return Variables and Low Return Variables based on frequency of use. Frequency lists show that 80% of dialog is composed with 20% of available lexical items. That means that to understand 80% of what’s being said, you only need to know 20% of the words in the language. The same goes for grammar. Certain grammatical points will come up time and time again and be extremely useful, while others almost never get used. The person who focuses on the stuff that comes up the most often will get a lot farther a lot faster than the person who doesn’t.

Making the 80/20 Rule Work for You

In those two examples the individual who focuses their efforts on diet first and the individual who focuses their learning on the most common lexical and grammatical items first will show much more progress much more rapidly than individuals who waste their time on less important variables. The key then, in any endeavor, is to spend some time at the outset to determine which variables are the High Return Variables and which are not. Once this is determined, you can make them your primary focus. Work smarter not harder and all that.

So how do you determine what variables are High Return Variables? Well, that’s the somewhat tricky part because it will depend for each different goal or activity you’re applying it to. The best way to figure it out is to start by dropping any ‘I have to do this or that’ mentalities. Those will get you nowhere and the key here isn’t to just do it the way everyone else does, it’s to do it the most efficient way possible.

Once you’ve dropped any preconceptions on how something ‘has to’ be done, go through and dissect all the different variables/actions you can take to reach your goal. First, cut everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Be brutal here and treat each action like it’s a lead weight on a sinking boat, if it doesn’t really need to be there – toss it. Also remove everything that doesn’t have some kind of directly measurable effect. This will come in handy in the next step, and if there’s no way to measure the effect of an action there’s no real way to evaluate it.

After you’ve dumped all the superfluous actions, go through those that you’ve kept and rank each of them according to how big of an effect they have based on whatever metric applies to them. Sometimes, you may not really know. That’s fine, in that case do a little testing of everything first. Other times you may just have to work through the possible benefits in your head of each action. You may not know for sure a website will get you more customers than business cards, but it’s easy to reason that a website has more potential than business cards, so you would rank getting a website higher than having business cards printed.

Now that you have a ranked list of all the actions to take, in order of highest magnitude to lowest magnitude of effect, get started. You don’t necessarily have to follow the list point by point, but you’ll do much better using it as a tool to focus your attention on what is actually going to matter.

Have any other suggestions for ways to use the 80/20 principle? Let us know.

Polyphasic Sleep: A False Start

Barely over a week has passed in our polyphasic sleep experiment and already it looks like we’re going to have to call it quits. We’ve both accepted new jobs and, while we tried to work around it, have found the two schedules just refuse to play nice together.

In my opinion, in the short-term it was a huge success. By the end of this past week we had adapted fully to the schedule, and both were really loving the few extra hours. It doesn’t seem like an hour or two extra would be worth much, but it felt like a ton of extra productive time.

Because of that, we definitely intend to pick this experiment back up once our schedules fall back under our own control. So far, we’ve had no issues adjusting back to monophasic sleep, so we’ve also been contemplating an on-off version.

Keep checking in for when we can pick things back up, as well as a more in-depth review of our short time experimenting with our sleep patterns. Do you have any experience with it? Let us know in the comments!

Experiment: Polyphasic Sleep

Caroline and I are two very ambitious people. This site, and it’s dedication to paving the way to being epic, is proof positive of that. We have a list of martial arts we want to learn longer than I can count, we both have around 10 instruments we want to learn, we’re currently studying Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, German and French. We want to get in shape, and to get as good as possible at Parkour, breakdancing and acrobatics.

On top of all this, we’re renovating our house and working on starting two businesses, writing several blogs and I write on the side as the Cincinnati Martial Arts Examiner occasionally. We’re also both working on our own novels. Oh, right, we have to eat too. Forgot about that.

Frankly – there’s just not enough time in a day.

Pondering this perplexing problem I remembered something I had read about a few years ago while still in college called ‘polyphasic sleep’. As it turns out, it may be just the solution we’ve been looking for.

How it works

The theory behind polyphasic sleep (poly – many, phasic – parts/phases) is that rather than condense all of your sleep into one large block overnight, like most people do, you spread your sleep out into multiple parts over the course of the day and night.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, as it turns out we’re learning that the only part of sleep that actually seems to serve any rejuvenatory purpose is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. The REM stage is the part of sleep during which you experience dreams, as well as the part of sleep during which the brain is closest to being awake from an bio-electrical standpoint. The problem is, during normal overnight monophasic sleep it usually takes the brain about 90 to 110 minutes to complete a sleep cycle. That means only about 20-25% of the time spent sleeping at night is doing anything really functional.

That’s pretty inefficient. Polyphasic sleeping seeks to train the body to enter the REM stage as quickly as possible (if not immediately) upon falling asleep by severely limiting the duration of sleep. That means that the rest of the 75-80% of wasted sleep time can be skipped, dropping the amount of sleep needed to feel rested and rejuvenated to the neighborhood of 2 to 4 hours of total sleep.

Potential benefits

  • More Free Time – This is the big one really. I, for one, have issues getting up sometimes in the morning, and generally wind up spending between 6 to 8 hours a night sleeping. With polyphasic sleep that time can be reduced to 2 to 4 hours, meaning we gain between 4 to 6 waking hours a day to go do something epic.
  • Better Dream Recall – Supposedly, switching to polyphasic sleep greatly increases your dream recall. This may seem like a minor thing to most people, but I have some lucid dreaming experiments I’d like to play with down the road, and I know this skill will come in handy then.

Potential detriments

  • Sleep Deprivation – Some people say that a polyphasic sleep pattern is unhealthy to follow for extended periods of time because it causes sleep deprivation. Even those who do say it’s sustainable admit that the acclimation period when you first start has something of a zombifying effect until your body readjusts.
  • Social Problems – The other big problem most people cite is that it just doesn’t conform well with the rest of society. This seems to be the number one reason polyphasic people return to monophasic sleeping – either they felt it made social events or work difficult or it caused too much trouble within the family schedule. The reason I didn’t try this back in college was because I couldn’t easily fit the nap schedule around my classes.

Our experiment

Experiment might be a little too strict of a word here, since I doubt we’ll wind up being nearly as scientific about this as we should be, but oh well. Our plan is to try out a slightly modified version of what’s called the ‘Everyman’ sleep schedule.

We’ll start out by getting 3 hours of core sleep very night between midnight and 3 a.m. Then we’ll take two 20 minute naps through the day, one at 11 a.m. and another at 4 p.m., cutting our total sleep time down to around 4 hours.

After we’ve adjusted to that, we’ll try cutting the core sleep by an hour and seeing if we can adjust to that as well. That would cut us down to 3 hours of total sleep a night, giving us between 3 and 5 more useful hours a day on average.

We plan on trying a few other sleep schedules over time too, but that will come later. We’ll keep you updated with how things progress every now and then, as well as all the tips and techniques we learn while experimenting.

If you’re interested in learning more about polyphasic sleep right this minute, you can start with these two links:

Are you a polyphasic sleeper? Do you think all of this is absolute nonsense? Let us know in the comments.

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