Pareto's Law for Dummies

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Pop culture is awash in gimmicky nonsense for the credible consumer, and a lot of that nonsense gets swallowed whole, regurgitated, shared with the rest of the world, and generally perpetuated with little to no understanding of the actual principle involved.

I am no exception, of course, and have heretofore lived my life as a poster child for pop culture fact-fountaining. In the past few years, however, I’ve given serious thought to the perpetuation of incorrect ideas, and am now much more likely to look something up than I am to repeat it.

Accordingly, when the much-vaunted 80/20 Rule came to my attention again the other day, I looked it up and realized lo! I had been getting it wrong all these years. See, a friend explained this rule to me a long time ago, and since then I’ve seen similar erroneous citations, all of which explain the 80/20 Rule as some sort of new-age health trend, i.e. “If you are good 80 percent of the time, the other 20 doesn’t matter.” Applied to everything from diet to exercise to sleep to sex, there is nothing this “rule” can’t be leveraged against.

The prevalence of this misunderstanding is actually quite startling, as the rule – or Pareto’s Law, or Principle, as it is more correctly called – actually says nothing of the sort. Instead, it explains the widely attested phenomenon that 80 percent of consequences flow from 20 percent of causes. This has applications in wealth, land-owning, business efficiency, even household satisfaction. If, for example, 20 percent of your chores are causing 80 percent of your hair-pulling, then consider an alternate approach or hiring someone to do them for you.

After some deliberation, it struck me how much better a pop psychology statement Pareto’s Law is than my false understanding of it. After all, if you cheat on your diet 20 percent of the time, you probably aren’t going to meet your goal weight. On the other hand, if you turn your attention toward the 20 percent of diet decisions you make that are most effective with an eye to increasing them, you will probably see an according rise in your dieting success.

Luckily, there is nothing in the 80/20 Rule that says you must be stuck there forever. If something trivial is causing you grief – probably an inordinate amount – you can use this rule to ditch it. Similarly, if something small is making you immensely happy, home in on it and figure out how to improve that aspect of your life. Mindfulness, after all, is one of the buzzwords of our time…this is just a new way to find it in your life.

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