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Rock Your Dissertation with the 80/20 Rule | Issue 255

Summary: Finish your dissertation in record time by implementing the 80/20 Rule. Find out how. 

Reading Time: Five minutes that you will recoup the first day


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.

Not making fast enough progress on your dissertation? 

It's time to put the 80/20 Rule to work for you.

Also known as the Pareto principle, the 80/20 Rule states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The name stems from Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who noted in 1896 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by a mere 20% of the population. Since that time, this simple principle has been found to describe a surprisingly wide variety of phenomena. 

For example, a 1992 United Nations report showed that over 80% of the world's income is controlled by the top 20%. In other reports, Microsoft found that fixing the top 20% of bugs fixed 80% of errors and crashes.

The Pareto Principle also appears in sports, health, and criminal justice. In baseball, just 15% of the players accounted for 85% of the wins. Some studies found 20% of individuals responsible for 80% of contagious infections. Another found 20% of criminals committed 80% of crimes. 

It's become axiomatic in business that 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients. Accordingly, strategic planning involves directing the vast majority of resources toward just a few objectives. 

That's where your dissertation figures in.


How the 80/20 Rule Speeds Up Your Work

You can leverage the 80/20 Rule for personal goals, explains productivity guru Brian Tracy. 

The process begins by evaluating your daily actions with a more discerning eye. 

Sadly, as Tracy puts it, instead of focusing on the "vital few," most people get seduced by the "trivial many." Procrastinating on the few items that will create real success, they burn up valuable time attending to the abundant lower-level tasks. 

Instead of investing in your degree progress, do you exhaust yourself grading papers and preparing lectures that will have little bearing on your future? 

Do you squander time reading nonessential materials, or worse, with social media or Netflix series, rather than devoting your energy to finishing the project that will significantly impact your life? 

Sound familiar? If so, find out how to turn the situation around now. 

"The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really

successful people say no to almost everything." ~Warren Buffet 



Harnessing the 80/20 Rule for Success

Start implementing the 80/20 Rule now, following Tracy's steps: 

1. List 10 goals that you would like to accomplish.

2. Review your list. If you could accomplish only one, which one would most impact the quality of your life? Put a star next to it. 

3. Review the list again, starring the goal that would have the next most impact. 

You have now identified your most important goals. Write them down where you will see them when you plan your actions for each day so that you devote 80% of your best efforts to them. 

That does not mean you will devote 80% of each day to just two goals, but rather that you will devote the bulk of your most productive hours to them. The less productive hours will be used to handle the less impactful goals. 

If this approach sounds too restrictive, don't stop reading yet. You can tweak it. 

Some experts allow for choosing three or even five goals for your select attention. For example, in his bestseller 18 Minutes, leadership consultant Peter Bregman advocates intentionally focusing on five areas while declining everything else. 

Whichever approach you choose, the overall principle remains the same: Select a few worthy goals, then devote your best waking hours to accomplishing them. 

"To get the right things done, choosing what to ignore is as important as

choosing where to focus." ~ Peter Bregman


Identify Your Peak Productivity Times

Now that you know what matters, when will you do it? 

The best way to get the right things done is to enter them for your peak productivity hours in your daily planner. Tying your goals to a specific time and place has been shown to double the likelihood of doing them. 

While humans all share the circadian day of wakefulness and sleep, you may need to do some monitoring to discover your own unique pattern of daytime productivity. 

During the day, we cycle through "ultradian cycles," i.e., periods of 90-minute blocks of productivity and heightened focus. Barbara Atkinson explains this further: 

The start of each ultradian cycle is where your brain is most energetic and focused. Eventually, your energy slowly depletes. At the end of each ultradian cycle, you can keep working, but you simply won't be as effective. Your brain needs downtime. 

To identify your own ultradian rhythm, track your own productivity over a week. This questionnaire will help you determine if you are a "lark" or an "owl" or in between. 

Pay particular notice when you can focus well on your task—as well as when you start to get fidgety, hungry, or drowsy. 

Most of us are trained to these ignore bodily signals that it's time for a break. When you power through those times, however, the quality of your work suffers, asserts Tony Schwartz, peak performance consultant. 

For sustainability and overall speed, limit your focused work blocks to 90 minutes and interspersed with renewal periods, advises Schwartz. Doing so allowed him to wrap up his next book in under six months—less than half the time of previous books. 

"The question I ask myself like almost every day is, 'Am I doing the most important thing I

could be doing?"  ~ Mark Zuckerberg

Implement the 80/20 rule and watch your progress accelerate. Before you know it, you will be dancing across the stage to pick up your diploma and moving forward confidently with your new success habit. 


P.S If you need help cultivating your new habit, get an accountability buddy or a dissertation coach

Photo above by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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