What is 80-20 principle?

Over a century ago, an Italian economist unlocked one of the most powerful, universally-applicable principles for achieiving growth and success ever discovered. And it was all thanks to his garden.

His pea pods, in particular.

Unless you’re some kind of business person, entrepreneur, or economist, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of “the Pareto Principle.”

In 1906, Vilfredo Pareto, a researcher at the University of Lausanne, discovered that only about 20% of the pea pods in his garden were producing 80% of the peas.


At the same time he discovered that 80% of the land in his home country was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto went on to investigate whether this “80/20 principle” was applicable in other situations.

It was. And then some.

In the century+ since the original discovery, Pareto and countless other researchers have discovered that the 80-20 Principle applies in a vast array of circumstances.

With stunning regularity, 80% of the results in any given circumstance comes from 20% of the causes. 

When I was in graduate school I worked as a Teaching Assistant who led classroom tutorials. And I observed that 80% of the discussion was fuelled by 20% of my students, without fail, every semester. (And I regularly thanked god for that 20%…)

In music, 80% of what makes a hit album sell is 20% of the album itself (ie. the hits). Watch the nightly news for a week and you’ll discover that 20% of politicians are making 80% of the noise. Chances are good that, if you’re a product of a typical Western education, 80% of your life decisions, intellectual development, etc. have been fuelled by only about 20% of what you learned in school. For most businesses, 80% of their revenue comes from 20% of their customers. And on, and on, and on.

That is to suggest that 80/20 is very real. Sometimes eerily so. And the more you look around you, the more you see it applies in almost every situation, in one way or another.

But what most people don’t realize is how the 80-20 principle also applies in personal development.

And specifically for you (and me, once upon a time), overcoming retroactive jealousy.

Whoever you are, I can just about guarantee that 80% of your success comes from 20% of your efforts. Chances are, only 20% of what you’re doing is helping you become stronger, healthier, happier.

My general personal development goals—in terms of physical and spiritual health, relationship-building, that sort of thing—are bolstered by only a few consistent activities.

I’ve come to realize that only about 20% of the things I do really contribute to my well-being. So, it’s up to me to make good decisions based on that, and expand that 20% so that I’m doing more of what works for me, and less of what isn’t.

Here’s a recent example: like many people in this part of the world, I was enamoured with Season 1 of the HBO show True Detective. I watch very little television, and only rarely do I “get into” a show, but this was a worthy exception. (Woody Harrelson, a brooding Matthew McConaughey, what more do you want?)

Season 2 of the show recently premiered to mixed reviews, and although it’s still somewhat entertaining, it just doesn’t have the same power and intrigue of Season 1. I made the decision to stop watching after episode 3.

At this point you might be thinking “Zach, it’s a TV show. Aren’t you overthinking this a bit? Watch it, don’t watch it. What’s the big deal?”

This season, HBO will broadcast 8 episodes. That’s about 8 hours in total. Not a small amount of time; a full workday, for most people.

I’ve already spent 3 hours of my life—three hours I’ll never get back—watching this season of True Detective, with only a modest return on my investment.

Do I really want to invest an additional 5 hours of my life into an activity that provides only a tiny amount of happiness, enjoyment, entertainment, fulfilment?

I don’t think so.

I’ve recently gotten serious about becoming a better salsa dancer. Over the past couple of years I’ve discovered that salsa dancing makes a huge contribution to my general sense of well-being, confidence, health, happiness. It’s great.

So guess what I’m going to spend those 5 True Detective-less hours doing instead?

You guessed it.

Lately I’ve been trying to fit in about 2-3 hours of salsa per week. It makes me feel good about myself, it’s a lot of fun, it’s good exercise, it’s wonderful. It’s a part of that 20% that I want to expand into a bigger chunk of my life. It’s a worthwhile investment.

So what does this mean for you?

It means you should think about performing your own 80-20 analysis, especially if you’re working toward overcoming RJ.

So ask yourself:

What do I do that contributes the most to my happiness and personal development?

What makes me feel good about myself?

And, what am I doing that’s getting me closer to my goals?

What am I doing that is helping to minimize or eliminate painful jealous thoughts, curiosity, or “mental movies” when they come up? (Am I doing anything that’s helping in that regard?)

And, just as important…

What am I spending hours of my life doing that’s only making a marginal difference in terms of my overall happiness and well-being?

Ask yourself:

Which activities do I regularly take part in that are not contributing to my personal development goals?

Which of my habits could I moderate, or eliminate entirely so that I’d have more free time to focus on the things that get me closer to my goals?

What do I do that is helping to support or even encourage painful thoughts and “mental movies” when they come up, instead of eliminating them?

My advice to you as you perform this exercise is to take out a pen and paper (a familiar refrain, if you’ve read my book or taken my course), write down everything that comes to mind, and be ruthless. Be absolutely honest with yourself.

Pinpoint the habits, interactions, even people that are eating up your time and that aren’t making you a better version of “you.”

Eliminating habits is sometimes easier than “eliminating” people. It’s obvious that we cannot avoid all of the people we come into contact with who bring us down. But we can usually limit our exposure to them.

We can then use all of this extra time, focus, and energy to do more of the things that are truly valuable to us; what makes us feel really good; what’s really helping us as we work to become less-jealous, more confident, more peaceful and self-assured human beings.

Do the things that are working for you more often. Schedule them, if necessary. Prioritize them. (Keeping in mind that the people you love actually want you to be “selfish.”)

The point here is to maximize the return on your most precious and limited resource: your time. So start doing more of what’s working for you, and less of what isn’t. Perform your own 80-20 analysis, and use that insight to maximize your investments in every area of your life.

Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.