The Pareto principle
In the late 1800’s Vilfred Pareto created a power law probability distribution, which according to wikipedia was “built on observations of his such as that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population”. The Pareto principle (80-20 rule) has become popular over the last several years in the context of business and economics. People like Tim Ferriss have begun exploring this concept for personal efficiency. The way that the rule applies to you is that 20% of what you do goes toward accomplishing the majority of your goals. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you cut out the 80% of time that doesn’t do much for you and only spend time on things that are “high leverage” for achieving your goals?
A lot of people think of time as money. I would argue that time is much more valuable and finding ways to get some of your time back is huge. What’s necessary is to examine all of the activities that go into doing well in a class or on a research project and dissecting out the few key elements that lead to most of the outcome. Things that don't have a big impact toward your desired outcome should be avoided.
Disclaimer: This is not an argument for selfishness or avoiding departmental or lab activities. While there might not be a direct line between helping a colleague or going to a seminar toward achieving your ultimate goal, these things are actually high leverage and will come back to you in interesting and unexpected ways.
Cyril Northcott Parkinson once wrote jokingly that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. This idea has really taken off in the productivity blogosphere and I think the spirit of the idea works particularly well for scientists. The implication of Parkinson’s law is that it’s hackable. What happens if you figure out the time it would normally take for a task and only give yourself half of that to complete it? What about a quarter of the time? It is an interesting exercise to figure out how quickly you can actually get through a task. Chances are that a task will still get done and that it will still be pretty good although maybe not perfect. This idea becomes even more powerful when coupled with the 80/20 principle. This boils down to avoiding distractions so that you can have intense focus and concentration for one hour at a time. This idea is discussed at length here:
For more info on how to use Parkinson’s law:
This is an interesting read on the bastardization of Parkinson’s law:
Using Pareto and Parkinson in Combination:
Reading papers is a high leverage activity that will help you succeed. But this can take a lot of time if you allow it. For example, 5 journal articles in an evening would take 3 or 4 hours if you were to read them cover to cover. Maybe this isn’t necessary. Instead try reading the abstract, skim the intro, go through the figures and skim the discussion....this should take 15 minutes. As you’re going through it jot down questions and conclusions and there you go. You may not get all the nuances of the paper but 80-90% is a reasonable expectation. It is worth slowing down if there is a new technique or graph to understand. Making an investment to understand how experiments are done will pay off in terms of how fast you get through future articles. There is a lot of good advice out there for preparing for tests and getting through information efficiently. Check out the textbook method: