The 80/20 Rule

Life is a balancing act.  You can choose to be an extremist, but as a general rule, 80/20 rule applies — the last 20% will require a lot more effort for diminishing returns.  You’ll get more, it’s not a complete waste — but not as efficient as the effort spent on 80%.

When you want to change, the best way to go is to change existing or create new habits.  But there, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming an extremist/perfectionist.  You set your sight on exercising everyday, for example.  It sounds simple and clear — which gives you the illusion of being executable.  In reality, though, 100% batting average will come at a cost.  What if you get sick — or, how sick do you have to be to be excusable?  What happens during vacations?

Remember why you wanted to set the new habits.  If you’re wanting to lose weight or get in better shape, it is not only possible but sometimes encouraged to take breaks some of the days.  Sometimes you set your sight on a goal and choose the path, but then sticking to the path overtakes your vision and you forget where you’re going.

Extremism is tempting, because of its black/white simplicity.  But life is made up of shades of grey.  Embracing those shades may take actually more mental discipline than going for perfection.  The reward for your balancing act, however, is that you may enjoy more effective ROI (Return of Investment).  Extremism is hard to maintain, but it’s also hard to pick it back up once it’s broken.  You feel the devastation of broken streaks and momentum.  If you embrace 80/20, the streak is more flexible — some missed days are part of the picture already, so it doesn’t constitute a breach.  The pattern becomes more resilient.  Even if it does break, it’s easy to pick back up 80/20.  If it’s 70/30 sometimes, it’s not a big deal.  You become comfortable with the varying degree that exists in reality.

I recently converted my desk to be a standing desk.  I have been exercising regularly but I thought this would take it up a notch.  I was not in a bad shape so in a matter of days I got used to standing all day, or so I thought.  After about 4-5 weeks, I suddenly felt an acute pain in my lower back, the left side.  I have always had lower back problems but it was always on the right side.  In fact, part of the standing desk’s point was to get in a better shape and get rid of the lower back pain I experienced over the years, particularly during the colder months.

In this instance, I forgot two very important elements:

  1. My goal was to get in a better shape, and strengthen my back.
  2. Sitting or standing, human body is not meant to remain in a single position for a long time.

You see, standing all day was not the goal, getting in shape was.  And had I remembered that, I would have also realized that my back was feeling stiff from standing all day and that I should have moved more, or actually take breaks by sitting down. (gasp!)  Sitting down feels like sacrilege after going through the trouble of setting everything up for standing — but just as sitting all day is bad for me, so is standing in a same posture all day.  Standing tall is a good thing, except that human body is not designed to do so all day.

Everyday I’m faced with the degree to which our lives need to be balanced.  It’s a constant juggle.  But enforcing extremism, while its intention is admirable, spends a lot of resources on that enforcement.  Our willpower is finite.  If you have to spend it, it’s better to spend it on balancing, and not perfecting.

Photo credit: Satendra Mhatre