How to Use the 80-20 Rule Studying Medicine

Applying the 80-20 rule to studying medicine should be your ultimate goal if you’re looking to study better in a shorter amount of time.

Integrating it as a core strategy though? Involves eliminating a lot of what you might already be doing.

So it’s overwhelming to say the least!

But here’s where I think I might able to help. By giving you more information about this core principle and suggesting how you might best inject it into your medical studies.

What is The 80-20 Rule?

I’ve mentioned the 80/20 rule a couple of times before on this site – most specifically in my tips on how to study medicine more effectively. Also called the “pareto principle”, it was a rule born from the field of economics.

Simply put, the 80-20 rule states that 20% of the causes produce 80% of the effects.

To better understand, here’s a diagram taken from Wikipedia, that shows the rule applied to fundraising.

It’s a principle thought-up by Italian Vilfredo Pareto. Re-popularised by management consultant Joseph M. Juran in the 1890’s.

Today you’ll hear the pareto principle mentioned in business management-speak everywhere (I first heard it in Tim Ferriss’ book The 4 Hour Workweek). In education however, it’s only just beginning to catch on. It’s also what the current trend of microlearning hopes to capitalise on.

In sports you’ll see it when trainers say 20% of the exercises and habits have 80% of the impact. In computers when 20% of bugs fixed result in 80% less crash time. It’s simple to appreciate.

Here’s a good video that I think explains it well. Especially in terms of time and productivity – two things very close to medical students hearts!

How Does the 80-20 Rule Apply to Medical School?

Studying medicine is the perfect breeding ground for observing the pareto principle at work. Both in studies and life.

We all want to get more done in as less time as possible. And there’s always more work to be done! But oftentimes we go about it completely the wrong way.

The above video explains how most of our time is inherently wasted. Generally, when we’re sitting in class, lectures or the library, we convince ourselves we’re busy learning. But the truth is that time is spent more passively than we like to admit.

How often do we break off into daydreaming an hour into anatomy? Or think about what we’re going to eat while our class observes a patient? These are common occurrences. And ones I know I experience at least!

So the question is; how do we shift from being busy to productive?

Because doing so is much easier for our state of mind. Helps us avoid feelings of overwhelm. As well as giving us the time to do the things (hobbies, work etc) that help re-energise us or keep us afloat in the first place.

Well, the answer lies in finding that 20%. Identifying where the sweet spot is in our studies that grants us 80% of the results.

And stripping away all the rest.

Elimination Rather Than Addition

This article from the University of British Columbia talks about elimination rather than addition when applying the 80-20 rule to studying. Taking away most of the tactics and strategies we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking are useful.

In medicine, a subject dependent on book and lecture-based learning, how do we do this? Taking away resources we use to study isn’t going to be of any benefit. And we still need to commit a certain proportion of our time too.

The answer then, comes down to things:

  • How we use the time
  • What resources we use in that time

Oftentimes, in the case of the lazy medical student, it’s a battle to get ourselves motivated to study in the first place! Applying 80-20 to our study sessions, when in motion, isn’t the most difficult issue here.

But the resources we use might be. They have to be right too. Have to also employ the 80-20 principle so that we don’t spend endless amounts of hours reading over low-yield concepts unlikely to come up in exams.

Elsewhere we’re dependent on our professors and course administrators too. Who often want something done that we’d argue is unnecessary. Presentations, book exercises, pointless homework etc.

Applying the 80-20 rule here involves some caution. First you must understand what the consequence of skipping out on a class exercise or lecture might be. Then weigh up the pros and cons.

Being confident you grasp the 80-20 rule – and know how to apply it – is critical here.

Applying the Rule: Understand the Core Principles

As the above article states; “do not memorise, understand.”

This is crucial if you’re to successfully employ 80-20 in your studies. Especially when it comes to core subjects like pharmacology, physiology and anatomy.

Without a basic understanding of it? Everything else falls apart. That’s why students who memorise only the answers to questions make so much work for themselves in the long run. Time that could be easily saved by understanding why a question is right or wrong in the first place.

Striving to understand then is first pillar of pareto. Most of your efforts here count for the 20%. And can be used to infer (or guess) answers to a lot of other questions.

Case in point; knowing enough anatomy to infer the correct answer to a physiology question. And vice versa. Easily done given many of the core concepts in medicine being complimentary.

But many students often don’t recognise another basic point in studying for medicine here. One that looks like the following.

A basic understanding of lots of concepts? Better than a broad understanding of a single (or few) topics.

This is why I’m personally a big fan of using course review books with question banks. Consuming the bare minimum on a topic but practising widely in order to understand where my knowledge gaps are.

That’s also why I love First Aid for USMLE so much. It’s a comprehensive book about all the core aspects of medicine. Distilled only into the core concepts. With plenty of useful mnemonics thrown in.

But it’s also why I tend to stay away from the huge text book tomes – stuff like Lippincotts Biochemistry, Robbins Pathology and Guyton and Hall’s Physiology.

Reading these, in my opinion, works directly against 80-20. Consuming far too much of your time for far too little yield.

Applying the Rule: Familiarise Yourself with the Teaching Style

Perhaps the best way to apply 80-20 into a medical course is to pick up where your professors lead.

If they tell you something is going to show up in an exam? Best to take note of that thing and seek to understand it. Their experience and wisdom counts.

I’m not saying attend every lecture here or hang on the professors every word. But filter, through experience, what you believe are the most important things they teach. Then cross reference them with high-value sources. The sorts recommended to me by thousands of successful students before.

If your professor talks about something for a long period of time? Chances are it’s important and part of the 20%. The same goes for lecture handouts and slides etc.

Leverage your time on the 20% by using effective study techniques. Use the Cornell note-taking (questions) instead of passively underlining and highlighting things (keeps you from falling asleep too). Make flashcards that slot into a spaced repetition system. Summarise things to yourself aloud or to others.

Utilise and ringfence that time. Condense it down into an essential couple of actions. And always be wary of Parkinson’s law – “work expands to fill the time allowed”.

Otherwise you’ll constantly be working and soon get burned out.

Constantly ask yourself; “is what I’m doing/how I’m studying the most effective way right now? Could I be doing things better?”

That’s the 80-20 rule at play. It’s neglected if you don’t think about it. If you let yourself be lulled into the false sense of security (the science says the opposite) that re-copying your notes etc actually helps you retain what you study.

Attention and awareness is the first step to performing better as a student.

Examples of 80-20 in Action

As for how I see medical students being able to apply this principle more solidly to the world around them? Here are several examples.

Reading books/lecture notes:

  • Choose the best books (those built on 80-20, high-yield principles)
  • Choose the books designed to fit your desired outcome (if a professor bases their tests on a specific book etc)
  • Skim the book first; read the title, the beginning sentences and the conclusion
  • Ask yourself what you think the chapter or section is about
  • Read for a few minutes while making question-style notes
  • Close the book and summarise, in your own words (or on paper), what you just read
  • Make a commitment to revisit the concept periodically (whether in the form of a flashcard or actively recalling the answers to the questions you made)

The same format could be used for video and audio too. Although skimming and skipping around the medium is tricky.

Other general things to keep in mind;

  • Ask why the concept is important
  • What other concepts can you link it to?
  • Ask yourself what you personally feel about the concept (emotional connections aid recall)

And some more broader tips:

  • Learn to separate “core” material from the “elaborative” (are there many resources explaining something in different ways? This is most likely to be “core” – the 20%)
  • Understand textual patterns and organisation (use the search function to read digital documents and notice what they highlight/where they spend most of their time)
  • Study diagrams and graphics that summarise the information (these often distil the most important points for you)

A more controversial tactic – something that could be worth running past your professors – is to even 80-20 a subjects core syllabus.

Related article: How to Use the Pomodoro Technique in Medical School

What I mean here is to break it down into it’s more important core topics. Maybe doing this beforehand by asking your professor, if they absolutely had to, what areas of a syllabus they would eliminate if the course was maybe a month shorter.

As well as asking what areas of a curriculum they’d recommend you spend most of your efforts.

Someone on Quora even mentions dividing up subjects like chemistry and ranking its sub-topics in order of importance. So it would look something like:

  1. GENERAL ORGANIC CHEMISTRY
  2. HYDROCARBON
  3. CARBON AND ITS COMPOUND
  4. SP BLOCK
  5. MOLE CONCEPT
  6. ATOM

Suggesting you invest your effort (the 20%) on mastering topics in that order. Based on the assumption that 80% of a final exam’s questions would come from these areas.

Again the professor’s insight – or that of someone who’s previously aced the course – could help you do this.

Final Thoughts

Personally I think the 80-20 principle applies to most aspects of life. Not just the academic side of medicine.

For medical students however, especially those weighed down by the stress and strain of time, understanding it and learning how to use it is important. It can supercharge your studies. And reduce wasted effort.

But then there’s the question of the remaining 20% of the effects (assuming you’ve already achieved the 80%).

Isn’t this worth aiming for? A sign of complete mastery?

Here’s where I think you’ve got to ask yourself a serious question. Ask yourself; is it worth it?

Will I be happy I made the sacrifice of time just for an extra edge, grades-wise, over my 80% colleagues?

My personal opinion is, most of the time, it’s not worth it. Medicine is broad. And there’s lots of areas to shine.

I’d rather perform consistently across the board. Rather than shine in one area/topic of my life.

So learning to work smarter, instead of harder, seems the best approach.

The 80-20 will help you do that.