The 80/20 Rule – Spend Less Time Studying Ineffectively

The 80/20 rule is also known as Pareto’s Principle – and it applies to studying and productivity.

80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

While 80 + 20 = 100, this has nothing to do with the sum. This is just a coincidence. It could have just as easily been called the 90/20 rule. Keep this in mind as you read this post.

Car Analogy

Think about a new car with all the bells and whistles. These days, they come with detailed instruction manuals (that no one ever reads). Tesla vehicles seem to come with new features that are added with updates (I don’t own one, but that’s what I heard). Even with your own car, you just need to know enough 20% to operate it – how to get in, start the ignition, put it into drive, where the controls are, and you’re off. You don’t need to fiddle with the stereo’s equalizer, the odometer, or the glove compartment box (80% of the available features).

Smartphone Analogy

The same would apply to using a smartphone. You don’t need to learn and customize all the features to be able to use an iPhone right away. You learn how to use 20% of an iPhone to get 80% of the benefits. If you know how to text, you’ll know how to use a new group text app. If you are familiar with FaceTime, you’ll be able to figure out how to use Zoom.

Other Examples

Remember to not think of this rule in terms of adding to 100%.

  • 20% of the world has 80% of the wealth.
  • You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.
  • You use 20% of your smartphone apps 80% of the time.
  • You see 20% of your friends 80% of the time.


The same applies to studying. Your textbook, for example – contains a lot of information, which is great to know, but not necessary to learn important concepts. You probably know from previous exams that teachers won’t test on “everything” in the chapters and thought “geez, I over studied or spent too much time on this and it wasn’t even tested on.”

In fact, with occupational therapy – it’s even more different than other classes and programs because of the emphasis on critical thinking and clinical reasoning.

Learning the code of ethics (20%) allows you to apply this concept to 80% of situations.

Sure, with some classes such as anatomy you may think you have to rely on memorizing to do well in this class. However, the 80/20 rule also applies in a way. Back then, people did not come up with random names for body parts – there was often a meaning or a pattern behind it. Remember, humans like to find and use patterns and can be actually quite lazy. That’s why we have habits and routines. If our routine was different every day, can you imagine how difficult life may be? We would have to think a lot more about it and that could lead to things being missed or not being done.

If you think about language and how it applies to an anatomy course, taking the time to learn medical terminology (prefixes, suffixes, root words, patterns) will enable you to use context and figure out what 80% of terms mean.

Pre- means before.

So using the 20% of what you know for ‘pre-‘, you can apply it to 80% of the words out there!

  • Prehypertension
  • Preterm labor
  • Preeclampsia
  • Preemie
  • Premalignant
  • Premature contraction
  • Preoperative


Of course, you can always split hairs and definite what the 20% is based on how specific you want to get. Is it 20% of the book? of the chapter? of a section?

Don’t worry or get caught up in these distinctions. It’s more important to read or to study what your professor emphasizes.

Also, this rule does not apply to every case. If you read 20% of a novel, you won’t be able to know the end! If a teacher were to test you on the novel, they would probably ask about the most important plot points.

So while we are not saying to read 20% of the chapter, this rule especially applies more to students who “over-study” or spend a lot of time stressing about learning everything.

Ineffective Study Methods

Study tips that may not be as effective include:

  • Re-reading entire chapters
  • Over-highlighting (more than 20% of content – it just becomes the entire chapter at that point)
  • Summarizing entire chapters (e.g., writing it down on paper)
  • Even flashcards that are great for studying can be used incorrectly – you should not be putting everything on flashcards.

What Professors and Test Makers are Doing

Everyone is probably following the 80/20 rule themselves (whether they know it or not).

Professors have to choose what to test you on as well. They may not have a lot of time themselves to read everything and are also limited by how long you have to take an exam and number of questions asked. So they are not asking 100% of the information. Professors recall what they have from their own memory or written in their own notes, and you can probably guess that they did not take notes on 100% of everything. Professors have to choose the most important facts and concepts to test you on.

Math is a great example of this.

Teachers will teach a concept, such as long division. Once you know how solve 20% correctly, all the extra problems are just for practice. Once you know how to solve them correctly 100% of the time, you don’t really need to solve more while the concept is still fresh in your memory.

Okay, what about the NBCOT?

The 80/20 rule also applies in this case. You have several hours to take it and there are only a certain number (although a lot more than a regular school exam) of questions. So you can guess they are not going to test you on the most important concepts from each topic.

Why do I think students fail? In my opinion, they are probably underprepared and did not study/review enough (overconfident) or over-memorize specific facts or even concepts, but do not understand the “big picture”. Even I got asked some specifics on things I never even heard about in OT school — you will probably get asked on topics you never learned about too (but don’t panic). I had to rely on context and the concepts that I knew to the question to make a good educated guess on something I never even heard of.

What’s on the Exam? (OT School and NBCOT)

  • What’s talked about, discussed, or emphasized on homework or assignments by a teacher or for the NBCOT – exam prep books and study groups of students who passed.
  • The longer the time (proportion) a professor spends on a topic, the more important it is.
  • The more a topic is talked about by students in study groups, the more important it is (unless the whole group got distracted and went on a tangent or random rabbit hole – stick with the syllabus or study guide).
  • What about beginning vs. middle vs. end of lectures? There is no hard rule for this as some professors may structure their lectures differently. Some may like to “cram” more content at the end of lectures until time runs out, but you may have experienced when sometimes teachers did not have enough time to teach a certain concept. What ends up happening? The test is usually pushed back or the concept will be tested on in the next exam.

What NOT to do

  • Reading 20% of the assigned reading
  • Taking notes for 20% of the lecture

The bottom line is to learn the concepts that are most important and not to memorize everything.

How to spend your TIME

For occupational therapy students, pre-OT, and students studying for the NBCOT.

Time is your limiting factor when you take a class compared to self-learning (where there is not exam date or deadline). Sure you can push your NBCOT date back (because it’s up to you), but statistically, students generally are able to pass from studying for about a month.

So you have to allocate your time effectively.

You don’t want to spend all your time reading and memorizing an exam prep book and not leave any time for other crucial components such as taking practice questions. Many students have taken say 20 / 30 / 40 % of the practice questions in a bank and passed, because after a certain point the test bank tests the same concepts.

You Just Need to Pass

In reality, you don’t need a 100% or to get a perfect on the board exam. While we often strive for the best, just being good enough may be all you need. Sure, if you are behind on your exams and need to bring your average up, then every point counts. However, this situation could easily be prevented because you can notice you are not doing well early on and correct it.

With something like the board exam, you either fail or not – the first time, 2nd time, and so on. There are no test averages.

It may just involve you failing the first time, but that can offer you a lot of insight into how you studied the first time (where you spent most of your time studying), and how you can improve the next time – such as the use of other studying materials and methods.

Never use the same approach or study materials as the last time if you are re-testing and did not do well the last time.

How do you avoid failing the first time on the NBCOT? That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t know. However, what I do notice on study groups is that students who eventually pass mention a combination of study tools. You never see students say “I passed studying from only using this 1 exam book”. On the other side of this, you of course want to avoid overwhelming yourself with study materials as well.

To get the biggest advantage, apply the 80/20 to multiple learning opportunities and methods:

    • Lectures
    • Textbook
    • Office hour
    • Practice problems
    • Group studying
    • Flashcards
    • Video
    • Podcast
    • Teaching back

Happy studying!