“Let no act be done without purpose.” - Marcus Aurelius

While living our incredible busy, alarmingly finite lives we must be sure to use our time efficiently and effectively. This has been the focus of my study over the past few months as I have read anything I can get my hands on regarding the most important of topics, learning how to learn. I have found my efforts most rewarding while studying the works of Timothy Ferriss and Josh Waitzkin.

Author of best-selling books The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef, Timothy Ferriss breaks down the learning process and gives his readers the tools to acquire any new skill through effective and intelligently directed effort. One of the major concepts that his work has brought to light is the Pareto principle.

The Pareto principle states that for many events roughly 80% of the results comes from 20% of the causes.

This means that 80% of our growth in a specific skill can usually be attributed to only about 20% of our effort. With our time and energy being finite, we must emphasize the most productive 20% of our time, and remove the remaining 80% for more productive uses.

In The Art of Learning, author Josh Waitzkin details his learning process that has led to winning multiple world championships in chess and martial arts. Waitzkin stresses that in learning chess he began not at the beginning like most, but in learning the end game. Starting with piece configurations as simple as a king and pawn vs. a lone king, he learned the concepts that could be applied in all situations. Compared to the common strategy of focusing on openings as a beginner, in which the knowledge gained was limited to the early stage of the game, his understanding of the fundamental concepts of the endgame transferred to all areas of chess. This is a perfect example of the Pareto principle in which gains are maximized through learning concepts that do not exist in isolation, but that can be applied over a wide array of subjects.

Upon studying my own habits in martial arts, strength training, and general acquisition of knowledge, I found the Pareto principle to hold true. In jiu jitsu I found it amazing how I could gain more in 5 minutes from a properly directed question than the act of simply just training intensely for 2 hours. This being a prime example that sheer effort is not enough:

Our efforts must be intelligently directed and with purpose.

In strength training no amount of complementary movements can ever replace a basic foundational lift, such as a deadlift. I have found a few sets of heavy deadlifts to be more fruitful than a plethora of seemingly “alternative” lifts for the same function. My journals have showed greater strength gains from 2 sets of deadlifts with NO other movements compared to performing workouts of up to 15 sets for the similar function of hip extension with various exercises. This decrease of training volume of nearly 90%, while still improving strength, results in having much more energy for my jiu jitsu training (the sole reason why I’m strength training in the first place).

I have always tried to stress the importance of purpose with my students in their jiu jitsu training. Every action should have a reason behind it. One mustn’t move simply to move. There should be a clear, definitive purpose behind said movement. This idea can, and must be applied to all of our actions.

Spark Your Growth

To accomplish any task we must:

1. Set clearly defined goals.

If we do not have a definitive aim for our actions, we will aimlessly act hoping our actions by chance parallel our desires. This is not enough. Our time is too short for such a simplistic mode of thinking. We must know what we are aiming at, and the more specific the goal the higher the chance of attainment becomes.

2. Apply the Pareto principle.

Once you have an aim, your actions must be efficient. Look deeply at all of your efforts and analyze just how productive these actions are. Spend your time in the most valuable of activities, and eliminate anything that is not effectively taking you closer to your goal relative to its time/energy consumption.

3. Consistent Effort.

Now that you have a clear goal, and clear action plan in mind, it is simply a matter of accumulating the hours of work necessary to achieve it. Using the analogy of sailing, you have determined your destination (Clearly Defined Goal), and you have acquired your vessel and proficient crew members (Pareto principle). All that is left is to sail!

Henry David Thoreau said it best..

"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor."

With intelligently directed effort you can accomplish anything.