A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
8 minute read
Starting your first semester as an assistant professor is like jumping on a moving train. Not only do you have to learn a host of new skills you weren’t taught during your PhD, that tenure clock starts ticking right away. By the time classes begin, many faculty already feel like they’re behind. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work you’re expected to accomplish each semester; if you’re wondering how you’ll ever find the time and energy to produce the high-quality, original research you need for a stellar tenure file; if you’re exhausted and worried you’re not cut out for academia: fear not! You can succeed as an early-career academic without sacrificing work-balance by learning how to use the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule–also known as Pareto Principle, after economist Vilfredo Pareto–says that, for any given event or activity, 80% of outcomes result from 20% of causes. In other words, outputs are not proportional to inputs. A small proportion of causes, inputs, or efforts generates the majority of outcomes, outputs, or results.
Though the 80/20 rule is not an exceptionless law, it identifies a systematic pattern: causes and consequences are “predictably unbalanced.” Pareto discovered this systematic disproportionality by studying the distribution of wealth in Italy: 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth. Upon further investigation, he found this pattern of imbalance in other countries at other times. Wherever and whenever he looked, 80% of wealth was held by 20% of the population.
It turns out that a wide variety of phenomena follow a similar power law distribution. In business, 80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers. In manufacturing, 80% of defects are caused by 20% of problems in the production process. In finance, 80% of returns come from 20% of investments (and 80% of losses come from 20% of investments). On the road, 80% of accidents are caused by 20% of drivers. And so on.
Sometimes, the disproportionality is even more extreme. One study found that just 1.3% of movies produced 80% of box-office revenue!
We tend to think that each hour of work contributes equally to what we produce. This way of thinking suggests that our accomplishments are proportional to our efforts. But the Pareto Principle indicates that this is unlikely. In fact, some hours matter more than others. For example, if you spend 60 hours writing a grant application, it is likely that 80% of the application was produced by only 12 hours of work! After your 12 most productive hours, you reach the point of diminishing marginal returns: all else being equal, each additional hour of reading and writing yields smaller increases in quantity and quality.
Similarly, you might think that the way to succeed on the tenure track is to work non-stop: every hour gets you one step closer to tenure, right? The reality is more complicated. Some hours of work get you one step closer to tenure, but others barely move you an inch. In all likelihood, roughly 20% of the time you spend working produces 80% of the achievements that will matter most for your tenure file. What this means is that the majority of your working hours contribute very little to getting you the kinds of outcomes (good publications, strong teaching evaluations, valuable professional connections, etc.) that you need to become an associate professor.
Applying the 80/20 rule to your research, teaching, and service responsibilities means identifying the activities that are most impactful (for most tenure-track faculty, research matters most for tenure and promotion), and the working hours that are your most productive, and prioritizing both.
For example, suppose you’re a morning person who thinks and works best between the hours of 8:00am and 12:00pm. These are the “vital few” hours you should protect for the “vital few” activities that generate 80% of the outcomes that comprise the most significant contributions to your dossier. After noon, each hour of effort is less impactful. You should devote these hours to less important (but still necessary) work such as lesson planning, email, and administrative tasks. These are the “trivial many” that collectively contribute very little to earning tenure at most institutions.
Moreover, if mornings are your most productive hours, the Pareto Principle also suggests that it would be unwise to burn the midnight oil: not only are your evening hours much less productive than your morning hours, if you don’t take time to rest, your most productive morning hours will be less so. Instead of working more and achieving less (being less productive in the evenings and mornings), wouldn’t you rather work less and achieve more (resting in the evenings and working hard before noon)? This is exactly what the 80/20 principle recommends.
One of the biggest mistakes that I see early-career faculty making (and one that I made myself) is devoting too much time and energy to the 80% of activities that matter least for promotion and tenure (e.g., giving their most productive hours to email and meetings, spending too much time on lesson planning and grading, overcommitting to service), and cramming research into spare moments between these (evenings, weekends, holidays, etc.). This approach inevitably leads to long hours, zero work-life balance, and ultimately burnout. It also means that you’re investing least in the activities that will actually get you tenure.
So, it might feel like working 60+ hours per week is necessary to earn tenure when, in fact, those hours are either unnecessary or counterproductive: you could work less and have a tenure file that is just as strong or stronger by using the 80/20 rule to align your priorities with your most-important outcomes.
Knowing how to apply the 80/20 rule is crucial to achieving work-life balance in academia. Faculty who use the Pareto Principle know how to prioritize their activities to produce the best results. They also know how to recognize the point of diminishing marginal returns and how to let go when enough is enough.
The 80/20 rule provides a heuristic that can help you decide how to use your limited time and energy across a range of professional activities:
Most faculty already know (at least implicitly) that “keeping up with the literature” is a great way to feel productive while avoiding working on the paper you ought to be writing. But the Pareto Principle indicates that even some of the reading and research you deem necessary is less important than you think. Now, I am not advocating for shoddy research practices here; clearly, conducting a thorough literature search and reading publications in your area is important. Nevertheless, if only 20% of the literature really matters for the most significant outcomes of your research, you have a reason to be highly strategic about how much time you devote to these activities.
Many faculty want their manuscripts to be perfect (or as close to perfect as possible). However, the logic of the 80/20 rule suggests that only about 20% of the time you spend revising, editing, and proofreading is responsible for most of the quality of your manuscript. Doing more than is required to produce those improvements has a high opportunity cost: you could be working on another project, or taking some much needed time off. So Pareto says: Quit dilly dallying and submit that paper already! (Or consider hiring a developmental editor, who can support your writing and publishing goals while saving you a ton of time.)
Instead of wearing yourself out by attending every professional conference and workshop in your discipline or area of specialization (this is both costly and time-consuming), identify the 20% of events that generate the best feedback and the most valuable professional connections and forgo the rest. Enduring FOMO will be worth it in the long run.
When it comes to getting tenure, some publications matter more than others. For example, original, first-author research published in reputable peer-reviewed journals matters much more than encyclopedia entries or chapters in edited volumes. On a long list of publications comprising both types of publications (peer reviewed and invited), only a small fraction of them move the tenure and promotion needle at most institutions. It can be tempting to accept every publication opportunity, and pursue a wide variety of research projects, but the Pareto Principle indicates that your time is better spent focusing on the vital few publications that matter most for tenure.
Rather than spending countless hours preparing your lectures or lessons, the 80/20 rule suggests that 20% of your preparation produces 80% of your students’ learning experiences. It is likely that you could cut your prep time in half without making it any difference in the classroom. Do it!
The Pareto Principle indicates that most of your feedback produces very little student learning, and that just a few, well chosen comments help your students make significant improvements. Instead of providing a barrage of comments on students’ essays or exams, identify the 20% of feedback that each student will benefit from the most. (Read my post on how to provide feedback more efficiently here.)
Getting tenure isn’t easy. Given this, most assistant professors think that the only way to succeed on the tenure track is by working around the clock. But faculty who use the 80/20 rule know that you can get better results by working smarter, not harder. The 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle says that, for any given event or activity, roughly 80% of results come from 20% of causes. (NB: sometimes the imbalance is even more extreme.)
This means that you can achieve the same outcomes with much less time and effort. Tenure-track faculty who identify and prioritize the 20% of activities that produce 80% of their tenurable outcomes are just as (if not more) likely to achieve their professional goals as those who pursue tenure by working long hours non-strategically.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and aren’t sure if you’ll make it to the end of the semester, my advice to you is this: focus on the vital few, minimize the trivial many, and use the time you would have otherwise spent working to nurture and grow your non-work life.