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Why We Should All Be Living By The 80/20 Rule

Marika Lindholm, Ph.D.
February 4, 2017
Marika Lindholm, Ph.D.
By Marika Lindholm, Ph.D.
mbg Contributor
Marika Lindholm, Ph.D., is the founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere). She has a master's and Ph.D. in Sociology from SUNY, Stonybrook.
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February 4, 2017

Most of us understand the fundamentals of well-being: sleep eight hours a night, eat nutritious meals, hydrate with water instead of caffeine or sugary drinks, and exercise regularly. It sounds so easy, yet despite our best intentions, many of us struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. How many times have you given up on a wellness goal because it was not only boring, but it felt like punishment?

While deciding to never eat pasta again might be a wonderful health goal, we should think about what that does to our psyche. For most of us, wellness can't be an all-or-nothing proposition, and trying to turn it into one makes us feel restricted and sets us up for failure. Sure, some folks might be able to say no to chocolate for the rest of their lives, but most of us aren't willing to make that sacrifice.

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So instead of aiming for short-term, stringent health and fitness goals, let's integrate wellness choices and habits that will last. Here's where the 80/20 rule—80 percent healthy living and 20 percent indulgence can help. If 80 percent of the time you practice a healthy routine, and 20 percent of the time you allow yourself a few indulgences, the net result is a healthier, happier you!

Is the 80/20 rule really effective?

Here's how the 80/20 rule works. Imagine that you usually drink two sugary, caffeinated sodas a day. A focus on 20 percent indulgence would mean that instead of 14 sodas a week, you aim for less than three, which is pretty attainable and after a while, the soda probably won't taste that good to you anyway. The same goes for healthy meals. On average, we eat 21 meals each week. So if you focus on eating ideal meals 80 percent of the time, then four of your meals can be more indulgent—without the drama and guilt of most standard diets.

Research has shown that living this way can be effective for diets, exercise routines, and health resolutions that often only work in the short term. We often fail to sustain our health goals because they stem from a place of deprivation and punishment. It's one thing to drop 5 pounds or commit to a no-sugar diet for a few months, but it's unrealistic (and no fun) to imagine the rest of your life feeling deprived of the indulgences that surround us. It's better to strike a balance; I use chocolate as a reward on the weekends and it's so much easier to say "no thank you" when you know that an indulgence is just around the corner.

Here are 10 tips to stay motivated

If you plan to try the 80/20 route to wellness, keep in mind that you'll need to stay motivated even if you don't see immediate results. We've all been there, fired up to make a positive change only to find our excitement and motivation slowly wane. Here are 10 tips to ensure you stay on the path toward optimal health:

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1. Take notes.

During the transition to an 80/20 lifestyle, it's useful to write out your primary health goals and then keep notes on the ratios you've achieved. It could be as simple as charting days of exercise or hours of sleep. Keeping a record will help you stay motivated and give you a clear picture of how you are doing.

2. "Eat your biggest frog first."

This saying—from none other than Mark Twain—means tackling your most challenging goal first. For some, it's establishing an exercise routine; for others, it's cutting down on sugar and red meat. Attack one goal first, gain some confidence, and then integrate other wellness goals into your daily routine.

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3. Team up.

Join forces with a friend or family member who is also interested in making a lifestyle change. Inspire each other to stay on track; collaboration and competition are wonderful motivators.

4. Advertise your plan.

Don't keep your 80/20 lifestyle goal a secret. Tell anyone and everyone! If family, friends, and co-workers know, you'll gain both social encouragement and feel a little bit more pressure to stay on your new path.

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5. Dedicate your journey.

You can further motivate yourself to stick with this change by making it in honor of a loved one. Dedicating your lifestyle changes to a close family member will give meaning to your journey and reduce the likelihood that you will give up on achieving your healthy ratio.

6. Use your indulgences as rewards for a job well done.

It's a great feeling when you've integrated clean living into your routine to the extent that you don't consider one night of indulgence with friends or family as a setback. Strict routines will make you feel guilty for "cheating" by eating ice cream or mac 'n' cheese—but not so much with the 80/20 plan. Instead, these indulgences are a reward for a healthy stretch and a job well done.

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7. Be ready to succeed.

Psychological research shows that if you expect to fail, you will. By contrast, if you visualize and expect success, it's likely that you will also experience it. The good news is that once you're eating, drinking, and sleeping well 80 percent of the time, you will feel and see the health benefits of your new lifestyle and be less likely to slide into bad habits. And if you do—no big deal! Just chalk that up to a 20 percent indulgence and keep moving.

8. Don't overdo it.

Too often, we get psyched for a change and charge forward without restraint. This is especially true with exercise programs. How many times have you decided to push yourself, only to become injured or exhausted? Use the 80/20 rule to your advantage. If you decide to use the elliptical trainer or start yoga classes, begin with 80 percent effort and build up. For example, every 10 days be sure to take two days off for recovery, because exercising every day will lead to burnout and exhaustion. Health is a marathon, not a sprint.

9. Sidestep perfectionism.

The 80/20 rule allows you to avoid the unrealistic expectations that often make us feel like failures. Don't get hung up on the fact that one night you didn't get eight hours of sleep. It's OK. Avoiding bad habits most of the time is a huge step toward well-being!

10. Find joy in your new routine.

Pick an exercise routine that works for you. Cook your favorite healthy food choices. Pick and choose indulgences that make you the happiest. Appreciate the bounty of eating well, exercise, and sleep—then note the positive impact on your brain and body. Clean living with an indulgence here and there will allow for a lifestyle that's doable, fun, and full of physical and psychological benefits.

If you've struggled to fully integrate a wellness routine, it's time to try the 80/20 rule. Incorporating a framework for long-term health promises you a life well-lived without resentment or regret. So go for it!

Marika Lindholm, Ph.D.
Marika Lindholm, Ph.D.

Marika Lindholm, Ph.D., is the founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), a website that aims to redefine single motherhood by providing resources, inspiration, and a point of connection for the underserved community of Solo Moms.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Lindholm moved to New York City with her parents when she was a young child. Always fascinated by civil rights, women’s rights, and global issues, she realized when she took a sociology class that she could blend her passion with a profession. This awareness led Lindholm to take on graduate studies at SUNY, Stony Brook, where she received her master's and Ph.D. in Sociology. She spent the next 13 years at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, teaching classes focused on issues of inequality, diversity, and gender.

During her time at Northwestern, Lindholm became a Solo Mom. Newly divorced with two young children, she was inspired to build a digital resource that could help women raising kids on their own. Spurred by this new challenge she used her skill set as a sociologist, researching, conducting focus groups, and talking to Solo Moms to gain insight into their lives. The results of her inquiry made clear that women parenting alone wanted and needed support, community, and resources, eventually leading to the creation of ESME.

Lindholm is now remarried and living in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to overseeing ESME, she runs an organic farm with grapes, apples, chickens and 350,000 bees and is the mother of a blended family of 5 children, including 2 daughters that she and her husband adopted internationally.