Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 Jun

Dear Mark: 80/20 Revisited

Since our original 80/20 post a few weeks ago, I’ve gotten a slew of questions and comments from readers. Many tell me how much they love the concept. It’s a feature that makes the PB possible for them. Others suggest that it leaves too much room for backsliding. Finally, some readers have either offered their own interpretations of the principle or asked what it should mean in their daily life. Thanks to everyone for their feedback on this one (and all other posts of course). While I loved writing The Primal Blueprint, I can’t imagine it without the experience and ever-evolving discussion of this blog. Let’s roll up the sleeves and dig in deeper with this one.

First, let’s review. (I know we’re adding new folks all the time.) The 80/20 principle suggests this: in the context of full and earnest commitment, an overall 80% conformity with the 10 Primal Blueprint rules will yield a solidly healthy result.

It’s obviously a general principle and as such is intended to mean different things to different people. Let’s first throw out a few things that the principle doesn’t endorse. It doesn’t mean getting 20% of your calories from ice cream and the other 80% from meats and salads. Likewise, it isn’t intended as a “get-out-of-Primal-free card” for flocking to grains, skimping on fat or protein, or ignoring a continuing sleep deficit, etc. It doesn’t mean working out 10 months of the year and then taking 2 months off to veg on the couch. It doesn’t mean picking your favorite 8 of the 10 PB laws and scrapping the other two. The 80/20 principle isn’t about “cheating” 20% of the time.

In short, it’s a rule of thumb to keep people sane. It’s a feature that makes the PB a fully achievable, continuing lifestyle that reconciles with the grind and disruptions of daily life. But here come the logical questions. Does it mean living 100% Primal 80% of the time or living 80% Primal 100% of the time? Although one of those descriptions might accurately describe how things go in a given week for you, I would suggest that the principle isn’t meant to be a rigid, stagnant formula or manipulated ratio.

It’s a recognition that life isn’t totally predictable and that we’re not in Grok’s Kansas anymore. It encourages folks to focus on the process and not simply the daily details. It’s about treating people like adults in the real world rather than non-thinking subjects in a paternalistic trial. The Primal Blueprint is first and foremost about taking full responsibility for your life and health. No excuses, no guilt. You won’t be thrown off the island if you choose to partake of a few holiday favorites or skip a workout to attend a friend’s wedding.

However, let me be clear about this side as well. It isn’t about only shooting for 80%, and there’s nothing wrong with achieving 100%. If you set out to make your Primal commitment 80%, guess what. It will likely fall below that. If you set out to make your commitment 100%, you’ll probably settle in somewhere between 80-95% based on where you’re at in the PB transition.

Let me put it this way. The 80/20 principle is an acknowledgment that we’re adults who take full responsibility for every choice but occasionally find ourselves in circumstances that don’t allow 100% Primal or in situations for which we knowingly accept reasonable, conscious compromises. Think of it as cushion, not cop-out, not convenience. As I mentioned last time, give your PB plan 100%, and understand it’s O.K. when daily life somewhat moderates the overall picture. Primal success is less about what you do at any one meal or single bout at the gym and more about what you do over the course of a given week or month.

For some people and some circumstances, it’s a matter of feasibility. Travel doesn’t always present the most ideal Primal options. A difficult period in your life (death or serious illness in the family, new baby, etc.) may temporarily moderate your focus or ability to do all the good things you normally incorporate into your routine. And in the more minor elements of the PB, it can be a question of access. I know not everyone has ready access to or the money for grass-fed beef, pastured butter, all organic produce, or a wide diversity of produce year round. Sometimes you just have to do the best you can. It’s not a question of motivation or commitment here but the influence of external conditions.

For others, it’s a matter of conscious indulgence. Perhaps you’re on vacation (whether it be Thailand or New Orleans) and really want the experience of sampling the local cuisine. For you, it’s part of the adventure. You authentically choose within the 80/20 principle to make the most of your hard earned adventure. (Personally, this is my favorite manifestation of the principle.) Maybe it’s a special anniversary or family gathering. You don’t use the situation as an excuse to wildly abandon all PB commitment. You loosen the strings enough to find the best balance between experience and health.

Let me say, too, that the 80/20 principle is often most relevant and valuable during people’s transition to the PB. As many of you mentioned, it was the part that made you believe you could take on this lifestyle for the long haul. As the PB cements itself in your routine, it generally becomes easier (and more desirable) to live well above that 80%. Does this apply to me? Sure. I’ve obviously been doing this for a while now, and most months I’d put myself well above 80% in nutrition and exercise. The PB comes naturally for me now because my entire lifestyle revolves around it. My family and many good friends are living the same kind of choices. It’s so much a part of my routine that I don’t often think about it except when I travel.

But keep in mind that the Primal Blueprint encompasses more than nutrition and fitness. For some of us, these are the things that come easily. I’m probably at close to 100% on those aspects most of the time, but I’m still working on the stress bit. If you’re in the midst of big life transitions, that might be the hard part. New job, long distance move, new child? Speaking of children, maybe your biggest challenge is sleep.

In comments and emails, many of you shared personal choices and life/job circumstances that shaped the 80/20 picture for you. As reader Adam suggested, it might mean 70/30 over the holidays but 90% other times. It’s a fluid number. As for what that 20% means, some of you plan out indulgences for special occasions. Others say you take life as it comes and worry a plan might encourage you to go overboard. Some of you mentioned that what fell into the 20% years or months earlier when they began the PB isn’t the same as what they’d put in that category now.

The feedback and stories got me thinking. How do our readers use the 80/20 principle to strike the best balance for themselves? How about a poll? Feel free to share all your thoughts, of course, but here are a couple questions for everyone:

Do you tend to be a fairly steady 80/20, or does the 20% more often reflect occasional circumstances (holidays, life/family commitments)?

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Which of the Primal Blueprint laws most often fall into your 20%?

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As always, thanks for reading, and keep the questions and comments coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Clark, Laurie,

    Yes, it can be a little confusing, considering 80 and 20 are used both in the Pareto principle and the 80% rule I use in The Primal Blueprint; which is one of the reasons I dedicated 2 posts to the the topic. My 80% rule is about doing your best and realizing that not being 100% compliant can be ok in many cases. Sure, the Pareto principle, adds another helpful nuance to the discussion. Additionally, I often say:

    Eighty percent of your ability to reduce excess body fat is determined by
    how you eat, with the other 20 percent depending on proper exercise,
    other healthy lifestyle habits, and genetic factors.

    Thank you for your thoughts/comments. I appreciate them. Cheers!

    Mark Sisson wrote on July 6th, 2009
  2. I’m just so OVER putting a ton of effort into managing my food and exercise. PB is my default. But if my friends all decide to go eat at Old Spaghetti Factory, or my fiancée and I want to curl up on a cold winter’s night with a cup of cocoa, I’m not going to worry about it. It doesn’t kill me, my weight, or my routine. I just want to life my life happily. I also refuse to call my dark chocolate, dairy, or bananas “cheats.” I’m not cheating anything or anybody! I’m still getting vital healthy nutrients and fats when I eat those things! I don’t eat them in copious amounts and I don’t want to. So they aren’t cheats or even indulgences. Just variety. So that’s my take on the 80/20. I know I’m doing good on PB. I see it and feel it and that’s all that matters to me.

    Lori B. wrote on August 10th, 2010
  3. very new here and its all interesting.

    right now I don’t do breads but have 2 tortillas a week (corn, I was hoping a slice of homemade wheat bread would be okay, but apparently its not.

    saw that flan made with almond milk, so thats cool..
    is there a newbie area? that would be cool to meet people rotating into this as well and track our results/support each other…just an idea..Matt

    Matt wrote on July 20th, 2011
    • I didn’t bother to check the date of the post before I commented, so I’m not exactly timely…ah, well. I agree that a forum or something for newbies would be great! I would love to talk with others and compare notes, plans, recipes, and ideas…great suggestion!

      Gandeida wrote on September 16th, 2011
  4. I’d always want to be update on new articles on this web site , saved to favorites ! .

    Herbert Therien wrote on August 29th, 2011
  5. Well, I’m am just starting to ramp up to this lifestyle that I eventually want to embrace. As a single mother with three kids, though, I certainly can’t afford to just chuck a bunch of food out and start over.

    I have committed to eating properly for breakfast and lunch during the work week, and then I am trying to use up the foods or ingredients that I will no longer stock slowly in the evenings and on the weekends.

    What I made last night was 2 of the breaded MorningStar Farms chik’n patties, and split those up on four big yummy salads. I had to go with the Ranch on hand, but I definitely plan to try Mark’s recipe once we’ve used up the dressings I already have. Not a huge change, but I eliminated the buns, and probably chips or fries that I would have served, so I feel good about that meal.

    Anyway, I’m probably closer to 50/50 right now, but it’s going to take me some time to plan the changes in our lives slowly and steadily. I feel like I’ll have a better chance of success if I can incorporate the changes incrementally…I am 100% determined to succeed as well if that counts :-)

    Gandeida wrote on September 16th, 2011
  6. 100%
    Go big or go home

    CRO-MAGNON wrote on November 9th, 2011
  7. I thought the 80/20 concept was that 80% of the results come from diet, and 20% from your workout routine. My diet and workouts both conform to the 10 rules all the time. Math is hard.

    Pat wrote on June 23rd, 2012

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