The 80/20 Principle: When 20 Inches Toward 40

Among the many defining – and practical – tenets of the Primal Blueprint is the good old 80/20 Principle, the guideline that suggests we needn’t be 100% perfect 100% of the time to achieve great Primal health. It’s the sensible caveat, a functional motivator, the saving grace for many of us. It means we don’t guilt ourselves (or hand down punishing cardio sentences) when we indulge on a special occasion or get caught in circumstances that don’t allow for fully Primal conditions. It means shedding the traditional view of a “diet” and exercise program as a select list of actions we either ace or bomb. As I’ve said many a time, the PB doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Finally, the 80/20 Principle encourages us to wholly own every choice and respect the impact of our total lifestyle within our personal Primal commitments. An immensely empowering – but sometimes challenging – feature of the Primal Blueprint is its subjectivity. Although it offers plenty of solid guidelines, tips, lists and recipes (not to mention an incredible community of fellow adherents!), the day-in-day-out isn’t regimented into a set of check-off boxes. Bringing your honest intentions and Primal lens to each choice is usually enough to stay on track. While your Primal perspective each day is an earnest 100%, the practical execution trends toward 80% for most people, especially those new to the PB. But what happens when focus temporarily wanes or life circumstances become – well – more imperfectly “real”? How do you push back on the tendency of 80/20 to creep toward lesser ratios?

How It Happens

Life has a funny way of shifting the routine just when we get secure and comfortable. A new baby, a new job, a move, an illness, an injury, maybe just a month when the schedule picks up can throw a serious wrench in your finely tuned Primal practice. These transitions, whether they overhaul life or just make for some bumps in the road, shift everyday routines enough that suddenly the old schedule and habits don’t apply.

What used to be a “fallback” 20% gradually, insidiously gravitates toward 30%, even 40%. Instead of a margin of error, the concept of 20% takes on a new life of its own. Practical contingency gives way to self-justification. And so the cycle continues…. Primal focus and/or motivation wane, practical planning apparatus isn’t maintained, and daily habits begin to shift.

Maybe you used to make more elaborate Primal meals for lunch or dinner, but now can’t find the time. Perhaps you gave up your gym membership to save some hard earned money each month and now you struggle to get motivated enough for full workouts at home. You might have done a CSA last season, but chose not to participate this year and now feel wholly uninspired by the produce at the grocery store. A new job might include enough travel that you’re facing new challenges to keep up on your Primal eating, workouts and sleep. Maybe you moved to be closer to family, but now host so much that your meals mirror their tastes more than your Primal interests. Maybe you just feel like you’re in an overall slump and have been reverting lately to old pre-Primal habits.

How to Spot It

You might not realize you’re backsliding until you’ve been going that direction for a while. For some folks, the scale (or your trouser button) is the first to offer the suggestion. For others, it’s a delayed return to the gym only to find a downgrade on the lifting ability or new found post-workout soreness. There’s a million ways to take your Primal temperature, and I’d venture to say that most of us do it in some form consciously or unconsciously. Maybe just forgetting to do exactly that– or avoiding it – is indicator #1 that you’re indeed backsliding.

Do you find yourself more tired in the afternoon? Are you craving carbs suddenly? What’s your workout schedule these days? If you made a food journal, would you be afraid to read it? Do you ultimately feel like you’ve been investing in yourself lately? Where have things fallen short? Where have they stayed strong? Finally, what’s behind the change? Sometimes all it takes is some honest questioning. You just have to be willing to face the music.

How to Rein It In

So, how can 30 or 40 become 20 again? If you’ve been there before, trust that it will be easier to make it back than you think. The hard part will be shifting course. Once you start steering in the right direction and rebuild momentum, you’re good to go. Your Primal template might not look the same when you’re done (a good thing), but you’ll re-experience the advantages and wonder why you ever backslid in the first place.

The crux of the solution here is realizing what exactly needs to change. Life circumstances shift, and our routines need to transform with them. The Blueprint can be easily refitted to do exactly that. Whether the 30-40 lapse is related to a temporary disruption or a longer-term shift, it’s time for a healthy – and, I’d argue, periodically necessary – Primal renovation, so to speak. Choose your own metaphor: makeover, revolution, reconstruction, molting, what have you.

Examine your routine and see what still works – what fits your lifestyle and maintains your motivation. Then look at what needs a substitution, and lay out a plan for yourself. If it’s your schedule that’s got you struggling, consider the Primal for Busy People approach – food, weight loss, workout, sleep and stress management, and socialization.

Check out our past tips, and our good readers’ comments. If travel has you grappling for Primal ideas, brainstorm your plan of attack next time you have to head out into the wild blue yonder – with some help for how to forage in less desirable territory, and get a Primal worthy workout in the modest space of that beloved Microtel.

If the 20% drifted into higher territory because of motivation issues, it’s time to shake up your Primal life and get out of the box it’s narrowed to. Skip the gym and head out into the world. Go for broke with new recipes. Get out and play! Make your goal this: have some fun. Design a weekend’s Primal adventure – whether it’s in the kitchen, the mountains or your backyard. Go whole hog, and see how it makes you feel.

Finally, sometimes a brief lapse or longer slump suggests the need for reflection. Have patience and invest in that process.

Recommit to the Primal basics and do some thinking about what you want your lifestyle and overall health to look like. Examine what’s missing. Imagine what you want to take on. Re-envision. Recreate. Recommit – and Grok on.

Share your thoughts on facing – and turning around – a Primal backslide. Have you found yourself delving into fuzzy Primal math? How did you get back to the golden 80/20, and what does it mean for your Primal practice?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!