How to Succeed at Failing: the 80/20 Principle

With the holiday season fully upon us, now seems like as good a time as ever to discuss one of the guiding principles of my entire life: the 80/20 Principle. There are many different ways the 80/20 Principle can be applied and put into practice in life, but the one I will be discussing here is how it can pertain to a diet (or if you’re allergic to the term “diet” then think “nutrition program”).

Every time I go to a holiday party the following situation happens: 1. Someone comes up and offers me a Christmas cookie from a platter 2. They immediately recant the offer and assume they’ve offended me since I’m a “nutrition guy or whatever” and cookies aren’t healthy 3. I aggressively grab the cookie from their plate and eat it without breaking eye contact.

That being said, I don’t go to a lot of Christmas parties. And I don’t eat a lot of cookies at those parties. And chances are I ate salmon, quinoa, and asparagus for lunch before the party. The way I apply the 80/20 Principle here is by allowing a roughly 20% lapse in “perfect” nutrition in my diet. This seems to be the sweet spot for being able to maintain a consistent level of quality nutrition. As well-known strength and nutrition coach Mike Vacanti always says, “consistency over perfection.”

There have been periods of my life where I have eaten more or less “perfect” for extended periods of time; however, they were inevitably followed by prolonged binges and a complete de-emphasis on nutrition altogether. Conversely, there have been periods of my life where I have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, and I have allowed too many “cheats” or “lapses” in my nutrition and I did not get the results I was seeking.

The perfect happy medium lies in the ability to remain dialed in for roughly 80% of the time, and relaxed for the remaining 20%. The results have been amazing, and I will list the main benefits out for you below.

1. Sustainability

The key to any solid nutrition program is being able to maintain it for a long period of time. A perfect nutrition program that tracks macronutients, varies micronutrients effectively, embodies nutrient timing principles, and is never followed is a terrible nutrition program.

As Gen. George S. Patton put it, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Essentially, creating a nutrition program that you can and will actually keep up with is way more important than getting every little thing correct.


2. Lack of Cravings

One issue I always had when I was eating as “perfect” as possible for extended periods of time was the insane amounts of cravings. I would find myself dreaming about eating things I love (like Christmas cookies) but was restricting myself from.

In a diet following 80/20, you get to build in the allowance of some of these foods that you love, and the cravings are mitigated. And this point leads right into the following….

3. Improved Relationship with Food/No More Binging

In a very restrictive diet, you can begin to view food as an obstacle. You ascribe value judgments (good vs. bad) to foods without allowing for context. This can create negative feelings toward some foods (“ugh I haaaave to eat this broccoli”) and unhealthy infatuations with other foods (“I would saw off at least three toes for a slice of pizza right now”).

And this relationship can easily become a slippery slope.  You catch a whiff of melted cheese and spiral into a pizza-filled frenzy from which you do not emerge for 48-72 hours. I’ve seen it a million times.

In an 80/20 diet, the occasional exposure to a slice of pizza here and there, establishes a relationship where you are in control of what you are putting in your body, and the pizza has no power over you. This is huge for mental health as well as physical health.


4. More Experiences

Eliminating some restriction from your diet allows for more life experiences without feeling guilty or like you’re cheating. I know that if I find myself out at a nice Italian restaurant, I can eat all the pasta I want and experience what that restaurant has to offer. There were times in my life where I would have ordered baked, skinless chicken and extra broccoli at that restaurant, and ate it miserably while I watched those around me slurp down spaghetti like the world was running out of it.

Most importantly, this practice allows you to remain present during these experiences. Generally speaking, it is better to spend less time worrying, and more time living. A measure I often use for success while reflecting on days, weeks, quarters, etc. is to retrospectively analyze how much time I spent living in the present moment without worrying about causations or implications. Less time worrying about food allows for more time to be spent in the present, and that’s what is most important.

. . .

A few final notes that are important to mention in the context of this blog:

  • This is not a free pass to eat junk all the time and justify it by claiming it’s “80/20.” To properly follow this protocol, it requires almost entirely eating very well. It is not as easy to eat well ⅘ of the time as you may think it is. The luxury of being able to relax on your laurels and allow nutrition to slip a bit here and there can exist if you have laid the groundwork with lots of diligent work in the past
  • The holiday season is the perfect time to see this principle in action. If there is ever a time to focus on being truly present with the people around you, and not worrying about what you’re eating/when you’re eating it, now is the time. That being said… it’s not an accident that nearly everyone’s New Year’s resolution is to start eating better and get back into shape. The binge that is the holiday season often results in an overcorrection once January 1st rolls around. This year, avoid the up and down cycle, and begin embodying an 80/20 protocol as soon as possible.
  • There are times when it makes sense to tweak the numbers a little bit. For example, if you’re a competitive athlete, your 6-7 weeks pre-season, as well as the duration of the season itself, should be more like 90-95% “on” for nutrition. If you’re trying to get lean for beach season, or have specific goals you really want to reach for whatever reason, it makes sense to adjust the ratio in those situations; however, there will ultimately be a re-grounding where you begin to center back around a basic 80/20 Principle in the end.


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