Working smarter, not harder is the goal for most people in the 21st century. Along the way, we’ve figured out that slaving our time away isn’t the most effective way to make progress. The good news is that we can achieve more by focussing on less – enter the 80/20 rule.
Nineteenth century Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, found that about 80% of the land in Italy was owned by roughly 20% of the population. He then observed that there was a rough distribution of 80/20 in almost all areas of production.
The Pareto Principle, commonly known as Pareto’s Law or the 80/20 rule; provides a framework for using our limited time to get the most results. It’s a strategy that we all can use to work smarter and grow quicker.
“This phenomenon has been observed across many unrelated fields including business, economics, software, health & safety and others. Isn’t it interesting how one rule can apply across so many unrelated fields?” – Nada Aldahleh
The 80/20 rule is best used as a strategy for growth, development and productivity. When we find the 20% of actions that create 80% of our results, we can focus all our efforts on that 20%. This means that we’re only working on the areas that bring the most growth. This is a powerful revelation. In business, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your products, for your health, 80% of your healthy lifestyle can come from 20% of your actions and in life, 80% of your happiness comes from 20% of your activities. A small fraction of what we do is responsible for almost all our wellbeing.
The 80/20 rule in action
Think about your last team project. Most likely, your most productive work was done in the first few days. It seemed like your project was going to be completed well before the deadline. But, as time went on, you found that you and your colleagues got bogged down in the trivialities of the project. You notice that the small tasks take longer to complete and there is a sense of drudgery and frustration in the air. This is a common occurrence in all areas in life. We find that when we first start something new, we’re excited and full of optimism and energy. We’re in a stage of novelty and possibility. This stage produces the highest quality and quantity of work, and gives the project some powerful starting momentum. So, the longer you have to deal with a project, the less likely your efficiency will be toward the end of it. The real gains happen in the beginning.
How to use the 80/20 rule to increase your productivity
At it’s essence, the 80/20 rule is telling us to only work on the important stuff, and not to sweat the small stuff.
For example, if 80% of complaints are coming from 20% of your customers; instead of freaking out about how to pacify these customers, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the 80% of customer who love your products. If we focus on making the 80% of customers happier by finding new ways to delight them even more, we’ll get longer customer lifetime values, more referrals and repeat business. This is how the 80/20 rule works in our favour if we just adhere to its power.
As the great Stephen Covey would put it, “put first things first.” 20% of your tasks will bring 80% of your results, so focus on that 20% first and foremost – and if you have time left over in your day, you can get started on the other 80%.
3 ways to use the 80/20 rule in your day to day work.
1. Get clear on what you’re actually doing
In order to know what your most valuable actions are, you need know what tasks you’re engaging in through out the day, week and month. Then, you have to tie those actions to tangible results.
So, if you notice that every time you send a follow up email to your clients, you get a boost product purchases – you should make that task a priority. Any task that you can’t tie to a tangible result needs to drop in priority, so that you can make room for the objectively valuable actions.
2. Set shorter deadlines, but make them flexible
Deadlines have a powerful psychological effect. They provide a sense of urgency and force us to prioritize and scrutinize what's important. If we have limited time, we can’t waste it doing unimportant things. We have to take care of the big things straight away. When we work like this, we’re using the 80/20 principle to get all the big things done first. When we start to brush up against our deadline, we know that it’s time to start focusing on the smaller tasks. That’s where having a flexible deadline comes in handy. It allows for the burst of creativity and momentum in the beginning, and makes room for the smaller, less important, tasks as the project winds down.
Deadlines also help us stay focussed. We’re all fighting off distractions in the form of notifications, office chit chat and general disengagement. Setting shorter, but flexible, deadlines help everyone to focus and cut through the noise. It makes the important stuff clear. And, that means there will be more intentional and more effective work.
3. Try 1 of focussing on most valuable tasks
Once you’ve identified the tasks that give you the most gains, put your hypothesis to the test. Plan a week where you only focus on your 20% – the most valuable tasks, and track your results. This will give you proof of concept so you’ll know if the tasks in your 20% margin are actually the most valuable or if they need to be dropped in priority. Finding your 20% of of tasks is an ongoing process.
Adopting the rule
The 80/20 rule is not about doing less work. It’s about find the most valuable areas in your schedule and spending more time doing those things.
There is an unlimited amount of work that needs to be done, and a very limited amount of time available. You’ll never finish all the work. If you try to get on top of every single thing, you’ll notice that the work is finishing you off. Instead of wishing for more energy to get more done, why note use your energy to only do the most important things?
When we start to adopt the 80/20 rule, we’ll notice that we have more time left over – our work quality and productivity will be higher. We’ll be able to prioritise our day like never before, because we’ll know all the essential actions that will help us get the best results. The best part, is that this strategy is repeatable and cumulative. The more we repeat it, the more value we’ll get from our 20% of tasks.