You have most likely heard of the Pareto Principle a few times before, also known as the 80/20 Rule. The statement indicates that approximately 80% of the effects or results of many events happen by just 20% of the causes. This declaration was coined by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in one of his works in 1896 that about 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. After conducting additional studies and surveys elsewhere, he was surprised to notice that the same 80/20 split was happening in most other places.
Since the initial observation was made, the same effect has been seen not only in economics but outside of it as well. In 1992, the United Nations noted that the top 20% of the wealthiest people in the world controlled about 80% of the world's wealth. In the United States, 20% of patients use 80% of its health care resources. Microsoft observed that by dealing with the top 20% of the reported bugs in their products, it fixed 80% of errors and crashes. Indeed, the Pareto Principle can be found just about anywhere.
The Pareto Principle is closer to you than you think
The Pareto Principle can also apply to anything that you're doing at the moment. It's almost guaranteed that 20% of your efforts will account for 80% of your desired results. You might notice that a small portion of your daily work is considering for the expectations your boss and company have for your role. Or if you're starting a diet, cutting out just a few of the most unhealthy part of your diet can make a huge difference in your weight.
One reason why such a small percentage of effort can yield massive results is that it makes things really simple. Focusing on a tiny part of the process will conserve your energy, allow you to take action quicker, and you will be able to see and learn from your results in a shorter period. By merely having less to focus on, you can quickly figure out what are the things you can do that will get you ahead more effectively.
Let's use a practical example to demonstrate. Imagine that you want to lose 20 pounds by the end of the year. Here are all the things you can do to accomplish that goal:
- Find a gym to go to.
- Buy workout clothes.
- Create an exercise plan.
- Clear your schedule for regular exercise.
- Clean up your diet.
That's probably a lot more than you would have thought of, to begin with, but some people think they need to have everything in place before beginning. When you start thinking about all of these steps, it's easy to get overwhelmed and not want to start because it feels like so much effort. But if you just chose one of those things that would be of the highest value, it's much easier to begin. If you know you eat unhealthy food on most days, cleaning up your diet will have the most significant effect. If you eat relatively well but are the majority of your day, deciding to go to a gym will get you in motion for the rest. You don't need to do everything now. All you need is to do one thing now, then do the next step when necessary.
More importantly, focusing on less will help you know what you shouldn't be focusing on at this time. It's effortless to fall into the trap of either overestimating how much you need to do to accomplish a goal. A common reason why people fail in achieving their goals is that they over-prepare. Preparation is essential at the beginning of any task or project, but there's a point where you need to stop preparing and start doing. When you spend days or weeks trying to get absolutely everything you think you need to accomplish a goal, there's a good chance you won't even begin. Falling into this trap is a classic case of perfectionism, a mindset where you'll start to think "if you can't get ready, why bother?"
You don't need to have everything at your disposal before jumping on a task. You don't even need 50% of what you think you need. All you need is to find that 20% that you can start doing as soon as possible. It will take you farther than you ever imagined.
Finding your 20%
Now that you know how important a small part of your efforts can be, how can you identify that 20% that will get you 80% of your results? It all depends on your situation and what you want to accomplish, but an excellent tool to use is Stephen Covey's time management grid, which he introduced in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
In Covey's time management grid, he mentions that your tasks can be placed in one of four quadrants: Important and Urgent, Important and Not Urgent, Not Important and Urgent, and Not Important and Not Urgent. Let's break down each one of these out of order and point out where you can find your top 20% of activities easily.
Important and Urgent
The tasks located here are things that must be done, no matter what. At work, this would mean tasks or projects that have an upcoming deadline. With your personal life, this can be a family emergency or other personal crises. Mainly, these are those "drop everything" type of tasks that we encounter in our daily lives.
Despite the seriousness of the tasks located here, these are rarely your highest-value tasks. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it's because the tasks situated here are typically things that are pulling you away from what you truly need to do to move forward, and it can lead to high levels of stress if you let them pile up. Sure, you need to finish your work projects unless you want to get fired, and you need to attend to personal issues so that you can proceed with your work. But usually, these things aren't moving you towards your goals. You should spend as little time as possible in this quadrant if you genuinely want to succeed.
Not Important and Urgent
These are the tasks that are just not important to you, yet they still find ways to take your attention and pull you away from your work. In the office, you'll have meetings that aren't that important in the long run that you're obligated to attend, or you might have a pile of reports that you need to process, or your email inbox is overflowing with messages that require responses from you.
If you're not careful, these tasks will suck all your energy away by taking all of your focus, preventing you from doing what you need to be doing. Unfortunately, we still need to deal with the occasionally despite being entirely unimportant for you. You can handle the tasks in this quadrant by deferring and delegating as much as you can to others. Do your best to minimize the frequent interruptions here if you want to work on your highest-value work.
Not Important and Not Urgent
Typically, this quadrant deals with everything that really isn't serving you when it comes to working towards your goals. Watching TV for hours every night or scrolling through your social media feeds every time you pick up your phone is neither necessary nor urgent. We also fall into this trap at school and at work by doing busywork just to procrastinate for whatever reason.
Needless to say, spending time in this quadrant won't move you any closer to what you want to achieve, so spend as little time as possible here, or avoid it altogether if you can.
Important and Not Urgent
In this final quadrant, you will often have long-term tasks. Although you don't need to revolve your days around this work, they are still crucial for achieving any success. These tasks can be planning projects, strategizing, or coming up with ideas and innovations. It can also include personal wellness such as exercising to stay healthy, taking regular vacation time, meditation, and so on. All of this leads to taking action.
The work that can be classified in this quadrant is where your 20% is. Everything here, even though it's not urgent, will provide you the most value for what you need to do - the most "bang for your buck," so to speak. Things like planning and taking care of yourself will put you in the best position to take action, so try to spend the majority of your time on what you have defined in this section. It will contain most of what you need to take you closer to your goals.
Anything is better than nothing
Inevitably, you'll reach a point where you must go beyond the 20% of what you did. The Pareto Principle works both ways. While 20% of your efforts will get you 80% to your destination, it also means that the last 20% needed to reach the end will take 80% of your time. However, there's a positive outcome here - once you begin to see that you're 80% done, your desire and momentum will carry you through the final stretch.
Even with your desires of seeing something through to completion, having anything done is much better than just giving up before you begin. Focusing on the parts that will give you the most will undoubtedly provide you with something in return for your efforts. Don't let the desire of perfectionism stop you. 80% done will always be better than 0%.
Small steps for your Practical Good
If you're continuously finding yourself paralyzed and not starting to work towards your goals because you think there's too much to do, use these steps to get moving with your highest-value tasks:
- Identify your 20%. Every project has roughly 20% that can be done to help you reach 80% of its goal. Devoting your initial time analyzing what that top 20% will serve you well. Use Stephen Covey's time management grid to split your tasks into the four quadrants as explained above.
- Take action focusing on that 20% and measure your results. When you're done splitting up your tasks, spend most of your days on the Important and Not Urgent functions for a better return on your investment. Every couple of days, take a moment to evaluate your progress. If you're moving forward, keep at it. If you're not moving towards your goals or it's been slower than expected, re-assess your tasks to make sure you're focusing on the right things.