Professional Development

Using the 80/20 rule to work smarter, not harder

The 80/20 rule is not scientific law but it holds eerily true in most scenarios. The rule states that a majority of output will come from a minority of the input. In layman’s terms, it means that 80% of your results will come from only 20% of your effort. Depending on the specific context of the situation, the ratio may fall more in line with 90/10, 85/15, or 70/30. But regardless of the specific number, the rule holds steady. 

The reverse is also true. If 80% of your results come from only 20% of your effort, it means that the remaining 80% of your effort only produces 20% of the results. Cringeworthy, I know.

The 80/20 rule, also called the Pareto Principle, was founded by Vilfredo Pareto. Born in 1848, Pareto was an Italian economist and sociologist who first noticed the mathematical ratio between input and output. His first observation of this phenomenon was in his garden where he noticed that only 20% of the peapods produced 80% of the peas. Curious to see if this ratio was represented elsewhere, he looked to the world around him. He found numerous examples, including the fact that 80% of Italy’s wealth was held by roughly 20% of Italians.

The 80/20 rule

Think about the last group project that you completed – did 20% of the team members do 80% of the work? Or think about your closet – do you wear 30% of your clothes 70% of the time? What about your friends – do you hang out with 10% of your friends 90% of the time? The ratio may fluctuate, but the biggest lesson we should take away from the Pareto Principle is that rarely, if ever, is there an equal distribution between input and output. 

Divorce the idea that 1 in equals 1 out

There are endless examples where the 80/20 rule holds true:

– 20% of clients produce 80% of company profits

– 20% of a product’s features produce 80% of the customers’ satisfaction 

– 20% of clients cause 80% of the problems

– 20% of employees in a company do 80% of the work

So what can we do to maximize the 20% of our effort that actually contributes to 80% of the outcome?

1. Start paying attention

Pay attention to where the 20% occurs that produces the majority of your desired outcome and capitalize on it. Very few of us are actually productive for an 8-hour workday. We may be busy, but that’s not the same thing as being productive. 

You might notice that the first 2 hours of the day you’re able to knock your work out of the park, but then your mind wanders for the rest of the day. Instead of worrying about how you can increase your productivity for the other 6 hours, double down and capitalize on those first two hours. Block out interruptions, get your fill of caffeine, and do what you need to do to get your 80% result out of that 20% of dedicated time.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

2. Prioritize

If you find that 80% of your attention is being diverted to the 20% of your employees who are problem starters, it should worry you that the measly remaining 20% of your attention is going towards your rockstar employees. 

There is a reason that 57% of employees leave their jobs because of their bosses. Sure, there are some utterly terrible bosses out there, but that’s a very small percentage of them. Employees leave because they feel unsupported, unrecognized, or underutilized by their boss. It’s likely that if those bosses instead prioritized giving attention to their beneficial employees, rather than their problem employees, they’d be able to retain the talent that’s driving their organizations forward.

When you realize that your attention is being sucked up by a tiny portion of what you really need to focus on, take a step back. Decide if that issue, project, or person truly deserves so much of your focus. If it doesn’t, redirect yourself as necessary. The more you focus on the things that won’t deliver the results you’re looking for, the worse those results will be.

3. Cut your losses 

Think about a recent project you started. It’s likely that you made a lot of quick headway right off the bat. But then the few remaining tasks were broken down into infinite detail and completing the project seemed to drag on and on. 

For example, your boss may have asked you to create a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming meeting. In the first hour, you compiled your outline, drafted up the slides, added speaking notes, and formatted your text. But then for the next 3 hours, you ended up tweaking the font, trying to find appropriate graphics…you got distracted for a while, and then you finally altered the last few details until it was near perfect. 

If instead, you were to follow the 80/20 rule to work smarter, and not harder, you likely could have had the 80% solution necessary for your meeting by calling it quits after the first hour. Or, as a comprise, you could give yourself a timer of no more than 15 minutes to take care of any loose ends.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Making the 80/20 rule work for you

To some of you, this may feel like cheating. Or perhaps it might feel like you’re not giving it your all. But this is not the case. What you’re doing is abiding by another concept called the law of diminishing returns. It closely resembles the logic of the Pareto Principle in that there is a drop-off point where additional effort, money, resources, etc. will do less and less to contribute to the ultimate outcome.

It is strategic. There’s a limit to how much anyone can feasibly do. But if you can embrace the Pareto Principle, you’ll be able to achieve more of what’s actually important.

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6 Comments

  • Jacob K

    I love this concept and how it can apply to so many different things! I regularly have to remind myself that submitting a project or report at work (especially one that I feel is not perfect or only 95% complete) is much better than striving for perfection and risk dragging out the timeline indefinitely.

    • Audra Kershner

      So glad to hear that you connected with this article, Jacob! I certainly agree – it’s almost crazy how applicable the 80/20 rule is to so many different situations. I hope that it helps you keep your effort aligned with the results that matter. It’s something we strive for here too.
      I appreciate the comment!

  • Budget Life List

    Same. I love this concept and try to remind myself to use it more often. Need to move the blog forward? Work on the 20%. Need to add more fitness to my life? Where is that 20% hiding at? Struggling with a sugar craving? WHERE IS THAT 20% AT??? 😬

    • Audra Kershner

      Yes! Thank you for checking out the article! Absolutely agreed. Finding that 20% can be tricky sometimes, but it’s so worth it.

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