Last Updated on August 14, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.