Most of us have heard of the 80/20 rule but have either a limited understanding or limited application of the concept. Yet, incorporating the 80/20 rule into how you schedule your day, prioritize tasks, and approach new issues or opportunities can have significant effects on your overall productivity and mental health.
The 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, was developed by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. Pareto noticed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. He further observed that 80% of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20% of its citizens. From these initial observations and further research, Pareto developed the basic principle that for many things, 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. This principle has been applied across many disciplines – business, economics, health and safety, software – and has led to increased productivity, strategic planning, and effective prioritization.
While, of course, it’s not true that 20% of inputs will always lead to exactly 80% of outputs, the general rule holds true. Perhaps in some situations, 10% of inputs lead to 90% of outputs or 30% of inputs lead to 70% of outputs, yet the rule serves as an indicator that a relatively small percentage of our actions lead to the results that we are working towards. While this principle is used at a high level in areas like economics and workplace safety, you can also see it at work in your daily life – what percentage of contacts in your phone take up 80% of the time you are using it? Of all the rooms in your house, what percentage of your time is spent in just two or three of them? Of all the tv channels available to you, how many do you use on a regular basis? The rule holds true in many areas of life, and using it effectively can have profound impacts on how you spend your time.
Using the 80/20 Rule in Your Business
As a business owner, there are nearly constant demands on your time, all of which seem important and worthy of your attention. Yet, taking some time to apply the 80/20 rule to ensure that you are focusing on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t will lead not only to an increase in productivity but also to a decrease in burnout. Further, as you learn to use the principle and share it with your team, the compounding effects of these benefits will have a profound impact on your organization’s productivity and overall health. Here are five steps you can take to begin using the 80/20 rule effectively:
Identify your primary goals
The 80/20 rule suggests that if you have a list of ten goals, around two of those goals are going to produce 80% of the results. Take some time to evaluate both the short and long-term goals that you work towards. They likely all have value, but identify the two or three goals that lead to the most outputs and prioritize them above all others. (Here’s some math to support why this is the best way to approach your goals).
Inventory your tasks
Now that you have narrowed down your goals, it’s important to identify which daily tasks are connected to those goals. Remembering that sometimes you must slow down to speed up, take some time to inventory all tasks that you do throughout each day and week. From that list, prioritize those tasks that are connected to your primary goals. For the remaining tasks, as much as possible, delegate them or let them go. In a study of high achievers, the standard practice among them was to tackle only essential tasks, and then delegate or let go of the rest.
In new businesses, it’s easy to get distracted from the primary goals by $12 an hour tasks (yes, office repairs are essential, and your team needs supplies, but delegate these jobs so that you can better prioritize your time). You can’t handle everything, so take some time to figure out what it’s essential that you do, and get rid of as much of the rest as you can.
Before completing a task or project, reflect upon its importance
Before you begin any task, ask yourself: is this task in my top 20% of inputs? (If you don’t know the answer, stop and go through the above steps again). If the answer is no, think about how you can either delegate it, let it go, or move it to the bottom or your to-do list. The more you can get in the habit of asking this question before doing even the simplest task, the more effective you will become at decreasing distractions and improving your ability to prioritize. Further, after doing this for a while, you won’t have to force the question. Instead, it will become the natural way that you approach your daily life,, and will serve as a constant reminder of where your focus is or should be.
Identify your most productive times of the day
We all have times of the day when we’re at our best. Schedule your most important tasks – those identified to drive 80% of your results – during those time periods. After you inventory your tasks, you’ll likely have a few tasks that aren’t in your top 20% but remain on your to-do list. Make sure that these are not getting done during your most productive times of the day, and resist the urge to do some of these easy tasks first.
(There is often a correlation between the difficulty of a task and the outputs that it produces; however, don’t let yourself prioritize the easier tasks over those that are most important for your results). For example, many of us are our most productive first thing in the morning, yet we use a large chunk of this period to respond to emails. Instead, save those for a mid-morning lull, and make it a habit to sit down and begin a prioritized task during your peak productivity. Whatever time of day is best for you, be strategic about how you schedule your day and ensure that you are using your most productive times for the tasks that matter the most.
Measure your inputs and outputs and constantly make adjustments
While it will take some time, especially at first, collect data around everything that you do. Record how long you spend on various tasks, what results these tasks produce, what to-do list items don’t get completed, what tasks you delegate, what tasks you eliminate, and anything else you can think of to collect data around. After recording data for a few weeks, use it to create a new schedule for the upcoming week.
Try that new system or schedule out for a week or two, still recording your inputs and outputs, and then adjust as needed. Ideally, after a couple of months of doing this, you’ll have created a schedule that works, and you can limit the amount of data that you collect. Even then, however, consider measuring this data every few weeks to make sure that you are continuing to prioritize your time effectively. While collecting this data might feel tedious and time consuming, it will quickly lead to better results and meaningful insights about how you spend your time.
Your day has many more tasks and demands than you can ever accomplish. Rather than becoming overwhelmed with these tasks or dropping the ball on important responsibilities, use the above tips to help you effectively apply the 80/20 rule to maximize your efficiency. Once you’ve done this effectively, make sure that you share the changes you’ve made with your team and encourage them to go through the process as well. The increased focus, productivity, and morale across your organization will be notable. Finally, don’t be afraid to use some of the extra time that your increased productivity will create to simply relax. The science is clear, your mind needs time to refresh so that it can think strategically and creatively. This is an important, and enjoyable, result of effectively using the 80/20 rule, so don’t overlook it.