The Pareto principle (80/20 rule)

The Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 rule, states that roughly 80% of results come from only 20% of efforts or causes. In the best of cases, applying this principle allows us to achieve more with working less, because we are smarter about how we invest our time.

According to Wikipedia, it was originally suggested by the consultant Joseph M. Muran, who applied it to solving problems, focusing on the vital few causes, and considering the rest as the “useful many”. He named the principle after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian Economist who first noted the 80/20 relation during his work at the University of Lausanne and published it in 1896. 

But back to who this serves our purposes. 

When working on many things in parallel and our attention demanded on all sides, the ability to focus and deliver good enough work on all the commitments we have is crucial. The magic of the Pareto principle is to work smarter, not harder or more. Find out what you really need to do (the 20%) to deliver value, and what can help you stay focused on that. With this principle, at least how I apply it, also comes a degree of self-knowledge and appreciation that may even boost your work experience and the quality of your output. It also puts in perspective the effort we make. If after having made the 20% of effort, would you still be willing to add another 80% of your time and sweat, knowing it will only result in a 20% of added impact?

Example of application:

Whenever you are working on a new important piece of work and feeling potentially anxious at delivering a good result, as well as pressured for your time because the deadline is near or you have other things that require your attention, try to remember the Pareto principle. Think about how this may apply to your current situation. Say you are working on a speech, or a funding application - to give random (very real) examples. You may ask yourself:

  • What do I need to do to get to a GESET version? It’s crucial that you don’t produce a result that would harm you or your organisation. For example handing in an application that is completely incoherent would not only result in no money, but also reduce your chances of getting funding with the same institution next time. Therefore, make sure you have enough time and the skills or support needed to deliver GESET work, else it might be better to skip this opportunity.

  • What is are the actions here that I can take that have the most impact? If you’ve decided to seize the opportunity, zoom in to your task. Likely, you’ll already have most of the impact due to the fact that you show up on stage with a minimal idea of what you want to say, or the fact that you hand in an application where all questions are answered.

  • What is crucial and what are nice to have’s? Spend some time planning how you will go about this and what you will deliver. Distinguish between things you must do, and what you can do if you really feel like it and have the time to do so. For example, for a good speech it may be crucial that you show up on time and that you have a good sense of your audience as well as of what you are going to say. 

  • How can I remind myself of the 80/20 principle? Ask yourself what you can do to keep yourself on track. What could help you notice you’ve gone overboard before adding the 5th source to one fact on slide 37? Perhaps asking a colleague to check on you, setting a timebox for the task or putting up a visual reminder at your desk will do the trick.

  • What could bring me to get perfectionist about this work? It might be helpful to inquire into what may cause you to invest so much more time than what is truly useful. Is it the fear of being judged by the audience? Perhaps, good old imposter syndrome is at work? Different root causes apply to different people and therefore different things will help, but I think everyone could benefit from reminding themselves that they are good enough from time to time (or, in fact, every day). 

Does this seem helpful? I sure hope it is, as I am mostly writing this also as a reminder to myself. Indeed, I’m typing these words instead of working on the big speech I am low key stressed about. Even after striving to work with this principle for a while, I still need to actively remind myself of it. I can do this, and 20% of the effort will result in 80% of the impact! Happy Sunday* to all of you :)

* If you’re reading this and it’s not a Sunday, happy whatever day of the week.