One of the biggest problems for productive people is finding enough time to do all the things you want to do. There are ways to mitigate the problem, like waking up earlier and planning more effectively, but those strategies can only help so much. Since we’ve already discussed some ways to be more efficient and recapture wasted time, let’s turn our attention next to weeding out activities that aren’t giving us a good return on the time we invest in them. The rule we’ll use to do that is called the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule
The Pareto Principle is named after 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed a very interesting pattern in his garden. When harvesting peas from his garden, he noticed that about 20% of the pea pods that he collected contained about 80% of the peas. Later, in the course of his work as an economist, he was studying wealth distribution in Italy and noticed that about 80% of the land was owned by about 20% of the population. Then, he checked elsewhere and found that the same held true in many other countries! It’s since turned out that the 80/20 ratio that Pareto discovered applies in tons of different areas.
Because of the phenomenon that it describes, the Pareto principle is also called the 80/20 rule, and it shows up all over the place. In business, it’s often noted that 80% of revenues come from 20% of customers. In software, Microsoft has found that fixing 20% of its bugs eliminates 80% of the related errors. In sports, about 20% of athletes compete in about 80% of major events. The Pareto principle is seriously everywhere!
Alright, so this is pretty interesting, but let’s cut to the chase and get to how it applies to us. The ubiquity of the Pareto principle means that it also shows up frequently in our personal and work lives. We’re going to focus on two important cases of the Pareto principle:
- 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort
- 80% of your problems come from 20% of causes
Keep in mind that the numbers here aren’t meant to be exact. They’re meant to express the idea that there’s not a linear relationship between work and outcomes or cause and effect much of the time. That means that if you target your effort and energy in the right way, you can get more done in less time. If you have 100 things to do, you’ll get the best results by focusing on the 20 with the most importance. If there are 100 things causing you problems, you’ll get the most impact for your time by focusing on the 20 that are of the most concern.
Let’s take a moment to look at how we can apply this to everyday life and work.
How to do an 80/20 Analysis
Doing an 80/20 analysis is really simple. The basic principle is to imagine that you’ve cut down on the available time to work on your project by 75%. That’s a huge reduction! It would cut your 8 hour work day down to two hours, or your two hour per day side project down to 30 minutes. If you were to reduce the time you had for this project drastically in this way, what would you have to do to keep making progress?
Here are the four steps I use to make that decision:
- Identify why you’re doing the project. What are your goals?
- List all of the activities that you spend time on related to the project.
- Now put yourself into the position of having 75% less time to work on your project. Pick the most important activities from Step 2 that help you achieve your goals in Step 1 in the remaining time you have.
- Do only the tasks that you prioritized in step 3, and drastically cut back, delegate, or eliminate the less important tasks.
If this seems like a difficult exercise, it’s because it is. Cutting down time spent without reducing output, or eliminating low impact tasks, is a serious challenge. It takes creativity and ingenuity, and it may take a bit of research to figure out how others who have pursued similar goals before you have managed to do it effectively. If you’re creative, you can also find ways to delegate or outsource the tasks you would otherwise reduce or eliminate as part of the Pareto analysis.
These four steps are the basic structure of the 80/20 analysis that I use, but there are lots of other perspectives on this particular topic, including one by Tim Ferriss, who popularized the idea in his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I encourage you to check out others to see which fit you best. They’re all a bit different in flavor, but the idea is the same: after doing the analysis, you’ll be able to cut out 80% of your work and get nearly the same amount done, or refocus your efforts on those 20% of tasks that have the greatest impact.
My 80/20 Analysis — How to Grow A Blog
I decided to write this article when I was brainstorming how I can adapt my routine to grow the blog and the number of Actioneers that read it. Creating a blog and audience is a big amorphous task, and there are lots of different directions you can go. I realized while brainstorming that I needed to do an 80/20 analysis for this blog to really move the needle. Here’s the process I went through to decide my next steps for growing the blog as a concrete example of how to do an 80/20 analysis. The numbered remarks coincide with the steps I laid out above.
- I started this blog to help and inspire people (including myself) by sharing what I know and learn about personal leadership, productivity, and happiness, and to develop a side income stream.
- I spend about 6 to 8 hours per week writing new content, and 1 to 2 hours per week sharing content on social media.
- Experience bloggers before me have written plenty about growing their blogs, and the consensus seems to be that marketing is the most important aspect of growing the blog. In other words, about 20% of my time should be spent creating new content and 80% should be spent on marketing. My priorities are completely backwards! As of right now, there are about 30,000 words on the blog, and a consistent audience that’s so small that I can count them on two hands. If I want my writing to help people or generate income, I clearly need to focus more on building the audience.
- To fix the problem, I need to spend more time on attracting new readers, and to make the 80/20 cut, I should spend a significant amount of time finding the best way to attract new readers.
The outcome of my 80/20 analysis is that I’ll be spending a lot more time trying to attract new readers in the smartest way and a little less time on writing for now. That means I’ll be publishing less frequently while I spend more time attracting new readers. I also need to explore possible revenue streams and find the most effective ways to attract new readers.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, I made exactly $0 in the months of December and January from this blog, and I expect the same to be true in February. I hope to completely bootstrap the blog, meaning I’ll never spend money on it that I didn’t make from the blog first. This will definitely take longer and be more difficult than if I threw money into Facebook advertising or other channels, but it means that the blog will be profitable from the first day of revenues!
Whether you’re already stretching your time thin, or you just want to be efficient on your latest projects, the Pareto principle is a simple but powerful way to optimize your life. For any project your working on, break down the purpose of the project, split it into pieces, prioritize them by impact, and do only the most important ones. Despite its simplicity, its impact on your life can be profound. Try it and let me know how it goes!