Harnessing Nature’s 80-20 Rule to Increase Personal, Organizational SuccessMost of us have muttered our disgust that "20% of the people do 80% of the work," or that "20% of donors provide 80% of our funding." We become discouraged that there isn't a better showing from the remaining 80%. If we could get "them" to rise to the occasion, well, just think what could be accomplished!
But such aspirations are counter to the realities of our world. There is actually a powerful natural law, statistically confirmed in countless studies conducted in the last 100 years and revealing that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. In other words, we can normally expect in any endeavor that 80% of progress will result from the efforts of just 20% of the people. 20% of the people will own 80% of the wealth, 20% of the defects in any system will cause 80% of the problems, etc. etc.
This phenomenon is often called the Pareto Principle or "the law of the vital few and the trivial many." The law states that, in any given situation, there typically are a "vital few" factors that inordinately influence outcomes, far surpassing the influence of most remaining factors (the "trivial many"). Harshly stated, 80% of what we do is trivial, or nearly meaningless, and just 20% vital or worthwhile. If most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes, then this natural law provides one of the most powerful tools we have as managers of our personal and professional lives, time and other resources.
(Note that the 20% and 80% are intended as rough estimates, since actual proportions are rarely exactly 20% and 80%, but rather "cluster around" the 80 and 20% figures. Also noteworthy is that people often misconstrue the principle because of the coincidence that 20+80=100. The theory could just as well read that 70% of the consequences stem from 10% of the causes, but in fact the proportion is 80/20. Another common misstating of the principle comes when a phenomenon occurs in 80% of the cases; this is not automatically an example of the 80-20 rule unless it results from application of 20% of the resources.)
The value of the Pareto Principle is that it provides a daily reminder to us that we should invest in the activities that really matter; to not just "work smart," but to work smart on the right things. If 20% of our activities will account for 80% of our success, then we need to commit time and energy to these 20% vital activities. By doing this, we significantly boost productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.
Application of the principle helps us to focus our efforts and manage our time. When the fire drills of the day sap our time and energy, we need to remind ourselves of the 20% activities that deserve our effort. If something in the schedule has to slip - if something isn't going to get done - we need to make sure that it's not part of that vital 20%.
There are four steps to effective application of the Pareto Principle. First step is to identify those tasks that truly are vital and worthwhile. Make a list of these activities; e.g. planning for the future, meeting with key supporters, developing staff or the board of directors.
Second step is to prioritize the list by importance, without regard to the size of the task or the time investment required. Though all tasks may seem equally important, we soon find that activities can be ordered by degree of importance.
Third is to budget time for working on ONLY those tasks that appear on the list. Set aside every Monday afternoon, for example, to work without interruption on 20% vital activities. Over time, increase the amount of time spent each day, week or month on these 20% activities. (Although these tasks deserve far more time and attention, the sad truth is that most of us spend little or no time on these activities. To incorporate vital activities as part of our lives, we need to start by designating a set and limited period of time for their pursuit.)
The fourth step is to continually evaluate and modify the list of vital 20% activities. While many of these tasks will be on-going, we will actually complete others. Some activities may become less important over time, or new tasks will emerge to displace predecessors in the list of priorities.
How do we evaluate whether or not any given task is a vital activity? Some meaningful indicators are:
- We feel good doing it because it is what we've always wanted to do, or know it will help us to meet our goals.
- We are using our creativity.
- We are doing the tasks that we'd like to procrastinate but know are essential to do now.
- We are doing things that are important but not urgent.
- We delegate tasks to others that we personally are not well suited to perform.
The Pareto Principle is wonderful in its simplicity and requires just a bit of discipline on our part! It invites us to work with the laws of nature in saying 'no' to doing more, while saying 'yes' to doing the really important things. It saves a lot of our physical and emotional energy for tasks that matter, and ultimately provides us with a formula guaranteed to enrich our lives and our organizations.