How to use the 80/20 rule to supercharge your productivity

Written on 
May 18, 2020

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In the quest to be more productive, we’re continually flooded with advice and techniques for how to do more in less time. But perhaps we’re looking at productivity all wrong. It isn’t about doing more work; it’s about spending energy on the right work. This concept forms the backbone of the 80/20 rule, the idea that 20% of the input creates 80% of the result. If we follow this simple guideline we can all become more productive – but how do we figure out what our 20% is? And how can we practically apply this principle in our working lives?

What is the Pareto Principle?

It’s the end of the day, you’ve worked hard for 8 hours, yet you’re left with that puzzling feeling you haven’t really accomplished anything. We’ve all been there. It wasn’t that you weren’t working – it was that you were probably working on the wrong stuff. Maybe you spent too long replying to emails. Maybe you were distracted by a supposedly “urgent” job. Maybe you hopped from task to task in a state of constant busyness. The problem is that none of these tasks contribute tht much: they don’t add anything meaningful to your day; they don’t help you achieve your real goals.

This is where the Pareto Principle comes in. Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto Principle is an observation that most things in life are not distributed evenly. It relates specifically to the idea that 80% of all results derive from only 20% of the effort. This can apply to anything: if you’re a freelance writer, 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients; if you’re a project manager, 20% of your initial efforts are responsible for 80% of the outcome; if you’re a gardener, 80% of your tomatoes come from 20% of your tomato plants.

How to interpret the 80/20 rule

What all this means, essentially, is that we make the most progress from just 20% of everything we do – the remaining 80% is spent polishing, refining and tweaking that groundwork. The reason for this is that not all units of work contribute the same amount.

In relation to people and productivity, this is due to diminishing marginal benefit – the idea that the longer we work, the less power and influence our efforts have on the final result. Towards the end of projects, we’re usually just making small amends and minor tweaks; the real work was done long before.

Find the 20% of your work that drives 80% of your outcomes, and prioritize it.

Of course, following the 80/20 rule doesn’t mean you should only work for one day out of five, or just do 1.5 hours work a day before clocking off! The Pareto Principle isn’t really about time at all – it’s about trying to focus our efforts on the work that matters most – finding the 20% of our work that propels 80% of our results and making that our priority.

This isn’t a principle we need to practice all the time, and if you’re working on an important project you should always give 100%. But if you’re looking to be generally more productive, focusing on that 20% will make the biggest difference.

How to find your 20%

To find your critical 20%, you need to start by understanding where your effort goes. Where does all your time go each day? How long do you spend on specific tasks? Which activities dominate your day? Which don’t?

You can collect all this data effortlessly with the help of an automatic activity tracker. Instead of using manual timers and input, apps like Timely track the time you spend on every daily task for you – down to the documents, apps and websites you used. Everything is displayed in a clean timeline which helps you visualize where your efforts are going.

Once you have this data, dig deep into it: identify your low- and high-value tasks, your biggest distractions, and the time you spend on each job. To help guide your analysis, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s your main task (e.g. the work you’re getting paid to do)?
  • Do you have important work that you’re blowing off in favor of urgent work?
  • Which tasks give you the biggest return?
  • Do you wish you had more time for certain tasks – and if so, what are they?

Applying the 80/20 rule to your work

Once you’ve identified the tasks that give you the biggest return, make a weighted to-do list where you put your most important, valuable tasks at the top. Don’t be tempted to place small, easy tasks at the top just so you can cross them off; from the Pareto perspective, that’s a waste of time and energy.

Once you’ve made your list, approach your tasks in the same way: deconstruct a task into its component parts, to highlight those that make the biggest impact. Then prioritize them – use your energy and time on your key tasks first, and don’t let work “urgent” but “not important” work derail your focus (a time management matrix can help you here).

Finally, automate as much of the 80% as possible. A lot of the 80% can’t be outsourced, like adding fine details and finishing touches that bring quality and finesse to a finished product. But occasionally it’s extraneous, especially when purely administrative – think organizational processes like project and task management, sharing progress, communication back-and-forth, scheduling meetings and tracking time on projects. Streamline your workflow by outsourcing as many of these low-value, repetitive tasks to automation.

The main takeaway? Keep an eye on where your effort goes. Remember you can work for as long as you like, but to be truly productive, you need to know it’s spent in the right place.

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