How to Lead a More 80/20 Life

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that approximately 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. Pareto wondered if this distribution applied to other things in life such as business, industry and society as a whole. He studied the distribution of income and wealth in Italy and noticed that 80% of land was owned by 20% of the population.

This 80-20 distribution came to be know as Pareto’s Principle or the 80-20 Rule. It states that:

80% of a result comes from 20% of the inputs or actions

This phenomenon can be seen in many areas of life:

  • 80% of a company’s profits comes from 20% of its customers;
  • 80% of sales are generated by 20% of the sales team;
  • 80% of our time is spent with 20% of the people we know;
  • 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of the criminal fraternity;
  • we wear 20% of the clothes in our wardrobes 80% of the time;
  • we use 20% of Microsoft Word’s features for 80% of our daily word processing;
  • we use 20% of a language in 80% of our communication, and so on.

The 80-20 Rule is so widely observed and so incredibly useful that it will transform your life if you let it. However, it is rarely applied. It’s easy to be lost in the daily chaos of life and resume old, inefficient work habits such as endless fire-fighting and letting the urgent take priority over the important.

What you need is a general strategy to help you apply the Pareto Principle to the most important areas of your life.

7 ways to apply the 80-20 Rule to your life

  1. Goal-setting. Do you have a lengthy list of goals? It’s admirable to be ambitious and engaged with the world but you only have finite time and resources. One of the most powerful and liberating choices you can make (and also one of the hardest) is to focus on your top 20% goals and to forget the rest. If you have 10 goals, choose two. If you have five, choose one. If you’re not sure how to choose, use this simple method: put two goals up against each other. Which one is more important to you? Eliminate the loser and repeat the process until you only have 1-2 goals standing. These are the only goals you should be pursuing and only when they are accomplished can you move onto other ones.
  2. Work. What are your work goals? What activities do you spend most of your typical day on? How much do those activities directly help you achieve your work goals? If you’re a designer, then design. Don’t waste time being a bookkeeper – hire someone to do that for you. Focus on the 20% activity that brings 80% of the desired result.
  3. Relationships. What are your most important relationships (important, not necessarily easiest)? Spend 80% of your time nurturing those. What are your least rewarding relationships? Discard or minimise your time with those people. Many people spend 80% of their time with people they can’t stand and only 20% with the people who matter. Crazy.
  4. Health. There are so many fads and changing advice surrounding health and well-being that it can be difficult to know what to do. Special diets aside, here’s the 20% of generally agreed health advice that gets you 80% of the health benefits:
    • More of this: exercise, sleep, vegetables, fish, water
    • Less of this: smoking, drinking, saturated fats, sugar, red meat
  5. Business. Which product/work brings you the most profit? Concentrate on these. Which customers give you the most business? Keep them happy. Which customers give you the most headaches? Get rid of them.
  6. Time. Which activities are you dedicating 80% of your time on for 20% of the result? Which activities are a large drain of your physical and mental resources for little reward? Get rid of these activities, they’re an inefficient use of your time.
  7. Study. Every subject consists of important topics and not-so-important topics. Focus on understanding / practising the building blocks of the subject. For example:
    • Coding: understand variables; loops; conditions; objects; databases.
    • Cooking: cook more; practice a handful of recipes; taste everything; knife skills.
    • Language: practice with a native speaker; focus on expression over grammar; watch mother-tongue films with target language subtitles.
    • Copywriting: target reader pain; present solution; focus on benefits; call-to-action.
  8. Exercise. You don’t need to spend hours in the gym. Simplify your workout: push ups, pull ups, squats, planks, lunges. Or check out tabata workouts.
  9. Happiness. Identify the 20% of activities that bring you 80% of your joy. Do as much of this as you can. Conversely, identify the 20% of activities that create 80% of your sadness. Are there ways to resolve, minimise or eliminate these negative influences from your life?

Takeaway points

  1. Don’t over-complicate life by concentrating on things that don’t matter or bring little benefit.
  2. Working hard is necessary but it’s not enough. You need to work smarter, too.
  3. Living an 80-20 life requires a shift in thinking and a commitment to the process. It won’t happen overnight but, with perseverance, the results will speak for themselves.

Action steps

  1. Take an audit. Right now, take a detailed look at your life and identify those things that are 80-20 efficient and those that aren’t.
  2. Delegate, outsource or eliminate what you can. Even if you cannot eliminate an inefficient activity entirely, you can minimise it and/or make the case to others that there are more effective uses of your time. You can hire virtual assistants online to perform those inefficient, low-reward, high-frustration activities for you.
  3. Check in regularly with yourself. At the end of each day, recognise and celebrate the times you observed the 80-20 rule effectively. Make a note of those activities that remain inefficent and work on these the next day. Look to establish habits, routines and systems to maximise your personal effectiveness and enjoyment.

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