One fateful day around 1895 avid gardener and economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed something peculiar. Only 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced an astounding 80% of the crop. Here is how to focus on the vital few — meaning the vital few (in everything) that are producing your biggest results.
Pareto then applied this to principle to the macroeconomics in his homeland of Italy. What did he find? A whopping 80% of the land was owned 20% of the people.
Since then, the Pareto Principle, which is also known as the 80/20 Rule, has been applied to nearly every facet of life.
In business, 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers. For athletes training, 20% of the exercises and habits have 80% of the impact. And, when it comes to traffic accidents, 20% of motorists cause 80% of them.
But, it’s also a popular technique when it comes to time management and productivity. Perhaps that’s why some influential people have modified it throughout the year. Examples include:
- Peter Drucker. In his book The Effective Executive, Drucker suggests that in order to highlight the vital 20%, you must eliminate the trivial 80%. He calls these “posteriorities,” which are pretty much just the opposite of your priorities.
- Richard Koch. As the author of The 80/20 Principle, Koch definitely knows a little about this concept. He suggests that you can unlock enormous potential by leveraging the magic of 20%.
- Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. The authors of The One Thing suggest you focus on your lead domino. When you do, all of the other dominoes will fall into place. “You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects,” they write.
- Tim Ferriss. The author of The 4-Hour Workweek pairs the Pareto Principle with Parkinson’s Law to reduce time by setting deadlines.
How the Pareto Principle Impacts Productivity
There might be a misconception that the 80/20 Rule means working less. That’s not exactly true. After all, it has nothing to do with actual periods of time.
Instead, it’s a way to help you laser-in on what’s most important. When you identify these areas, that’s where you want to dedicate most of your time and energy. As a result, you won’t be squandering these valuable resources on the unnecessary.
But, if you’re still a little lost, I think Brian Tracy has a clear explanation. “The Pareto Principle is a concept that suggests two out of ten items, on any general to-do list, will turn out to be worth more than the other eight items put together.”
“The sad fact is that most people procrastinate on the top 10 or 20 percent of items that are the most valuable and important,” which is known as the “vital few.“ Instead, they “busy themselves” with the least important 80 percent, aka the “trivial many.”
Why’s that a problem? Because the “trivial many” do not contribute much to your success. In fact, it’s counterproductive since this can lead to:
- More stress. If you devoting too much time on activities that don’t produce results, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. Eventually, because you’re constantly playing catch-up, you’re going to get burned out.
- Increased engagement. Will there be some tasks that aren’t always the most exciting? Absolutely. But, spending too much time on them will leave you feeling bored and frustrated. Over time, you may decide to just check-out all together.
- A cluttered calendar. Even if you love what you do, you still need time away to pursue passions, interests, and hobbies outside of work. But, if your calendar is jam-packed with trivial items, then how can you achieve this healthy balance?
Apply the Pareto Principle to Focus on the Vital Few
So, how can you focus on the vital few? Well, there are a variety of strategies you can employ. Some are more complex than others. But, I’m all about simplicity. As such. I feel that there are five strategies that can encourage this.
1. Simplify your to-do-lists.
Have you found yourself never finishing your to-do-lists? It’s a common problem that most of us experience. In fact, 89% of people fail at crossing off all of the items on their list.
While there are a variety of culprits, like easily getting distracted, the main reason is that you have too many items listed. To counter this, you need to make your list more manageable. And, you can realistically achieve this by:
- Mapping out your 1-3-5 items. Here you would identify your main priority, 3 medium priorities, and 5 smaller to-dos. Determining these lets you know what priorities to schedule first and what you can focus on afterward.
- Employing a priority matrix. The most common example of this would be the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s a simple strategy where you place everything you have to do into one of the following quadrants; Important and Urgent, Not Urgent and Important, Not Urgent and Not Important, and Neither Urgent of Important. Again, this lets you know what your vital few are. Even better, it helps you determine what can be delegated or deleted.
- Identifying your MIT. Your MIT is your most important task and comes before anything else. Ideally, it should be aligned with your goals.
- Creating a “done” list. “Don’t throw away your completed lists,” writes Abby Miller in a previous Calendar article. “Instead, get a binder and place these ‘done’ lists in there.” Why? It helps you “track your progress, and you can see if there are any recurring tasks — and it builds morale. After all, seeing what you’ve already accomplished can motivate you to keep on trucking.”
2. Track your time.
Whether you use a productivity journal or time tracker, this is an essential step. Without tracking your time, you aren’t able to see how long commitments truly take you to complete. More importantly, this will help your spot and eliminate time wasters.
For this to be effective, you should track your time for about a month. Afterward, you should analyze the results. Hopefully, you’ll notice that it takes your 3 hours to complete your MIT. Knowing this, you would block out that amount of time in your calendar — preferably when you’re at your peak performance.
There’s also another benefit of tracking your time. It lets you know when you’re more likely to get distracted or interrupted. That means you can then plan accordingly. For example, if a colleague or housemate bursts in your office at the same time every day, you can schedule a break at this time or ask them to come back at a better time.
3. Restructure your routine.
Here’s another reason why you should track your time. It lets you create a daily routine. Again, that means scheduling your most important items onto your calendar when you’re most productive. It also makes planning easier and provides you with structure.
But, there’s more to it than that. It also helps you eliminate unhealthy habits and engage in healthier ones. For instance, if you know that your energy dips after lunch, that’s when you could engage in physical activity or catch-up with a friend.
4. Train yourself.
To be more specific, you should be constantly enhancing or learning new skills. The reason is straightforward. It will guide you in working faster and more sensibly.
However, you should also work on other areas where you’re struggling. For example, let’s say that you have difficulty concentrating. You could fix this through meditation, organizing your workspace, the Pomodoro Technique, or single-tasking.
5. Think beyond work.
Finally, use the 80/20 Rule outside of work. Why? Because it will promote a healthier and happier life.
Take reading as an example. While it’s one of the best ways to spend your downtime, trying to read too many books can be overwhelming. Instead, focus on the couple that will have the greatest impact on your life.
You could also apply this to the apps on your phone, customers, interpersonal relationships, or products/services that you offer. In short, you can use this concept to pinpoint what’s most deserving of your time and energy.