The 80/20 rule is an interesting and powerful concept. Known also as Pareto’s Law, it was a formula that was devised by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1897. What the law says in essence is that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our results in life. Not being restricted in its application to the workplace, its working also present us with a fertile opportunity to learn how we can better leverage ourselves and our time to achieve what we want from life.
First coming across this concept in my mid-twenties, I initially found it difficult to accept the principle because it didn’t resonate with how I believed the world to be. Having adopted the belief that what we expend in effort produces results in comparable amounts, this conformed neatly with my understanding of equitable effects, where what one inputs will be commensurate to what they receive in outputs. Despite there being different things taking place in my environment which suggested that the scales were not as evenly poised as I believed them to be, my learning was slow in coming until I serendipitously had an experience which brought this wisdom home.
Having at the time just received back the marks for my law exams, they frustratingly did not reflect the effort that I had expended in preparing for the task. In assessing my knowledge as mediocre in its application, I suspected that something was not right with my approach. Seeking the counsel of one of my lecturers, he looked through my exam paper and promptly identified the shortcomings in my focus. Asking me what I had concentrated on with my preparations, my answer revealed that I had given too much of my attention to peripheral and less important concepts that the exam questions did not require me to address. Emphasizing to me the importance of a small group of essential legal principles that he had based the exam on, these were what I needed to study in detail to achieve the mark that I had felt I deserved.
As I was driving home from this meeting, I drew a connection that brought my mind back to Pareto’s law. Relating my lecturer’s feedback to the principle, it became clear why I had fallen short with my well-intentioned but misguided efforts. By not focusing on the essential minority of principles with my preparations, I had squandered a majority of the marks for the assessment. In taking a blanket approach to covering the material for the unit, I had spread myself too thinly, and my ability to articulate what needed to be addressed had suffered as a consequence.
Being an honest mistake, it was not one that was made by some of my more astute classmates. By taking a more calculated and thoughtful approach, they would direct their energies on what they had identified as being the most important content for the course. Neglecting the minutia that I had wrongfully given so much attention to, they had proved to be more efficient with their focus and time, while being more effective with the results they produced.
Wanting to become acquainted with this skill of leveraging that they appeared to have mastered, I learnt that the secret lay in giving your attention and effort to those vital tasks that ensure success with their accomplishment. In this, the key skill is being able to differentiate between what is a vital task and what is not. The fatal flaw with the paradigm which says that what is given in effort is returned with rewards, is that effort can be, and often is, expended on the wrong things. By our inability to decipher what needs to be done at the right time, our efforts not only fail to produce the results we desire, but they are often also counterproductive in that they leave us with more work to do, and less time in which to do it.
I also encountered this phenomenon when I started to work in the law. Wanting to clear my plate of all the minor tasks that I was charged with so that I could focus on the major ones with my full attention, I found myself continually chasing my tail rather than making inroads into the important work to be done. In endeavouring to make things easier on myself, I inadvertently made them more difficult by utilising this approach. While I understood the 80/20 principle at a theoretical level, it was evident that I was not applying it at a practical level. Old habits can sometimes be hard to break, especially when we haven’t really been exposed to the consistent benefits of doing things in a way that seem counterintuitive to the mind.
I also think that part of the problem in the work context is that we are prone to procrastinate when faced with tasks that challenge our core capacities. Giving in to the hedonistic inclination towards instant over delayed gratification, we find ourselves in the here and now occupied with that which is easy or comfortable, rather than that which tests the limits of our resourcefulness. Why this causes trouble is because it is often those things that stretch our abilities and make us feel uncomfortable that are the most essential tasks for us to perform.
If I were a salesman, it would be much easier for me to arrange products than it would be to make a cold call to a potential customer (and risk rejection), but the possible rewards which could flow from that action would be much lower. Similarly, if I were a doctor, I would not be best leveraging my abilities by answering emails or sitting in on another meeting. The 20% that I should be focusing my energy on would be taking place in the operating theatre, or in a learning situation where I can increase my knowledge to better serve the health needs of my clients. The question then becomes, what task can you perform now that will create the greatest value for those who rely on your efforts?
The most in demand companies and service professionals are proficient in answering the question that I have posed here. Succeeding in business requires that leverage be built, integrated and then further refined. This necessitates a sharp focus on how products and processes can be continually optimised and improved. By putting this as a chief operating objective, one’s client base will remain happy and loyal, and opportunities to expand the business will present themselves as the market gets wind of the great value proposition that is being offered.