The 80/20 Rule: Hack or Hype?

Every business consultant has heard of the Pareto Principle.

You’ve probably heard of it too, maybe as the 80/20 rule. It says that generally, 20% of the work produces 80% of the results. That’s cool, but I like practical applications. If the principle can be used as a hack, think how much you could accomplish! But as Albert Einstein once noted, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” Like Einstein, I tend to be skeptical, so I tested it.

I started with the implied assumption that 20 minutes of actual work produces 80 minutes of work result. Assuming the 80/20 rule holds true at various levels, then 20% of the 20 minutes of work (4 minutes of actual work) should produce 80% of the 80 minutes of work results (64 minutes of work results). I love the idea but it’s insane, even for someone with my love of caffeine.

hourglass
The workday just got shorter. Theoretically.

Then I tested the original theory with a survey. (No, I didn’t ask the cat. It was legit and I had enough respondents for solid statistical analysis.) Everybody who responded used some sort of time management system, whether it was a day planner or a sticky note for the week. This boosted my confidence in their collective time management and productivity skills for about 3 seconds.

Weirdly, they all reported an average daily to-do list of between 6 and 10 tasks. More weird, they all reported accomplishing 50% to 75% of their daily tasks. How can we apply the 80/20 rule if we aren’t even accomplishing 80% of our tasks? Is it just hype? Are we not putting in the 20% effort? Or is it the wrong 20%? Or just dumb luck that sometimes it works out?

I don’t know. I do know this: we’re doing time management wrong. Time management is a fool’s errand, at least the way it’s usually taught to us. Prioritize and do “worst things first” but also do the simple and easy things first to generate momentum. It means neat lists on forms with boxes to check. It means middle-way and GTD and workworkwork. Crazy yet?

If we’re getting an average of 5 tasks done each day, our planners (with their 10 or 20 lines) are mocking us with their emptiness. They set up unrealistic expectations of our time and our productivity. I used to spend far too much time writing in tasks just so I could cross them off, and the page made me look like a productivity goddess.

Carve my goddess statue just like this, except make that a coffee cup.
Carve my goddess statue just like this, except make that a coffee cup.

Psych fact: we overestimate the time it takes to do short and simple tasks like emptying the dishwasher, but we horribly underestimate the time we need for longer projects. If you estimate the time it takes to do your 5 tasks, immediately double it to allow for interruptions or side-tracks. Add time for lunch and breaks, and your work day is accounted for. If not, either you underestimated time, or your tasks are things like “make coffee” and “drink coffee.”

Everybody has a way that works for them, but nobody has a way to apply the 80/20 thing in a practical way. So you tell me: is it legit or just luck? Comment with your two cents! And before you go, be sure to like and share!

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Location Maricopa, AZ E-mail Adina@adinawollam.com Hours Monday - Saturday 10am - 4pm MST
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