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It’s likely you’ve heard of the Pareto principle (maybe even when reading my tips on being more productive or studying more effectively), but do you really know what it is? Also known as the 80/20 rule or the law of the vital few, it’s a little confusing at first, but really grasping it can help you manage your time better and get more done with less effort.

What is the Pareto principle?

Basically, the Pareto principle states that 80% of your outcomes result from just 20% of your effort. The principle was coined by consultant Joseph M. Juran in the 1940s and he named it after a sociologist and economist named Vilfredo Pareto, who was famous for pointing out that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the total amount of people. You’ll hear it said a number of ways: 80% of results come from 20% of the work or 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. No matter the wording, it all means the same thing. 

An often-cited example of how this works for everyday people is learning the piano or guitar. You study individual notes, keys, time signatures, tempos, chords, and so much else, but when it’s time to jam, you’re probably falling back on a handful of the most common chords. In that way, a huge chunk of your actual playing is dependent on just one small thing that you learned. Or consider how a relatively small number of excellent players is responsible for the majority of points scored by your favorite sports team. For another example, think of how much work you do in a day: You do your job, any side gigs you might have, housework, hobbies, child-rearing, studying for classes you might be taking, going to the gym, making time for friends—you do a lot, but you only get paid for a small fraction of that work, which is why you might prioritize your job over some of the other things on that list, even side hustles, which generate less money. And there’s why the 80/20 rule is important to understand: It helps you prioritize your to-do list. 

How to use the Pareto principle to maximize your results

You can identify ways the general principle manifests in your work. For instance, if you work for a retail company, you might notice a major chunk of profits comes from a small, dedicated group of consistent buyers. The real trick to using this principle is figuring out how it applies to your own work. 

When you make your daily to-do list, use a prioritization technique, like the 1-3-5 list, Kanban, or Eisenhower Matrix. Right off the bat, this helps you figure out which of your necessary tasks for the day are important and which can be pushed off or delegated. Spend about two weeks working on your to-do lists every day as normal, but at the end of the day, write down what the direct results of each activity were. So, if you spent half an hour responding to emails and netted 10 new clients from that, write it down. If you dedicated an hour to compiling the data for a big meeting that got your project greenlit, mark it down. Over time, the basic functions that yield the biggest results will become apparent and you can start making those activities—the 20%-of-your-effort activities—a bigger priority, so you waste less time on the tasks that don’t produce as many results. 

Working backward and considering the effects, then identifying their causes, will help you prioritize and get more done, but it can also help you with non-work tasks. In a more abstract sense, a relatively small amount of effort is required to grab a coffee with a friend or help your kid with homework, but the 80% yield might be reenforcing and maintaining a friendship or helping your child feel safe and accomplished, which have longer-lasting impacts than the 30 minutes those tasks take. When you free up your working time through prioritization and an understanding of the Pareto principle, you have more opportunities to spread it around in other areas of your life and keep reaping the benefits. 

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