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Before we take a deep dive into this centuries-old concept, though, I’d like to ask you: Do you consider yourself to be a thinker or a doer? Hold on to that answer, as we’re going to come back to that in a bit.
Pareto’s Principle is a trendy topic, but it was actually first discovered in the late 1700s by the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto discovered that 80 percent of Italy’s national wealth could be attributed to 20 percent of its population. In other words, the wealth was not evenly distributed, but rather concentrated in a highly predictable way. There lies the heart of the principle, really — the idea that most things in life are not evenly distributed.
The Pareto Principle model was later revived in the 1950s by Joseph Moses Juran, considered by many to be the father of the quality movement. What he discovered is that this principle can be applied into a variety of areas in business and life.
In its essence, Pareto’s Principle proves that small, focused pockets of effort produce the majority of your results. In other words, not all things are equal and therefore should not be treated as equal. In fact, when we focus on fewer projects, tasks or activities, known as the “vital few,” we maximize our impact. When we prioritize our time by focusing on the vital few, we can become more effective with our work, which is why it’s such an important concept to understand.
Some common misconceptions
When used correctly, Pareto’s Principle gives us a clearer picture of where we need to focus our time and energy. After all, these are the few items on your list that will move the needle the most. Unfortunately, though, there are quite a few misconceptions floating around about this principle. And by quite a few, I mean, a lot. There are a lot of so-called experts out there who use Pareto’s Principle as a buzzword in their teachings, but they don’t apply it appropriately.
To really dive into this concept, we first need to remember that productivity is not one size fits all. I mean, let’s be honest, your life is not one size fits all. Let’s hop off that bandwagon of whatever it is that we think we’re supposed to do, and instead let’s make the strategies that we read about truly work for us as individuals.
Misconception #1: “I have to follow the 80/20 percentage breakdown exactly.”
Because it’s often called the 80/20 Rule, people can get fixated on those percentages. But Pareto’s Principle is not about those hard and fast numbers. Rather, look at the numbers 80 and 20 as symbolic representations of that “uneven balance” we’ve been discussing. The fact that they happen to add up to 100 is simply a coincidence.
Your input and output ratio might look different. Perhaps you are an 80/10 person, where 80 percent of your results come from 10 percent of your activities. Or maybe that ratio is 90/15 instead. Don’t get caught up in the numbers 80 and 20. A much better way to view it in your daily work and life is like this: The small, focused pockets of effort will produce the majority of my results.
Misconception #2: “My focus should be entirely on the ‘vital few,’ and I should forget about the ‘trivial many’ if I want to be truly productive.”
Oh how I wish we could be true! But to do this — to only concentrate on the “vital few” and leave the “trivial many” in our rearview mirror — would lead to utter disaster. Just because something doesn’t bring us a direct ROI, doesn’t mean we don’t need to give it our attention. As much as we’d like to, we cannot pretend those “trivial many” tasks, like paying the bills or filing paperwork, don’t exist.
These tasks are things that we don’t necessarily love to do, and we might even view them as time-wasters in the large scope of things. But here’s the thing — and this is why I put paying the bills in this category — these are things we still have to do, whether we like it or not. In fact, Pareto’s Principle is applied ineffectively when people assume they need to focus exclusively on the vital few tasks. If we were to do that, then we’d get lost in a cycle of continuously playing catch up, which is the opposite of what we want.
Making a Pareto Principle model that works for you
Now that we know the common misconceptions out there, I want to help you design your own ratio for success based on what productivity looks like and feels like to you.
Let’s go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: Do you consider yourself to be a thinker or a doer? Regardless of how you answered, what I want you to dig into are these questions: How much of the thinking you do is truly effective? How much of the decision-making you do truly impacts your business? If you are spending your time thinking about the wrong things, or if you’re spending most of your time shifting, moving from one task to the next, is any of that really effective? The key that we seem to miss when we consider Pareto’s Principle is that the rule is meaningless if we don’t find ways to apply it effectively to ourselves.
Warren Buffet is widely regarded as a genius when it comes to Pareto’s Principle. Buffet is known for spending 80 to 90 percent of his day learning. This means that the man we all know as a renowned investor spends little of his time actually investing and the majority of his time learning. You can take this model and run with it, but that ratio might not work for you. Success does not mean trying to fit yourself neatly into a box that was made for someone else. You are not limited by someone else’s definition of success. The only definition that matters is the one that you create for yourself based on the life that you lead and the life you want.
We don’t want to get so caught up in that 80/20 ratio that we’re losing sight of what it is we really want. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to sit down, and I want you to think about what your ratio for success really looks like. Forget about input; forget about output. Come up with a ratio that speaks to how effective you can be. Are you in fact a 20/80 person? Do you spend 20 percent of your time thinking and 80 percent seeing your decisions through? Are you a 10/90? Are you a 15/85, or something different?
What you need to consider here are your own biggest priorities and how effective you are in your efforts to see them through, cultivate them and actually take action on them. If you are effective in your thinking, you’re going to be effective at your execution and vice versa. And that is really where true productivity happens.
If I can leave you with one message it is this: Let’s not blindly apply productivity principles because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. Rather, let’s take a step back and see the bigger picture of how they work for each of us as individuals.