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Do you think of time as an enemy? Do you feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to check off your to-do list? Working all the time but still late for everything? Do you feel there is a gap between your input and your output in terms of results and success?
I recently read a book about the 80/20 principle and wanted to share some insights from it with you. They are relevant to those of us who struggle with Time management, productivity-related issues and balance between work and private life. IN The 80/20 Principle: Do more with lessRichard Koch – a British consultant, author and investor – offers a unique perspective on the question of time management. His approach is not exactly a celebration of laziness, nor happiness, acceptance or letting go. Instead, Koch suggests intelligent, hyperfocused, and reduced effort. It suggests that we should work much smarter and much less.
You are probably familiar with the 80/20 principle. It is also known as Pareto’s law and as the principle of least effort. It is said that a surprisingly small amount of effort and input (20%) leads to 80% of our results. In other words, there is a highly one-sided distribution of inputs and outcomes. By implication, the principle also suggests that the vast majority of our efforts, time and resources are completely wasted. We naturally tend to assume that most of our efforts result in most of our results. But that belief is a delusion.
Koch’s promise is that if we can understand and harness this principle, we can generate significant improvements in productivity and success—while also working less: “If you know the 20 percent of the causes that produce 80 percent of the results, you’ll work a lot less, enjoy life more.” and make a lot more money.”
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The 80/20 principle is based on the research of the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923). Pareto observed patterns of wealth and income distribution in 19th century England. Unsurprisingly, he found that they were extremely unbalanced – ie, 80% of the wealth was held by 20% of the population. However, Pareto not only discovered that wealth was unbalanced, but predictable unbalanced.
The 80/20 principle applies to companies and economies in general. For example, if a company knows that 80% of its revenue is the result of 20% of its products, or 20% of its customers, or 20% of specific activities, it would wise focus most of the resources and energy on these 20% which are the most important. In fact, the word ‘entrepreneurship’ suggests just that: the term was coined by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say around 1800. Say defined an entrepreneur as someone who “shifts economic resources from an area of lower productivity to an area of higher productivity and yield.”
Applying the principles to your personal life
The 80/20 principle is also applicable in our private lives – it can be useful in terms of our work habits, time management, relationships and overall progress. Translated into the psychological realm, we can also find that approximately 20% of our actions result in 80% of our actions happiness. It can be time spent with close friends or family, or time spent in nature, or doing certain activities. Even in our private life, we can look for small inputs that have big results. We can benefit from being much more selective about how we spend our time and with whom we spend it.
I’m not usually a fan of computer metaphors or economic language and principles translated into the field of psychology. After all, we are not companies, nor are we machines. Thinking of yourself as an entrepreneurial entity is also not helpful. And productivity and efficiency as values in themselves are not the holy grail – despite what the time management industry tries to tell us. I prefer to strive creativity but productivity, which has industrial connotations. Our goal should not be to blindly optimize and maximize our performance and efficiency at any cost, but rather to discern what is truly important to us and focus our energy on that. Even if we increase our efficiency, what really matters remains how we use our efficiency.
Yet if we look beyond the input/output and optimization metaphors, we can see that Koch is talking about how to spend your time and energy more wisely. And Koch is truly radical when it comes to time. Most of us feel a lack of time, as if there are not enough hours in the day. We feel like there’s always too much on our to-do lists and we just don’t have enough time in the day to get through them. Koch argues just the opposite: we are overwhelmed with time and wanton in our misuse of it. We have more than enough time. Our real problem is simply that we don’t use it well.
He suggests that all less valuable activities should be radically eliminated. If we can identify the 20% of our activities that are important – in any sphere – we can focus only on that and let go of the 80% of non-productive activities. As a result, we’ll suddenly have a lot more free time and thinking time at our disposal: “If we double our time on our top 20 percent of activities, we can work a two-day week and accomplish 60 percent more than we do now.”
Another bonus of such an approach is that when we act less, we think more. And we think better. The most valuable creative ideas come to us when we are not too busy or emphaticallybut in a calm, more contemplative and receptive spirit.
But here’s the problem with Koch’s theory: most of us are not fully autonomous masters of our time. We may have children, partners and dependents and mortgages to pay; we can work for other people or institutions that dictate our to-do lists and force to spend time in unproductive ways. We can also work in teams and constantly depend on other people’s input.
So a more realistic way of looking at the 80/20 principle would be to try to apply it within our circle of control. This means being very judicious about what we can and cannot control, and then focusing our energies on the former. We can then apply the principle to activities and freedoms that are clearly located within our circle of control.
Looking more closely at work habits and focus on tasks we can control, we might ask ourselves the following:
- How do I spend my time on a typical working day?
Draw a pie chart and assign percentage points to each activity to visualize the insights from this exercise. For example, you might spend 20% of your time on email, 30% on meetings and calls, 10% on writing proposals, 20% on researching new jobs, and 20% on web surfing. Or you can spend 50% of your days traveling, 30% in client meetings and 20% with admin. Or you can spend 20% of your day writing, 20% training, 40% get lost in their thoughts and on the internet, and 20% feel guilty about that fact and research ways not to – like me. 😊
Then ask yourself:
- Which of my work activities is the most important? What 20% actually lead to my successes – however we may define them?
- How can I spend more time on the activities that really matter?
- And which of the non-generative activities can I minimize? What activities can I say no to in the future?
This is of course easier said than done. It is a very useful mental exercise though. At the most basic level, analyzing the 80/20 controllable work habits could provide us with a compass – a clear sense of priorities and knowledge of what is and isn’t important. Moreover, saying no to mindless busyness can be extremely liberating. It can free us to find more creative ways to do things and spend time.
Last but key point: the time we save by applying the 80/20 principle to our work tasks should NOT be reinvested in the business. The point of this exercise is to work less, but smarter. The point is to free ourselves to take breaks, to relax, to reflect, to simply be, to connect with others, and to do more nourishing, energizing, soul-soothing things—all things that make us feel alive and connected to our deeper purpose. .