Time Freedom: The 80/20 Rule

by Brian Cormack Carr on May 28, 2011

Vilfredo Pareto - photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto (15 July 1848 – 19 August 1923) was an Italian industrialist, sociologist, economist, and philosopher. He made several important contributions to economics, particularly in the study of income distribution and in the analysis of individuals’ choices. Pareto observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population (and that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas); and so the Pareto Principle was born.  The Pareto Principle (also known as ‘the 80-20 rule’, ‘the law of the vital few’, and ‘the principle of factor sparsity’) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

As chief executive of a charity, I’m very aware that around 80% of a voluntary organisation’s funding comes from around 20% of its funders.  Those of you who work in private business will recognise that around 80% of your profits derive from roughly 20% of your customers.

How does this help you free your time?  Well, in any list of ten things you have to do, it’s likely that two of them – once completed – will create more value for you than all the other eight put together.  By identifying and tackling those first, you can massively improve your outputs, and save time in the bargain.  It’s a principle that allows some people to appear hugely productive, even though they have no more hours in their day than you do.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, recognised this when he entreated his readers to “focus on the important and not the urgent”.  He illustrates his point using the Time Matrix, which divides all activities into one of four groups:

By focusing on activities in quadrant two – items that are important, but which have not yet become urgent – time spent in the other quadrants can be reduced or better managed, and productivity increased.  Of course, it’s impossible to completely eliminate time spent in these other quadrants, especially the first one, which represents events which are both important and urgent, such as sudden emergencies; but time spent in quadrant two can save you more time in the long run.

So the next time you’re overwhelmed by a long list of tasks to get through, and have limited time, ask yourself: “which of these are my vital few?”. Identify which 20% of the tasks are most important.  Get those done, and you’ll be able to tackle the rest with a greater sense of relaxation, safe in the knowledge that – even if you don’t get everything finished – you’ve already made really good use of your available time.

© Brian Cormack Carr, 2011

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen August 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm

just read this post – perfect timing – had just made a long list and didn’t know where to begin! thanks…..Ellen

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Brian Cormack Carr August 21, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Glad it was helpful, Ellen.

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Diane August 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I’ve been doing the complete opposite lately. My strategy was to tackle to easiest items on the list to build momentum that would ideally carry me effortlessly into the more difficult items, which are generally the ‘Important’ ones. It hasn’t worked, instead it just stalls me with too much time spent on the ‘Not Important’ items from your chart. I’m going to change course and put this into action today. Great post, Brian!

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Brian Cormack Carr August 24, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Thanks Diane. I’ve been there! I’ve even been at the stage where I feel like I’ve done something just by writing it on a “to do” list (without actually donig vey much on the list). This really is a great technique. I’ve found that I can get to the end of the day and may still have some little niggly things left undone…but if I’ve got some of the big stuff done, I don’t mind at all.

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