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The Pareto principle (the 80:20 rule) in time management

Pareto principle in time management

In management theory, there is an important principle known as 80-20 rule or the Pareto principle. The idea was formulated by the Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Federico Pareto

The principle states that, for many events, roughly 80 % of the effects come from 20 % of the causes. It’s an uneven distribution that can be found in countless life and business situations.

Practical examples of the Pareto principle would be:

  • 80 % of your sales come from 20 % of your clients.
  • 80% of your profits comes from 20 % of your products or services.
  • 80 % of decisions in a meeting are made in 20 % of the time.
  • Fixing the top 20 % of the most reported bugs also eliminates 80 % of related errors and crashes.
  • You wear 20 % of your clothes 80 % of the time and so on

The Pareto principle also has an important place in time management.

The Pareto principle in time management states that 80 % of results will come from 20 % of your effort. Consequently, being aware of the Pareto principle can mainly help us set the right priorities. 

It can help us to focus on activities that will have the biggest impact in our business and personal lives.

The uneven distribution of tasks you do every day: 20% of your tasks contribute to about 80% of the total success in your organization.

Let’s look at the main ideas on how the Pareto principle help us set the right priorities in business.

We are all automatically drawn to tasks and activities that don’t have real impact

Unimportant and small-impact tasks have a tendency to get in the way of important ones - the ones that could have a real impact on our career or business. There’s a simple reason why that happens. 

Impactful tasks are usually much harder to execute in comparison to non-impactful tasks. That’s why we are automatically drawn to the latter.

Let’s look at a few practical examples:

  • It’s much easier to polish a sales presentation than to make 20 sales calls.
  • It’s much easier to brainstorm, hold meetings or debate different tactics than to choose one of the options and execute it perfectly.
  • It’s much easier to go for marginal improvements on a product than to look for a new, disruptive innovation that could give a company a new competitive edge.
  • It’s much easier to answer e-mails, chat with colleagues, and give in to other distractions, than to do the deep work - creating and delivering what you are paid to.

Simply put, it’s so hard to prioritize because the most important tasks are hard to execute. They require creativity, diligence, focus, deep work and other types of mental effort. 

Next to that, we are many times not even aware of bad prioritization. We’re not aware of how low-impact tasks highjack our day, and we automatically let real progress and advancement slip. 

And you already know the problem. Urgent, but unimportant tasks, and tasks that give you a fake feeling of progress, can take up to 80 % or even more of your time. 

But the impact of those unimportant tasks is minimal in terms of the advancement of your career, or business advancement. That’s where the Pareto principle comes in handy.

The Pareto principle in time management can help us prioritize tasks

The Pareto principle can help us see the big picture as to what to focus on for the fastest advancement in our business life. It gives us a real representation of how unevenly impact can be distributed, and consequently guidance on what tasks to focus on to get the best results. 

For example:

  • If 80 % of your sales come from 20 % of your clients, it makes sense to focus on the further development of your biggest clients or to find new “look-alike” clients.
  • If your boss appreciates 20 % of your output, which has, in his view, an 80% impact on the organization’s goals, it makes sense to focus more on that 20 % of tasks.
  • If 2 out of 10 time wasters (email, meetings, coworker interruptions, phone calls, social media, instant messaging and other notifications, daily news, logistics, TV, gossiping etc.) are responsible for 80 % of your time wasted, it makes sense to identify those 2 time wasters and eliminate or minimize them.

And let’s not forget, you can shorten business meetings up to 80 % if you focus meetings on the agenda and decision making. Make sure the Pareto principle works in your favor, not against you. 

So, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What 20 % of your tasks will really help you get promoted?
  • With what 20 % of your tasks are you really helping your organization to grow?
  • With what behaviors that you rarely engage in (less than 20 % of time) are you destroying 80 % of your chances for success? Are you being too argumentative? A bad team worker?, Late to work, etc.?
  • Which one or two activities are responsible for 80 % of your time wasted?

You can do the same exercise in your personal life, when trying to achieve a work-life balance. Try to analyze with which activities you waste time and get nowhere because they are easy to do, and which activities should be your number one priority in free time.

The 20 % of tasks in your business or career that you should be focused on

In business, everything is about creating value for the market. Thus, tasks with the biggest impact are all the ones connected to creating value, delivering value and capturing value for the customers. 

These three types of activities are nicely presented on the business model canvas or personal-business model canvas:

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You can contribute to creating, delivering, and capturing value directly (being in R&D, sales etc.) or indirectly. So, the important tasks to work on are the bottom-line deliveries you are actually paid for or the customers pays for. 

At least 80 % of your time should be spent solely on these important, impactful activities, and you should always have a few KPIs that help you to focus and measure your work on the most productive tasks.

  • Creating value includes: Strategic planning, creating new, innovative products and value propositions, engaging resources, forming strategic partnerships, etc.
  • Delivering value includes: Optimizing distribution channels, forming customer relationships, marketing products, sales, and so on.
  • Capturing value means: Forming new business models, finding better interest rates for debt financing, optimizing costs, etc.

Based on the creating-delivering-capturing value framework, you should identify the key results areas in your business. These key-results areas can be sales, marketing, customer service, product development, finding better partners or employees etc. 

Or, in the case of your personal career they can be bringing more revenue in, generating new leads, suggesting organizational improvements, etc. Then you should focus your time on these key result areas.

And after focusing on the key results areas (macro focusing), you should also consider the Pareto principle when micro focusing - for example deciding on which clients, innovations, marketing tactics etc. to focus on, and then executing those tasks perfectly.

On the other hand, the activities which you should usually avoid and fall into the 20% are:

  • Urgent tasks, which are not important (based on the Eisenhower matrix)
  • Tasks you are not really good at
  • Other people’s tasks that you are not invested in (which were somehow off-loaded on you)
  • Tasks you could easily delegate or outsource to your team
  • Tasks that are way out of your comfort zone
  • Typical time wasters – meetings, gossiping, etc.

Don’t be skeptical - track your time and see it for yourself

Many people are skeptical about the Pareto principle and uneven distribution, until they analyze how they spend their time and how much they really work on the activities that bring actual progress. 

The best way to see it for yourself is to simply track your time. Only what you measure can you really manage.

You can simply use a free time tracker like My Hours for a few weeks and analyze how much time you have spent on the important and impactful activities, and how much on low-value activities. Usually, people are surprised how much time goes to waste.

The benefit of a time tracker is not only for reporting or billing purposes, but also to help you remain constantly aware of the Pareto principle. 

It helps you to set the right priorities before you hit the start button on the time tracker. And if you are a manager, you can achieve the same for your team and help them become aware of the real important tasks to make sure the others don’t just highjack the day.

No matter if you use a time tracker or not, you should have regular periodical reviews of your projects and tasks to recalibrate your focus over and over again onto the 20 % tasks. Employing the Pareto principle in practice in time management is not a one-time job, but a never-ending process.

A few time-management tactics to help you stay put with the Pareto principle

For the last part, let’s look at some time-management tactics to help you stay focused on the most important tasks that you’ve defined based on the concept of the Pareto principle:

1. Be ruthless with which tasks you let on your to-do list

Don’t just let any task enter your to-do list. Don’t let just anybody interrupt you for a few minutes. Don’t be reactive, be proactive with your time. Otherwise, your day will be quickly highjacked and your productivity will suffer. 

Being proactive means being ruthless with which tasks you put on your to-do list, especially if those tasks are enforced by others. Even if you get a task delegated from your boss, if you know that you have other more important priorities, speak politely with them and explain your point of view.

2. Delegate, outsource, and automate where possible

The point of understanding the Pareto principle is to focus yourself on the tasks with the biggest impact and not letting “the other” tasks get in the way. But something must be done about these other, low-impact tasks.

Well, they can just stay undone (if they have zero impact or consequences), delegated to subordinates, and maybe even outsourced or automated. 

That’s what a good and highly-organized manager does – they understand what their number one priorities are and what tasks to delegate to which team members, or maybe even not to bother with.

3. Timebox deep work

Timeboxing means that you open your calendar and enter a block of time that you’ll spend on a certain task in the future. It’s like scheduling a meeting in your calendar, nothing different.

Once you reserve a box of time in your calendar, you should treat it like a scheduled meeting – no rapid rescheduling and no distractions during the scheduled time. 

It’s the time that you reserve in advance to do the deep work on the most important tasks of the day. You should plan 2 – 3 boxes of time in a day that last for 1 – 2 hours to do the real productive work.

Learn more about timeboxing.

4. Start with the most important task for the day

In time management there is a very popular saying by Brian Tracy: “eat that frog”. The main idea is to start the day with the most important tasks, no matter how hard it is. 

In the morning, your mental focus in usually the strongest. Not only that, but if you do the hardest task in the morning, everything else in the day is easy to do. 

So, it makes sense to reserve a box of time first thing in the morning to work in peace during the most important time of the day.

5. Eliminate as many distractions and interruptions as possible

There are so many potential distractions and interruptions today - from phone calls, app notifications, chat messages and coworkers stopping by. Studies show that an employee is interrupted somewhere between 4 to 12 times every hour. That’s one interruption or even more every 15 minutes.

With all these distractions and interruptions, the working day can end before you know it- with zero productive work done. So, make sure you eliminate as many distractions as possible at your work. 

And not only during your timeboxed work, but in general during your working day. You can learn more about handling distractions and interruptions at work here.

And now, the final thought to end this article with - don’t forget, the Pareto Principle also works in the opposite way. 

So, ask yourself - Which 20% of things (tasks, people, activities…) are causing you 80% of your problems and unhappiness in your career? And now find some good ways to improve your situation.


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