The modern workplace is full of choices: what do we work on, when do we work on it, and what’s most important? Recent studies have shown that most Americans don’t believe most of the work they do actually matters, and believe it or not, social sciences seem to back that up.
The reality is that a small percentage of the work we do accomplishes most of the results that we’re responsible for, leading us to wonder: how can we spend more time on the the work that really moves the needle at our companies, both so that we’re more effective at our jobs and so that we can feel like our work actually matters?
That’s where the 80/20 rule comes in, and if you take it to heart and apply it to your work or your business, the way you prioritize the tasks on your list will never be the same.
What is the 80/20 Rule?
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, is a productivity concept which suggests that 20% of the work that you do is responsible for 80% of the results you get. Popularized only in the last twenty years by a couple of best selling self-help books, the 80/20 rule was originally about much more than personal productivity and there are a lot of examples of similar “power laws” showing up in both society and the natural world. However, since it’s our mission at Woven to help you schedule your life and get more done, that’s where our focus is going to be.
If we accept that the 80/20 rule is true, then we have to assume that 20% of our work is causing 80% of the benefit and rethink how we spend our time. If you can determine what that 20% is for you, it will make it much easier to prioritize the work that is the most important in your day, and much easier to build your schedule for the week going forward.
The Origins of the 80/20 Rule
In the late 19th century, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto noticed something interesting while he was researching land ownership in Italy: about 80% of the land mass was owned by about 20% of the people in the country. Upon further study, he discovered that the same “power law” distribution applied to other asset classes as well, and income and wealth in the country as a whole.
Fast forward a few decades, and a business and management consultant named Joseph Juran rediscovered Pareto’s work and recognized it applied to a lot of trends he was seeing with his clients as well. Juran started thinking about other ways that Pareto’s economic principles could apply to the companies he worked with, like highlighting the 20% of products that brought in 80% of revenues, or the 20% of customers that caused 80% of a business’ problems. This line of thinking helped him to revolutionize the field he specialized in, quality management, by helping his clients focus on what was most important in their companies and cut the time and money they spent on less influential tasks.
Those insights seem to have stayed mostly confined to the world of management consulting until the turn of the 21st century when a pair of self-help authors writing about business advice brought it into the mainstream. Richard Koch, a management consultant from the UK, was the first to publish a popular book on the topic, simply titled The 80/20 Principle, spawning a whole series of follow-ups and workbooks. A decade later, Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek, introduced the idea to a whole new generation of readers, executives, and entrepreneurs, as well as expanding the idea beyond business to ask where the 80/20 rule might show up in other areas of their lives.
How to Think about the 80/20 Rule and Your Work
Finding More Time for Your 20% Tasks
So how does all of this apply to you? Well, for starters, it’s safe to assume that 20% of the things you do at your job in your business are causing about 80% of the results you provide. Considering that’s true of everyone else, it’s not a reason to beat yourself up, but it does mean you should put a lot of thought about how to prioritize that 20% of your work.
For instance, as much as we love beating up on unnecessary meetings and having to deal with endless amounts of email, the reality is that letting them get in the way of your 20% is a recipe for disaster. As much as people like quick replies, that’s not going to get them the results they hired you to produce.
Take the time to sit down for half an hour and evaluate which tasks are providing most of the value in your work, then ask yourself a series of questions to determine if you’ve really made them a priority. Some good ones might be:
- Are those the tasks that are getting most of your time attention?
- How often do other things get in the way?
- What type of interruptions are most common?
- Is there a way you and your team can make those happen less often?
- Do you prefer to work on your most important tasks in the morning or afternoon? How often are you able to do that?
- How can you shift your schedule around to make that possible more often?
Once you know what 20% of your work produces 80% of the results, you can amplify your effectiveness even further by making sure nothing interferes with you getting it done.
Cut Out As Much As You Can
Now that we’ve established the tasks that are giving you the most leverage in your work, and producing most of the results, it’s great to make more time available for them. However, if you look at the 80% of your tasks that only produce 20% of your results, it might be worth asking yourself: what’s the point of doing them at all?
Sure, some of those things are necessary evils, even if they’re not particularly helpful for getting you closer to your goals, but more people, there’s probably a lot of filler that’s just getting in the way. Whether you put that time towards your 20% tasks, find new and more valuable things to do with your time, or maybe just have a little less stress in your day, this is just as valuable as figuring out which tasks to prioritize.
Over the next couple of weeks, whenever you find yourself doing something that you know isn’t very effective, ask yourself: “Is it necessary for me to be doing this or is there a better use of my time?” In The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss suggests a framework called D.E.A.L. for how to figure out what to do about these tasks. It stands for delegate, eliminate, automate, and liberate.
When you’ve identified an 80% task that doesn’t seem like a good use of your time, the first question isn’t “am I the right person to be doing this?” but “does this really need to get done at all?” There’s probably a bit of fluff in your day that could be eliminated or consolidated without any material impact on your work. Some good examples might be “staying up to date” on industry news, processing marketing emails and newsletters, unnecessary long meetings or brown bag lunches etc.
Eliminating those tasks will still leave you with a pool of things that need to get done, but aren’t necessarily effective, or the best use of your time. That’s where Delegation and Automation come can be a huge help to get more productivity out of your time. Now that you’ve established that those things need to be done, but don’t move the needle as much as your core competencies, there are two questions you need to ask: is there someone else in the organization who could handle this instead of me? And is it possible this task could be handled by software?
If the task can be handled by someone in your company that can’t contribute what your 20% tasks can to the bottom line, it’s worth having a conversation about whether they could take certain responsibilities over. They don’t necessarily have to be a direct report to you like an assistant if you can diplomatically explain to your manager or your coworker how it’s getting in the way of your core responsibilities and might be a better fit for them. Similarly, it’s less expensive than ever to hire assistants, especially online, in a part-time capacity, or a dedicated service provider that handles those tasks for a bunch of different businesses to buy back your time for pennies on the dollar. Considering how disproportionately helpful your 20% tasks are to your company, the minimal expense would be a big win for everyone involved if they help you spend more time doing what you’re best at and meet or exceed your goals.
If software can take some of those tasks off your plate, even better. Automation software has made a remarkable leap over the last ten years, and tools like Zapier are fast and easy to learn, despite having the ability to take back hours of your time every week. Do you find yourself reformatting data to fit a new system? Or wasting time transferring information from one program to another? Zapier can handle all of that automatically in seconds, and with a library of common automations that you can plug and play in your job, built by millions of other people that have the same problems you do, most of them only take minutes to set up. There are lots of other examples based on the kind of work you do, so take the time to do your research. A few minutes this month might save you hours per week for years to come and let you get back to your most important tasks. (We’re going to skip over Liberation because it isn’t really relevant to this post.)
What about 64/4?
Now that we’ve gone on and on about power laws, you might be asking yourself how far this rabbit hole goes. Well, for better or worse, all the way down – 4% of the things you do probably produce 64% of results as well. That’s kind of a staggering number, but if you think about it, every job or business has a few very critical tasks.
If we don’t update our website for a week, or send out email marketing for Woven, that’s not ideal. However, if the software breaks and our users can’t access their calendars, everything comes crashing down. That’s why we put so much emphasis on the stability and usability of our product, and why you should take some time to identify the Most Important Tasks in your work too.
That’s not to say that 96% of your work is meaningless, just to point out that power laws are a very effective tool for shining light on what are the critical tasks in your work and helping you to refine your priorities. Once you have that clarity about what really matters, and which tasks matter more than others, it’ll be a lot easier to build a schedule in your Woven calendar that helps you get more done than ever before, in a lot less time.