The Pareto Principle Gets Us 80% of the Way There — Here’s How to Get the Other 20% of the Way There

Applying the Pareto Principle to task management is among the best ways to improve one’s productivity. It makes perfect sense: If you spend more of your time and other resources on the most impactful tasks, you’ll be better-positioned than if you divided your attention equally between the critical and the trivial.

As with many things, this is easier said than done. Theory is one thing; practice another.

Here are two implementation challenges that arise and two solutions. (Even if you’re not a pareto practitioner, these challenges affect all of us.)

Challenge One: Dotting the Is and Crossing the Ts

Scenario: When a project is nearing completion and there’s a bunch of little tasks that must be completed. The tasks are important and might even be necessary but they are not really “pareto” in the truest sense. For example, suppose your book is written, revised, and edited, but the tasks of “change digital format” or “choose a cover design” remain. On the whole, these tasks pale in comparison to the work done during the actual writing process. Still, they must be completed in order to publish the book.

Typically, there are a bunch of these little tasks. Because they are all equally trivial-yet-necessary, there’s no obvious way to decide how best to allocate your time and energy. Alongside “change digital format” and “choose a cover design,” there might be tasks like “run spellcheck” or “check for common grammar mistakes” or “write Dedication section” or “check for words used too often.”

Solution: the Finished Package Test

Here’s how I differentiate the tasks and figure out which to do first, and which to do when I’m at my best. I ask myself “when this project is done and delivered, which of these tasks will be most noticeable?”

To continue with the above example, I might decide to prioritize my tasks like this:

  1. Choose a cover design because if my book doesn’t have a cover, I’ll have to use Amazon’s stock design… and it’s ugly.
  2. Run spellcheck because there’s nothing that screams amateur like mispellings al ovr the palace.
  3. Change digital format because there are people who won’t be able to buy and read my book if it’s only in Kindle format.
  4. Write Dedication section because my wife — if she reads my book — might notice if it’s not there.
  5. Check for common grammar mistakes because I’ve been known to make some, and the people reading my book are smart and might notice.
  6. Check for words used too often because, although I might be the only one to notice how often I use the word “literally,” it bothers me.

As you may have thought, there are other reasonable ways to prioritize the above tasks. But that’s the point: to get us moving forward, not to spend all day debating between near-equals. An unnumbered list is helpful, but not nearly as a list that has a starting point.

Challenge Two: Really Scary Mole Hills

Scenario: When a task doesn’t take very long and is otherwise not pareto but is standing in the way of progress — usually because of a lump of anxiety at the pit of the stomach. Under a pure “time management” perspective, this gets no attention because it doesn’t require much time. But time isn’t everything. Sometimes the hardest things to do take no time at all.

For me, this is when I get feedback from academic article editors. All I need to do is open the document read the feedback. It takes ten minutes, tops. But, still, the lump is there. It usually takes me a week or more to summon the courage to even open the file, which of course I must do before I begin revising the paper. Opening and reading a document is hardly pareto — but it’s preventing the pareto work, and is thus important.

Solution: Grit + Reward

Once begun, anxiety-laden tasks immediately deflate. Their power shrinks. In our mind, the task was a terrible beast, but once we confront the beast, we see the beast is make-believe. Our minds took a feeble mouse, multiplied its size 1000x, replaced its little teeth with sabres, and turned its cute chirp into a curdling roar.

But the hard part is getting started — finding the motivation.

What’s an easy way to motivate yourself? Promising yourself a reward. It feels silly to reward yourself for doing a two-minute task, for vanquishing an itty-bitty mouse. But that’s just cultural conditioning.

Why do we reward ourselves for doing two hours of friction-free work but not for two minutes of maximum-friction, I-hate-my-life, please-shoot-me work? This seems arbitrary.

Force yourself to do the hard thing. Exercise grit. Open the document. Confront the beast. Pet the mouse.

And then reward yourself.