Jeff Bezos. Tony Hsieh. Steve Jobs. All the owners of famously messy desks.
Starting from our early years in school, we learned to keep everything in balance. For example, we were taught that we need to be good in every school subject. We were programmed to become generalists rather than experts. Since we haven’t learned anything else since, we apply the “keep everything in balance” rule to all aspects of our lives. Concepts like work-life balance were born from this.
But by keeping everything in balance, we’re doing almost everything wrong. 120 years ago Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. Later, in the 1950s, a small group of business consultants applied this law to the management theory. They defined a simple rule: 80 percent of the revenue was generated by 20 percent of the customers.
There is no balance in the distribution of land. There is no balance in the distribution of wealth. There is no balance in the distribution of success. So, why then are we trying to keep everything in balance? Because we haven’t learned to apply Pareto’s law effectively — and we will probably never will.
We are programmed to try and keep everything in balance and to not concentrate ourselves on the most important 20%. But rather than fighting against your nature as you try to keep everything in balance, you should start to accept chaos and mess in your life. Accept it, because chaos helps you automatically overcome your learned desire for balance and lets you focus on the key 20 percent. How?
Imagine you are under time pressure to finish your marketing exam. You have only one week for preparation. This is the last exam in your program and need to pass it to earn your bachelor’s degree. If you’re like most people, you’ll probably let everything else fall by the wayside and pause your non-academic activities. You might not answer emails or outside requests. You might stop cleaning your house. You might even stop paying attention to your personal appearance. You’ll spend almost every minute of your time studying. By doing so, you will end up with chaos in all areas of your life — except the area of your final exam. Since the final exam has the highest level of priority in your life, it represents your 20 percent.
Now you need to apply the same principle to your work life. Do you need to answer every stupid email? Hell no! Let your inbox sink into chaos. Do you need to accomplish every meaningful task on your to-do list? Hell no! Let your to-do app explode from unfinished tasks. Do you need to appear at every meeting? No, simply cancel all meetings or send someone from your department. You shouldn’t try to balance projects, tasks, meetings, emails, and anything else that pops up. Instead, spend your time on preparation for the final exam; in other words, spend your time on your “20 percent” — your most important project, task, or meeting. Everything else must remain in mess and chaos.
My desk was always messy, and I didn’t seem to be paying attention. — Bill Gates (from Bill Gates: Entrepreneur and Philanthropist)