How You Can Apply the 80/20 Rule in Your Life and Work

Thaisa Fernandes
Mar 30, 2020 · 7 min read

I have always been fascinated by the 80/20 rule. At the same time, I didn’t know how to apply it in my life. Last year I read the 80/20 Principle, and this book opened my eyes a little more and gave me a better sense of how to apply the 80/20 rule in my professional life.

The Pareto principle

The 80/20 rule is also known as the Pareto principle or the law of the vital few, which basically means that in many events 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The Pareto principle name came from the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who discovered the principle after realizing that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and he kept observing the same pattern in other different situations.

Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto was born in Italy in 1848 and became an important philosopher and economist. After his realization of the 80/20 pattern, Pareto started to think about uneven distributions and discovered that different industries also followed the same pattern when the generalization became a universal truth.

The Pareto principle or 80/20 rule is the universal truth about the imbalance of inputs and outputs. You don’t need to create mathematical formulas, do some complex math, or understand statistics to leverage the 80/20 framework and start using it in your daily work. Let’s also keep in mind the 80% and 20% are just indicators. It’s a misconception that the numbers should always be around 80 and 20. They do not necessarily need to, these numbers are just a baseline.

The main point is to find the small things that give you the biggest results. The 80/20 rule is a guide that will help us understand typical distributions not matter what the numbers are. The point isn’t the ratio, it’s the imbalance, the inequality. We’ll dive a little deeper in how you can use the framework, but I’d like to say the answer is in practically everything. The Pareto principle is not about working less, or producing less, it’s more about working smarter and prioritizing the right things in order to deliver better results and value.

What does the 80/20 rule mean?

Mathematically, the 80/20 rule is followed by a power law distribution for a particular set of parameters. Pareto discovered a pattern with the ratio 80/20, but in fact, the principle can be represented in different ratios as 90/20, 60/40, and so on.

The most interesting thing about the 80/20 rule is the ability to analyze your goals and tasks differently. You will start to tackle what will give you the most results and happiness first. This will help you to focus and more importantly, handle one task at a time. This will make an immense difference, as we know, human beings are not as good at multitasking as we think we are.

Think about this framework as a way to help you determine what is of vital importance, what will bring you 80% of your results. The other 20% you can deprioritize, or you can even create a different plan to achieve it or transfer it. Focus your energy on what brings you value, what you enjoy, and what brings you the most happiness.

Strategic planning is essential, and the 80/20 rule can help you stay focused especially given the constant challenge of limited resources and high expectations. Learn how to use this principle to your advantage and help your team adopt this mindset to spend more time focusing on the right things. Spend time with your team understanding what is truly important and help them spend less time chasing endless new opportunities that won’t yield much return.

80/20 Rule Examples

  • 80% of problems originate from 20% of projects.
  • 60% of your distractions come from 40% of sources.
  • 70% of customers only use 30% of software features.
  • 90% of complaints are made by 10% of users.
  • 80% of value is achieved with the first 20% of effort.
  • 85% of the important conversations are from 15% of the emails.

How does that work?

We can apply the 80/20 rule to almost any situation if not all situations. Think about your daily to-do’s, do you know which 20% of your daily tasks gives you the most return? Or happiness? If you know these answers already, you can start to create a plan to spend more time on that 20% of tasks. Now think about how you can reduce, transfer, or do away with the 80% of tasks that only bring you 20% of your results.

The 80/20 rule can really change the way you plan and accomplish your projects. Understanding the 80/20 principle is essential to prioritizing your projects, tasks, days, and life. This framework can be an important ally for time management in general.

How can you apply the 80/20 rule to gain more time?

The 80/20 rule forces you to ask questions you might never have thought of, and this is amazing! If you learn how to use this framework wisely, it can give you a lot of insights into how you should prioritize your time and projects.

After you analyze your priorities and results, you can start putting your focus in the right place. This can be applied in many different aspects of your life including your work. For example, if 20% of your tasks are bringing 80% of your project results, you can consider making those specific tasks your priority.

You can also keep in mind the 80% you can discard, rethink, or transfer to make your life easier. For example, how about deleting the apps you don’t use in your phone? How about giving a purpose to the majority of clothes we don’t wear? Unsubscribe to 80% of your newsletters since we tend to really use only 20% of them, and so on.

After analyzing your scenario and coming up with your specific ratio (whether 80/20, 90/10, 60/40), you need to start changing those ratios. You can do that by reducing the amount of time you spend with things that don’t give you the majority of results (or even happiness), and increasing the amount of time spent on the projects that give you more results and are your passion projects.

Another thing you can do is to evaluate your needs and possessions. Do your wants outweigh your needs? You can ask yourself if your tasks/things bring you 80% of the results? Considering this question can give you a lot of ideas and insights. Thinking about your product, if you find out that 80% of your users use only 20% of your product features, you’ll probably get some insights and thoughts about how you should prioritize those specific features.

Steps to apply the 80/20 Rule

  • Identify all your daily/weekly tasks.
  • Identify key tasks.
  • What are the tasks that give you more return?
  • Brainstorm how you can reduce or transfer the tasks that give you less return.
  • Create a plan to do more that brings you more value.
  • Use 80/20 to prioritize any project you’re working on.
  • Set a plan to focus on activities that produce the most results.

How to set goals based on the 80/20 Rule

  1. Identify your key tasks based on your goals. What’s blocking you? Make a list of your constraints. What’s standing in the way of your priorities? Together with your team, come up with a plan to unblock. Take this opportunity to clarify the goals and visions with your cross-functional team. This is also an opportunity to collect feedback.
  2. Clarify and unblock. More clarity will help you and your team have a better vision of your goals and what you need to do in order to achieve those goals. Removing impediments opens the door to more focus, keep in mind that we want to maximize the value of focusing on tasks that will give you more return.
  3. Use the 80/20 framework. After you have evaluated your goals and tasks using the 80/20 framework, it’s so much easier to focus on the right things. Since you’ll be focusing on what will bring you more value, you’ll start to see the results faster. This can also be another incentive to continue to focus on what matters the most.
  4. Work smarter. This should be a constant basis in our daily lives: evaluate, prioritize, focus, and continuously work. Don’t be discouraged, work smarter, and help your team to work towards their goals.

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Thaisa Fernandes

Written by

Problem solver and perfectionist in recovery willing to stretch myself and risk making mistakes to achieve innovative solutions and validate my learnings



Sharing Product and Program Management content.

Thaisa Fernandes

Written by

Problem solver and perfectionist in recovery willing to stretch myself and risk making mistakes to achieve innovative solutions and validate my learnings



Sharing Product and Program Management content.

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