Use the Pareto principle to simplify your life
Not all tasks are created equal.
The first time I read about the Pareto principle was in my Economics class.
Pareto principle is a prediction that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
The professor gave us various examples to help us understand it better.
- Richest 20% control 80% of the world’s income.
- 20% of patients account for 80% of total healthcare spending.
- In epidemics, 20% of infected individuals are responsible for 80% of transmissions.
- 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes.
- About 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers.
This was fascinating. I couldn’t get over the fact that something so simple can be so profound.
The first time I saw it in action was in the first few months of my job. On seeing me struggle to prioritize my time and attention, my manager asked me to focus on the top 5 channel partners (I was responsible for 35 channel partners) and ignore the remaining for the time being. Roughly 75–80% of my sales came from them.
Since then, I’ve analyzed many situations in my life and found this principle in effect. For example.
- A select few activities at work create a maximum impact on my performance.
- I end up spending the majority of my food spending on a select few restaurants.
- When I analyze my time wasters, I see that I waste most of my time on a select few things. (Eg. Watching standup comedy shows on Youtube and Netflix).
- I don’t socialize a lot but when I do, I spend 80% of my time with 20% of people.
- Despite owning 5–6 suits, on most occasions, I end up wearing the same 1 or 2.
Observe closely and you will see similar scenarios playing out in your life as well. While it doesn’t come to be an exact 80/20, the majority of our life’s outcomes/outputs are dependent on a few inputs/activities. These select activities are high impact activities.
They are like our master key to the doors in our lives. Getting a grip on these will help us get better control over our outcomes and simplify our lives.
Given the fact that we are always faced with competing priorities screaming for our attention, this can be a huge relief.
Pareto’s principle has applicability in all walks of our lives. Let’s see how we can use this knowledge to perform better at our jobs.
#1 Analyze your high impact activities
This is the crucial first step. Every job and every role has a select few high impact activities. For eg) In sales, your high impact activities typically would be: Prospecting, Meeting clients and working on proposals. For a physical therapist, those would be patient history taking, observing them while they perform exercises, and documentation to measure progress.
Create a list of 3 – 4 high impact activities for yourself. The best way to get to it is by creating a list of all tasks that you’re responsible for. Of those tasks, if you had to perform just one task daily, the task that would be most valuable to your manager and yourself, which one would that be? This is your highest impact activity. If you could do just 2 more tasks on that list, which ones would they be? These 2 combined with the 1 highest impact activity become your high impact activities.
This method is based on the prioritization process laid out by Brian Tracy who wrote the book, Eat that frog. Brian says that 90% of the value that you contribute to your company is contained in just these 3 tasks.
#2 Analyze the time you spend on those tasks
After you’re done listing down the high impact activities, analyze the time you spend on these tasks. Be prepared to face some harsh reality here. The first time I did this exercise, I found out that I did not spend more than 40–50% time on these activities.
I spent the majority of my time working on low impact tasks. The primary reason I did that (and probably a lot of us do it) was that -
- High impact activities did not provide instant gratification whereas low impact tasks did.
- High impact activities were challenging (eg. prospecting) and came with a higher chance of failure.
- They got repetitive and monotonous.
Be honest with yourself and you’ll discover some surprising insights here.
#3 Schedule these tasks on your calendar
High impact activities should dominate your calendars. Schedule these tasks on your calendars and restructure your typical day to ensure that you spend the majority of your time on these activities and intersperse them with low impact tasks.
This helps to ensure that you remain focused on your high impact activities and at the same time, avoid the monotony by alternating between high and low impact tasks.
Avoid multitasking. However, if you have to, it is okay to multitask when it comes to your low impact (maintenance) activities. Do not do that when it comes to your high impact tasks. You will end up doing either a shoddy job at it or taking longer to complete them. Block off every distraction while performing your high impact tasks.
#4 Track and recalibrate
Just because you have an activity scheduled in your calendar doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll follow it. It is extremely important to review yourself regularly to ensure that you are indeed spending the time you should on these tasks.
If you’ve deviated, that’s perfectly okay. Happens to the best of us. Recalibrate your schedule and activities for the next week. Eventually, after weeks and months of reviewing and recalibrating, you will arrive at an optimal schedule that works the best for you. A schedule that prioritizes your high impact activities.
We can be terrible at self-analysis. Hence, it is worthwhile to have your family/friend/colleague hold you accountable.
Pareto principle is ubiquitous. The sooner we understand it and start looking at all our activities from the 80/20 lens, the better it is for us.