The Pareto Principle


While listing out tasks to be done in order of priority, the question is: “how do you identify the most important task?”

There are many different ways to prioritise your tasks and improve your time management

One excellent technique is the Pareto Principle, commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule.


Background to the 80/20 rule

Pareto Principle the 80/20 Rule

Discovered in 1906 by Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 Rule was developed from the observation that 20% of the pea pods in a garden were responsible for 80% of the peas.

Pareto also applied this rule to microeconomics and realized that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. 

However, the rule wasn’t named after Pareto until 1937, when American engineer Dr. Joseph Juran successfully applied the principle in quality management and operations. 

Thereafter, Dr. Juran emphasized the need for us to focus on the “vital few” and ignore the “trivial many.” 


So, what really is the 80/20 rule?

While it was initially a microeconomic concept, this 80/20 rule is one of the most effective and practical time management techniques.

In productivity, the 80/20 Rule is a principle that expressly states that 80% of results are brought about by 20% of all the efforts put into getting the work done. 

It is referred to in different ways, including the Pareto Principle, the Law of the Vital Few, and the Principle of Factor Sparsity. 


Why Does The 80/20 Rule Work?

The 80/20 rule works for productivity for two reasons. 

  1. Focusing on the vital few: By identifying the few efforts that yield 80% of the results, you can focus on doing them more and maximizing the 80% proportion of your results.
  2. Ignoring the trivial many: The majority of tasks that are not so fruitful can take up most of our time. Systematically sorting and ignoring most of them can free up time to spend on more vital tasks. 

Combining these two (ignoring the trivial many to focus on the vital few) can significantly affect your productivity. 

Looking for a fun little brain teaser? See our Office Puzzle Challenge here!


3 Reasons To Use The 80/20 Rule

With several time management techniques out there, why use the Pareto principle as your go-to strategy to maximize productivity? 

These three reasons explore how this rule can transform your work and personal life. 

  1. It helps you manage priorities. 

It’s easy for you to perceive many responsibilities as important. 

While they are almost always necessary, only a few significantly impact the final result. 

The Pareto Principle helps you identify what may seem important and what really is important. 

Then, you can prioritize accordingly. 

  1. It improves your planning. 

After identifying your priorities, planning is considerably more manageable. 

However, you don’t have to ignore all the “trivial many.” While they are not as impactful as the “vital few,” some of them are critical to your success. 

For example, taking a breather or actively getting distracted may not significantly impact your productivity, but it’s crucial to help you maintain focus and avoid mental fatigue. 

  1. It increases the efficiency of key tasks. 

When you apply the Pareto principle to your to-do list, you will notice that a few tasks can significantly make other tasks simpler. 

For example, automation, delegation, and effectively managing people under you can help work move faster downstream. 

There are several other reasons to use the Pareto rule. 

You can explore other reasons that may be well suited for your needs, but focusing on priorities and saving time are the cornerstone of productivity.


Downsides of The 80/20 Rule

No doubt that the Pareto principle applies to almost every area of our life and society. 

However, it has its shortcomings. Below are four of those downsides. 

  1. Requires analysing the past, not the present and future. 

To discover the activities that yield the most significant results, you must analyse previously completed tasks. This way, you can figure out the vital few. 

This principle doesn’t help you navigate the present or provide a near-accurate prediction of the future. 

So, you may have to incorporate other planning and goal-setting methods. 

  1. Susceptible to misinterpretation. 

A lot of people may assume that applying the Pareto principle means putting less effort into work. 

While it helps you identify the tasks that matter most, it doesn’t provide an escape from hard work. 

Instead, it provides a clearer picture for you to channel all the efforts going into trivial tasks towards the right activities. 

  1. You could be ignoring other tasks. 

Using the 80/20 rule as a foundational productivity principle may cause you to ignore several other tasks that are not so important. 

However, these tasks may be necessary for keeping things together. 

For example, responding to emails may not add much to the day’s output, but communication remains a crucial part of our lives and work.

  1. It may not apply to everything. 

The Pareto principle serves only as a rule of thumb. 

It is not a law, and there are situations where it will not apply. 

Investing and money management are good examples of situations where this principle doesn’t apply. 

It is not advisable to put all your money into the top performing 20% of investment opportunities. 


How I Implement The 80/20 Rule

With a lot of things to do daily, I use the Pareto principle to set my priorities right. 

This way, I focus on tasks that significantly impact my results without neglecting the many mundane tasks that need to be completed. 

Here’s how I implement the rule to accomplish that: 

  1. Make a list of all my daily/weekly tasks. 
  2. Identify critical tasks that make the most significant impact when completed.
  3. Figure out a way to delegate or automate other tasks, and timebox the highly personal/sensitive ones on my calendar. 
  4. Create a plan for completing the key tasks within a day/week. An effective to-do list is useful here.
  5. Use the Pomodoro technique to stay focused on these important tasks for short periods and the Seinfeld technique to consistently prioritise these activities.


Who Is The 80/20 Rule Best For?

Although this rule does not apply 100% of the time, it is very insightful and can be used by virtually anyone.

  • Students can choose the courses that matter most to their discipline and prioritize activities with a huge impact on their academic performance.
  • Salespeople can figure out the clients with higher lifetime values and focus on serving those types of clients more. 
  • Marketers can identify which channels (or campaigns) are converting the most and channel their resources accordingly. 
  • Managers and entrepreneurs could identify what activities are facilitating growth and invest more in those areas. 
  • Freelancers can use the rule to define the clients and freelance marketplaces that generate most of the sales before focusing on serving those clients better and cracking those marketplaces.


Final Thoughts 

If putting more effort into a few things can transform your results magically, why should you consider it? 

The Pareto principle provides a framework for you to assess the impact of your actions on your goals. 

By applying it, you can take more actions that will really propel you forward.

About Ben Richardson

Ben is a director of Acuity Training. He writes about SQL, Power BI and Excel on a number of industry sites including SQLCentral, SQLshack and codingsight.