The search for productivity hacks seems to be endless for those of us who strive to accomplish more with time that feels forever dwindling. In trying to understand where you lose time, and how you can be most efficient, you likely think in terms of your work output.
When needing to perform, and trying to contribute as much as you can to results, you likely hope to see that the effort you put in directly correlates to a positive impact. The problem is, this isn’t always the case. But, the Pareto Principle can help you understand why effort and results aren’t an equal equation, and how you can leverage this knowledge to be more productive.
What is the Pareto Principle?
The Pareto Principle, named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, is the idea that in most cases, only 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results.
Back in 1895, Pareto discovered that in Italy, 80% of the land was owned by only 20% of the population. He found this ratio common in many instances around him: 20% of the pea plants in his garden produced 80% of the peas. This discovery resulted in Pareto coming to some conclusions about effort and equality.
While we’d like to believe that effort input correlates in a straight line to result output, it’s simply not the case. But is it something we simply need to accept, or can we use the principle to our advantage?
How does the Pareto Principle apply to workplaces
We can apply the Pareto Principle to a number of examples in our everyday lives, as Pareto himself did. In business, it’s often considered that 20% of clients account for 80% of the profits, 80% of complaints and issues come from 20% of customers, or when making deals, 20% of your marketing and sales efforts contribute to 80% of the customer’s actual purchasing decisions.
When looking internally in organizations, we can see that perhaps 20% of the activities account for 80% of the actual work output. Or, 20% of employees account for 80% of the overall workplace productivity. While these percentages can actually differ, the point is this: distribution is rarely ever equal, and in almost every case, it is not a 1:1 ratio when it comes to effort and output.
We’re sure that most employees would not want to be the 20% doing 80% of the work, and we’re sure you’re likely not wanting to be the bottom 20% either. So thinking about how you can leverage the Pareto Principle for your own individual productivity can ensure that you are working at your maximum capacity for results.
How understanding the Pareto principle can affect your work
If you can wrap your brain around the Pareto Principle and its implications, you can maybe start to better understand how it affects your own work and productivity.
We can think of the Pareto Principle in a few different ways. One, is similar to the “law of diminishing returns.” Especially in the case of productivity, it’s often that in terms of time or activities, not everything is created equal.
For example, if you work in a customer success role, you may notice how your customers only see about 20% of the actual effort you put into ensuring their satisfaction, but that results in 80% (or more) of the outward customer experience.
A note about the Pareto Principle and collaboration
It can be highly valid to think about the Pareto Principle in terms of productivity, but there is something to be said for applying it to collaboration as well. When we work in teams or with others on projects, it’s rare there is a perfect equilibrium between all participating members. We can feel that we put in more (or less) effort than our counterparts, but we really should be thinking about output and results.
If you look to only 20% of your employees (perhaps senior staff or older employees) because you expect that they will be able to deliver 80% of the solutions, you can miss out on interesting perspectives or opportunities to think outside of the box.
You should also consider that 80% of your colleagues tasks are reliant on maybe 20% of the work you do. Without properly prioritizing your own work, you can negatively impact those around you.
How to use the Pareto Principle to be more productive
The good news is, the Pareto Principle isn’t a hard set in stone rule, and it is possible to leverage to your advantage when striving to be more productive. Don’t get hung up on the 80/20, but rather the understanding that not all effort and output will be equal. Then, you can look to better allocate your effort, better utilize your time, and prioritize your goals and activities to be more productive.
Time and effort allocation
Raise your hand if you’re a procrastinator! Do you have the unique ability to fit 8 hours worth of work into 1 hour, and 1 hour worth of work into 8? When we aren’t our most productive selves, the easiest trap to fall into is not utilizing our time correctly. The Pareto Principle can help you to better understand where your time and effort should be going.
Think about the duties you have that contribute the most to your end result. Let’s use a simple example, like creating demo content for customer experience. To create that content, it’s likely you brainstorm ideas for what it should be about, you perhaps draft an outline for the contents of the demo, you may write a script, then you may use video or screen capture to conduct the recorded demo, then you edit and annotate.
What parts of putting this demo content together have the most impact for your end user? If you spend hours laboring over an outline, but don’t spend as much time recording the actual demo, are you really being your most productive for the final result? Breaking down your activities and considering what is most important can help you to better allocate your time and effort.
A great way to use the Pareto Principle to get things done efficiently and timely is by setting goals. These goals don’t have to be about results, but rather more about what you want to accomplish and need to get done.
If you were to make a list of ten tasks that you needed to complete, you should then choose the top two items that would impact your life and work the most. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest tasks or even the ones that require the most effort. But if you can identify which 20% of your immediate needs will be the most beneficial, you can better allocate your productivity, energy, and time.
Crossing big items off your to-do list and down prioritizing less significant ones can also eliminate menial tasks altogether. If there are goals you need to accomplish that aren’t considered urgent, over time you may find that you can remove them altogether because projects have changed, or the to-do item becomes redundant or obsolete.
And speaking of prioritizing to-dos, another great way to think about the Pareto Principle is in terms of how to identify order in your work. Often, there are activities which need to get done in order for you to accomplish subsequent tasks. In many cases, there is a natural order to how you can complete duties.
One of the main contributors to people being unproductive is task-switching and lack of focus on one thing at a time. With added distractions of technology or workplace socializing, it’s no wonder we have difficulty being productive sometimes.
Take a look at what you need to accomplish at work today. It could be that 20% of your tasks need to be done in order for you to actually finish the remaining 80% of your tasks. If this is the case, make an effort to not jump from task to task, but focus on and complete that first 20% so that you can actually spend less time and effort completing your subsequent to-dos.
Work smarter not harder
I once had a manager who said the best employees were lazy and smart, because they always found the quickest and easiest ways to get things done. In other words, they’d cracked the code on working smarter, not harder.
It’s not to say that you should be looking to take short cuts on effort if it sacrifices quality of work, but in most cases there are likely ways that you can be doing things more efficiently, at least without more effort.
The issue is, this doesn’t always look the same for everyone. Efficiency can be quite individual when it’s dependant on skill set, personal preferences, and knowledge. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try finding ways that you can improve how you work.
Here is where the Pareto Principle can get an update. While 80/20 is the general rule of thumb, we should be aware that it’s actually a sliding scale, and also it doesn’t always have to result in an even 100. In fact, when we are able to work smarter, not harder, we can find that maybe 40% of our efforts result in 80% of results, and understanding and acknowledging this is the first step to finding good solutions.
The unfortunate truth of productivity is that effort doesn’t always determine result. The Pareto Principle may seem like a cruel fact of life, but you can actually look at it positive terms in that if you can better prioritize our efforts, you can actually utilize your time and energy in a better way. Use the Pareto Principle to be a better collaborator, for goal setting, and working smarter, and you’ll find that it can greatly improve your productivity.
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