The 80/20 rule–your biggest time management weapon

A version of this article was originally published in Lifehacker India.

“There are no shortcuts to success.”

I say in all seriousness this is a big lie repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in 1999, an ordinary guy challenged a professional fighter for the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships. This guy himself admits he wasn’t good at kickboxing and had only four weeks to prepare.

What would have happened?

He won not only that match but all the subsequent matches of the series and walked away as a gold medalist and as the national champion!

What was the reason for his success?

It is the same reason why some students who study day and night manage to score only mediocre grades while some others who study only an hour or two a day top the exams.

It is the same reason why some employees have to stay late in the office to complete the day’s work while some others manage to finish hours before the closing time.

Now that I have your attention, a definition is in order.

Definition: Pareto’s principle or the 80/20 rule says 20% of the efforts produce 80% of the results or 20% of inputs produce 80% of outputs.

Now what on earth does this mean?

It means that a minority causes a majority. There’s an inherent imbalance between causes and effects. Let me explain.

This principle is named after Vilfred Pareto, an Italian economist.

In 1897 he was studying the distribution of wealth in nineteenth-century England. He observed that almost 80% of the wealth of the country was concentrated in almost 20% of the population.

But what was striking was the same relationship repeated itself when he looked at data for other countries and other time periods.

Similarly more than 80% of the land in Italy was owned by less than 20% of the population.

In fact Pareto found the same ratio in other spheres of life.

In his garden 20% of the pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

Further research only confirms this.

It has been found 20% of the criminals commit 80% of the crimes; 20% of motorists cause 80% of the accidents; and 20% of the products of a company generate 80% of the profits.

The principle is also applicable in everyday life.

You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time; 20% of your friends on Facebook interact with 80% of all your updates; and 80% of the questions in exams are asked out of only 20% of the syllabus.

Pareto’s principle holds the secret to leading a productive life. Identify which 20% is producing the most results and focus your limited time and energy on it.

Now that the basics are clear, let’s dig deeper.

Is it always 80/20?

No. 80/20 is just a benchmark. The 80/20 rule says that in most cases the ratio will be nearer to 80/20 instead of 50/50. A 50/50 ratio would imply all causes carry the same weight which, as I’ve argued above, is not the case.

It could very well be 70/30, 65/35, 85/15 or even 99/1.

Will the total always add up to 100?

No. It’s just a coincidence that the numbers 80 and 20 add up to 100. Many people mistakenly think because the total is 100 therefore we are talking about the same thing. We are not.

We are comparing two different things—causes and effects, inputs and outputs, products and profits, criminals and crimes, etc.

Individually they should add to 100% but not together. For example the total products of a company should add up to 100%, total crimes in society should add up to 100%, etc.

So the ratio can also be 80/25, 70/34, or even 66.25/27.48.

Why should I do the other 80%?

It’s up to you. If you’re working on a tight deadline, say, then yes you should eliminate the insignificant 80% and do the significant 20%.

But if you can expend the time, then see what suits you.

Richard Koch says in his book The 80/20 Principle, cosmetic companies know that only 20% of their products are generating 80% of the profits. But still they won’t stop manufacturing the other 80% because they risk losing stature in business.

I spent about eight hours writing this article. The 80/20 principle says I could have written an article 80% as good as this in only 20% of the time i.e. in 1.6 hrs. But still I spent that time because I’m a perfectionist. I want my work to be flawless.

Why is the 80/20 rule valid?

No one knows. Though people have tried to explain it, and there are partial explanations, but no rigorous mathematical proof of the rule exists.

We believe it because we see it manifesting itself again and again in numerous systems.

80/20 principle is not a mathematical theorem but a statistical observation.

Now to complete the story I started in the introduction, the guy who became the world champion, his name is Tim Ferris and he’s the author of the bestselling productivity book The 4-Hour Workweek.

He won because he had discovered two loopholes in the rules.

The participants were weighed one day before the competition. Tim dehydrated his body to lose 28 pounds and weighed in at 165 pounds. Then he hyperhydrated back to 193 pounds. So he managed to get opponents who were three weight classes below him.

The other rule was if a fighter fell off the platform three times in a single round, his opponent won by default. Tim exploited this technicality, pushing his opponents off the platform, and thus winning the round every single time.

That’s cheating you say?

You cannot call someone a cheat when he has been playing by the rules.

There are shortcuts to success. Go, find yours.

(Image courtesy of Rudi Strydom at Unsplash)

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