The 80/20 Principle


I’ve always dreamed of running a mile in less than 5 minutes. I have always been a fast runner (one standard deviation above the mean). I can remember in high school, whenever we would have the mile run for fitness tests, I always did pretty well. I think my slowest miles were in the 7:45 range. When I joined track, I quickly learned though that shaving seconds off a 7:45 mile is easier than shaving seconds off a 6:45 mile, which is easier than shaving seconds off a 5:45 mile (the fastest I’ve ever run).

We have all had a goal where we tried to achieve a certain metric. Whether it’s running faster or losing weight, we can remember how at first, progress towards the goal was easy, but as we got closer and closer to our goal, the last few units of progress were fierce uphill battles. We are all familiar with getting the first 80% of the progress towards a goal with 20% of the effort.

Vilfredo Pareto was Italian sociologist who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was controlled by a mere 20% of the population. He also demonstrated that about 80% of the peas from his garden came from 20% of the pods, and that the remaining 80% of the pods only yielded 20% of the peas. Since then, Pareto’s Principle has been noticed all over the world in various phenomenon.

  • A salesperson for example might recognize that 80% of his sales come from the same loyal 20% of his clientele.
  • We spend 80% of our time online at 20% of the websites we visit (Facebook, Google)
  • 80% of our phone calls and text messages go to 20% of our contacts
  • 80% of the words we use each day come from the top 20% of the English language

These are, of course, approximations. More accurate statistics of these phenomena, as well as why they occur, are described here.

Bringing it back to productivity and achieving goals, there is a pattern when achieving goals. With many goals, the first 80% of the progress towards a goal can be achieved with only 20% of the effort needed for full realization. This means that you can often get close to multiple goals with only minimal amounts of effort, but if you want to truly achieve excellence, you need to focus all of your energy into one thing and one thing only.

This is good news! I enjoy being really thoughtful for my friends on their birthdays. For a while, I would sit down and write them a heartfelt card a week before their birthday, address it, and mail it to them. But when courses started at Stanford, it got hard to keep up with this habit. Even though I didn’t have the time to write cards, I could have still achieved 80% of the intended effect—to show my friends they’re important to me—by merely sending them a text or a quick phone call. This would have taken 20% of the time, and meant almost as much as a card.

At this busy point in the semester, I’m reminded that though there are many things that need to be done, I can still perform pretty well across the board by getting different projects up to 80%, leaving them there, and working on other unstated projects, and getting the last 20% if I have time. In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the Zeigarnik Effect, and how it can be coupled with Pareto’s principle to avoid perfectionism, and increase productivity. After that, I’ll explain a principle called “Float Your Projects” that a friend coined that outlines a framework that is useful when you have a lot of irons in the fire. Until then, consider what projects you have been putting off that you could bring to 80% with only 20% of the work, and start today!