The Pareto Principle: 80/20 rule

by Paul Goodchild on April 17, 2009

Life is all about rules unfortunately.  Some make complete sense; some make law and by today’s standard are completely nonsensical.

Some however, like Pareto’s Principle, are genius.

It basically states that roughly 80% of the output is derived from 20% of the input.  Or alternatively:

  • 80% of the progress/work is done in 20% of the time
  • 80% of your sales comes from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of the wealth is distributed amongst 20% of the population

The law of the vital few

The 20% in these examples represent the vital 20% that constitutes the majority of whatever you’re measuring.  If 20% of your customers are providing you with 80% of your revenue, it makes sense to focus most of your time spent maintaining relationships (80%) on the vital 20%.  This thereby represents the most efficient use of your time in that area.

Sometimes you need 100% so you will have to go the whole way towards getting it, even if the time taken to get nearly there is small fraction of the overall time needed to complete the task.  But it’s worth considering, and allowing yourself the flexibility to utilize this principle, so that you do not spend excessive time and effort on certain projects to squeeze out the highest quality when 80~90% will do.

An example that comes to mind is perhaps in design or writing… rather than spending several hours working on a draft, you could attempt to make several shorter trial runs on different subjects, and then chose the one that came most freely to you.

It’s important just to be conscious of this principle; it’s not a law to live your life by.  And it of course doesn’t need to have a 80-20 distribution, it could be 90-10, 99-1, 60-40 for example.  Just being aware of this observation gives you another option when you approach tasks or projects that might just help you get the most out of yourself, time, money etc.

I first met this principle when I read The Four Hour Work Week. There’s a lot more detail in that book with outlines on how to put it to good use, than I’ve provided here. A highly recommended read!

– I found that even just writing this simple quick post, I spent about 30% of my time getting the ideas down on “paper” and the rest on editing for grammar, flow and consistency.  For me, that remaining 70% is as important as the content so there’s no way around it in this case.

Further reading: Wiki

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