Improve What Matters Most with the 80/20 Rule

When time is short and your to-do list is growing by the minute, your ability to prioritize and focus on what matters most is the key influencer on your results. But when there is so much work to be done, how do you decide where to spend your energy?

One method of prioritization that can help you spend your energy on the tasks that are most critical to your success comes from enacting the 80/20 rule.

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed the 80/20 pattern emerging over a century ago when he discovered that 80% of a population’s wealth was owned by 20% of the people. In 1897, Pareto coined this pattern the Pareto Principle but it’s best known today as the 80/20 rule.

This rule can be used to improve your focus by helping you determine the few things that have the biggest impact on your objective so you can prioritize them above the rest. How can you begin to utilize this rule to improve what matters most?

Set Your Scope by Asking the Right Question

In order to determine the scope of what you want to improve with the 80/20 rule, start by asking yourself the right question. Think about your ultimate goal and the biggest question you need to answer so you can focus on achieving that goal. Here are a few ideas.

  • Which 20% of tasks generate 80% of my output?
  • Which 20% of interruptions cause 80% of my reduced productivity?
  • Which 20% of products or services generate 80% of my profit?
  • Which 20% of investments produce 80% of my return?

Next, Conduct an 80/20 Analysis

Now that you’ve framed your result and its potential causes with an 80/20 question, you should have a better understanding of the scope of your analysis. With this scope in mind, follow these steps to conduct the analysis.

  1. Set the criteria you’ll use to measure your result so you know what data to collect
  2. Determine the causes, or various factors, that will ultimately produce your result
  3. Order your list of causes starting with the cause you think will have the most impact down to the one you think will have the least
  4. Set the criteria to measure or estimate the relative impact of each cause on the result
  5. Start measuring your criteria to gather data for the analysis
  6. Once you feel like you’ve collected a sufficient amount of data, determine which causes had the most impact and compare that with your list from #3

Helpful hints: Conduct this analysis as many times as you feel is necessary to be accurate, especially if it’s to prioritize something you’ll repeat frequently. You won’t always walk away with a perfect 80/20 divide. You may find that 10% of causes produce 90% of your result or that 25% of causes produce 75% of your result. However, it’s rare that 50% of causes produce 50% of your result; cause-effect relationships are typically imbalanced. Be sure focus on what matters most by prioritizing your high-impact causes first. 

Bottom Line

Now that you’ve conducted your analysis, you should have a good idea of which causes are most influential to achieving your objectives. Going forward, you can confidently spend most of your energy on those tasks, knowing that they have the biggest impact on your desired result.