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Understanding the Pareto Principle (Does 80-20 Really Work?)

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When you’re trying to solve a big problem or identify what priorities to focus on first, it’s easy to feel unsure where to start. You may find yourself getting overwhelmed—or worse, giving up altogether. 

Fortunately, helpful strategies can bring clarity and focus on what to do next—with maximum benefit.

This article will look at the Pareto Principle, how you can apply it, and its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dive in!

What is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle1,called%20this%20the%20Pareto%20Principle., also referred to as the “80/20 rule” or the “law of the vital few,” is a simple concept suggesting that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It is about leveraging focus on that which contributes to the most significant outcome.

An example of the Pareto Principle is that 80% of your sales typically come from 20% of your customers. Another example would suggest that 80% of your strength gains come from 20% of your lifts. 

The Pareto Principle can be applied to various contexts, including business, goal-setting, solving problems, and building relationships. In a nutshell, the Pareto Principle suggests that a few key causes can have a considerable impact.

To help you remember this concept, consider the powerful influence of a tiny mosquito!

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

—Dalai Lama

What are Examples of the Pareto Principle?

Examples of the Pareto Principle at work include scenarios where the intentional focus is given to areas that generate the most significant outcome. For example, spending 20% of your time focused on a high problem area at work, setting your goals to narrow in on areas that will generate 80% of your revenue, or spending time with the few people who bring you the most joy. 

Or think about the 20% of your friends that give you 80% of your joy.

We can also see the Pareto Principle in a negative sense. For example, 80% of your difficulty comes from 20% of your clients. Or 80% of your lack of productivity comes from 20% of your work tasks.

Let’s look at some scenarios where you can implement the Pareto Principle.

9 Tips to Implement the Pareto Principle

Block 20% of your time for your top 20% of priorities

Everyone has the same amount of hours in a day as everyone else. But how is it that some people seem to be able to accomplish far more than others? They may be using the Pareto Principle with their time management. 

Let’s look at two scenarios, one without the Pareto Principle and one with

Without the Pareto Principle: 

  • Joe starts his Monday morning by checking his email and looking at his lengthy to-do list.
  • His boss asks him to start working on another non-priority project. 
  • He’s pulled into a call about an issue in customer service. 
  • Now it’s lunchtime, his email has piled up, and his to-do list has gotten longer. 
  • A colleague wants to discuss the last meeting and what to do about it. 
  • His partner calls, wondering about his dinner plans. He starts Googling restaurants.
  • His boss asks him about his progress on the project from this morning. 
  • It’s five, and somehow the time slipped away, and he repeats this day for five days, accomplishing little and feeling burned out in the process. 

It’s exhausting just reading about Joe’s day, isn’t it?!

Now let’s check out a day with the Pareto Principle: 

  • Sam starts his Monday morning by reviewing his to-do list and choosing the top three things he needs to accomplish to generate the most significant outcome. One is based on a deadline, and the other projects are based on a goal set by the company earlier in the year. 
  • Sam opens his email to check for urgent needs to adjust his schedule. He blocks an hour to respond to emails later. He blocks 20% (or about 96 minutes) of his day to focus on his top three priorities. 
  • His boss asks him to work on another non-priority project, but Sam reminds him of his previous commitment to a project, and his boss appreciates the clarity. 
  • Sam scheduled his time tomorrow to discuss the new project with his boss.
  • Sam is pinged about a customer service issue. He requests a meeting for the afternoon during his non-focus time.
  • His partner calls to confirm their already-established plans for dinner. 
  • He finishes his priorities for the day. It’s five, and Sam feels excellent. Tomorrow, he moves on to the next set of priorities. 

The trick here is that Sam was able to implement the Pareto Principle along with his boundaries to focus his time on things that mattered most today. 

Pro Tip: By setting time at the beginning of your day or week to plan and determine how you will focus on the top 20% of your priorities, you improve your chances of success. 

Of course, other things will interrupt your day from time to time, but by blocking 20% of your day to focus on the top 20% of your to-do list, you have a greater chance of reaching your overarching goals over time. 

For more ideas to make the most of your time, try one of these 15 time management strategies

Rank your to-do list

If you’re thinking, “Great, managing my time is one thing—but how do I know what to focus on with my time?” Fortunately, the Pareto Principle can help you determine what to-do’s and priorities to focus on too. 

Take these steps to focus your to-do list for the day:

  • Step one: Determine which part of the day you feel the most productive. For some, it’s the morning; for others, it’s the afternoon. Block this time for high-priority work by putting it on your calendar. 
  • Step two: Make a list of all your to-do’s. You likely already have this list, or multiple lists created based on different goals you’ve already set. (Don’t have your goals set yet? Start here first to set your goals.)
  • Step three: Review each task and grade them based on their importance or the consequences of not getting it done. Rank them by A, B, C, D (even F). Filter these tasks through the lens of whether they are high-priority tasks that contribute to reaching your most important overall goals. 
  • Step four: Analyze your list of A-level tasks (aka your top 20%). What must get done today? What can wait until later in the week? Narrow down your A-level tasks into your top three to five tasks.
  • Step five: Use your blocked focus time for your most important A-level tasks. 

Pro Tip: Note the difference between a goal and a task or to-do. A goal is overarching and connects to a vision for a desired result. A task or to-do is something you do to reach your overarching goal. For example, I aim to lose 15 lbs in three months, so I have a task to work out for 20 minutes daily. 

Cut out or reduce your goals by 80% 

One of the best areas to implement the Pareto Principle is goal-setting. 

Perhaps you’ve been in this scenario before: it’s the beginning of the year, and you’re thinking about everything you want to accomplish over the next 12 months. You could list things pertaining to different areas of your life: lose 15 lbs, remodel the house, read 50 books, start a side hustle, spend more time with friends and family, volunteer, solve global hunger (!), etc. This list could go on. 

You’ve likely made a list like this before. It can often become overwhelming or intimidating, leading many well-intentioned people to give up within a few weeks. Each of these areas might mean something to you or carry weight. But if you try to do everything important to you, you’ll be less likely to succeed even at a few of your goals. 

“If everything is important, then nothing is.”

– Patrick Lencioni

This is where the Pareto Principle can be helpful. Look at your goals again—say you’ve got a list of 15 goals. Now remove 80% of the goals you think will generate a lesser outcome, even some that might be hard to cross off the list (it doesn’t mean they don’t matter, remember). This leaves you with the top 3 goals that matter the most.

Another way to do this is to not necessarily remove the goals altogether but rather reduce the goal by 80%. For example, you could set a goal to remodel the house instead of remodeling one bathroom. 

Now, look at your top 20% and plan to focus on these goals with a clear picture of the outcome and a process to get you there. Break each goal into chunks and build your to-do list to accomplish each piece. 

By focusing on 20% of your goals, you’ll find more success in the long run. You may even find yourself finishing goals a lot faster and revisiting the goals you removed before!

For more ideas on setting goals, check out this resource:

How To Set Better Goals Using Science

Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!

Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework to help you achieve your biggest goals.

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Give your energy to the activities that align most with who you are

Trying to do or be very important for everyone in your life is a surefire way to find yourself burned out. Understanding where you contribute the highest value and focusing your energy on those activities can bring you the most fulfillment. 

It’s impossible to be all things to everyone. This is true in both your personal life and in business. This doesn’t mean you ignore certain people or activities altogether. Still, you’ll likely find greater life satisfaction by focusing the best of your energy on the areas of your life that align with who you are and where you contribute the greatest value. To do this, you must first understand who you are and what values you bring or want to bring.

Take these steps to identify your values and refocus your energy:

  • Step one: Identify your calling. To do this, start with some questions: What are you passionate about? What makes you feel capable? What activities have you gravitated to as you were growing up? What would you do if money were no object and you knew you couldn’t fail? What relationships matter the most to you? How do you want to be remembered?
    • Notice the themes that come up. By going through these questions, your values will start to surface. 
    • Let’s say you determine your top five values are compassion, connection, wisdom, adventure, and faith. 
  • Step two: List your activities by category. With the information you gain from identifying your calling and value, list the different areas of your life and the current activities involved. Include categories like family, relationship, career, social life, hobbies, passions, faith, etc. For example, your list might look something like this:
    • Family: Weekly movie night, dinner together three times a week, annual vacation
    • Relationship: Weekly date night, couples counseling, daily check-ins
    • Career: Leadership coaching, career advancement courses
    • Social Life: Monthly game night, annual girls’ trip
    • Hobbies: Weekly art class, coaching the high school soccer team
    • Passions: Donating to causes that provide clean water, volunteering at a shelter
    • Faith: Weekly Bible study, weekly attendance at local church, daily devotional
  • Step three: Give each activity a ranking of five to one (five being the highest ranking) under each category based on how well they align with your calling and values.
    • Family: Weekly movie night (4), dinner together three times a week (5), annual vacation (5)—these activities align with your value for connection and adventure
    • Relationship: Weekly date night (5), couples counseling (5), daily check-ins (5)—these activities align with your value for connection
    • Career: Leadership coaching (5) and career advancement courses (5)—these activities align with your value for wisdom
    • Social Life: Monthly game night (5), annual girls’ trip (5)—these activities align with your value for connection and adventure
    • Hobbies: Weekly art class (2), coaching the high school soccer team (3)—these activities, while you enjoy them, don’t align as well with your values
    • Passions: Donating to causes that provide clean water (5) and volunteering at a shelter (5)—both of these activities align with your value of compassion
    • Faith: Weekly Bible study (5), weekly attendance at local church (5), daily devotional (5)—these activities align with your value of faith.
  • Steph four: Identity which activities may not align with your calling and values and consider whether or not they are worth keeping up with.
    • For example, from this list, you might notice that your weekly art class or coaching activities are less aligned with the values you’ve identified. 
    • Ask yourself how they might align with your values or how they don’t. Are there any decisions you need to make?
  • Step five: Analyze the activities that rise to the top as most aligned with your calling and values. Notice the areas where you’re giving the most energy and where you wish to give more. Notice the values that may not be represented in your activities.
    • For example, you might notice you’re giving a lot of energy to coaching the high school soccer team. Is this something you still want to continue?
    • You might also notice that you ranked family movie night lower than a five. Maybe this is because there is less time for connection. Perhaps your family changes it up with a weekly game night instead. 
    • You might also notice that one of your values is an adventure, but your activities don’t necessarily align with that as much as you’d like. Instead of your weekly indoor art class, try a new class where you travel to different locations to paint various scenes.
  • Step six: Make some (tough) decisions. Are there any activities that are time to say no to? Are there any activities you want to contribute more energy to? 

By focusing your energy on the top 20% of the activities that align most with your calling and values, you are more likely to find greater life satisfaction. This mindset can also help you make more boundary-focused decisions, which can help you minimize burnout!

Pro Tip: Identifying your calling and values is often a lifelong journey and is best accomplished in connection with others you trust and who know you well. The steps listed above also require some healthy boundary setting to be the best of yourself. So we encourage you to consider talking to a therapist, mentor, or life coach!

Leverage your strengths at least 20% of the time. 

You may have been told that one of the best ways to be a well-rounded person is to strengthen your weaknesses. However, according to Gallup2, this could result in being average at many things and not necessarily great at a few. There’s far greater fulfillment in focusing on and leveraging your strengths than trying to be good at everything.

One way to apply the Pareto Principle is to work within your strengths. Here’s what that process could look like: 

  • Identify your strengths2 and weaknesses. 
  • Look at your calendar and to-do lists for the upcoming week and identify where you can use your strengths or where you might feel drained by your weaknesses.
  • If most of your week is taken up by activities that drain you, consider delegating some tasks to someone else if you’re able.
  • Ensure that at least 20% of the activities or tasks this week center on areas that energize you—your areas of strength. Note that your entire week doesn’t need to be filled with energizing work (amazing if it is!); if you can at least ensure that 20% energizes you, you’ll be more likely to find enjoyment this week. 

Once you better understand your strengths3,A%20strength%20is%20not%20what%20you%20are%20good%20at%2C%20and,it%20makes%20you%20feel%20strong.&text=The%20other%20implication%20of%20this,it%20means%20everyone%20has%20strengths., be intentional about building those strengths to find the most fulfillment. This doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring your weaknesses; instead, it’s about managing your weaknesses and focusing on your strengths.

For example, if you discover that one of your strengths is communication, but you spend most of your time analyzing data, you might be feeling drained. To build your communication strength, you could volunteer to give the following presentation about the data, start a blog or podcast about analysis, or take a class on how to be an effective communicator. 

Bonus Tip: One simple (free) exercise to identify your strengths is to reflect on the different areas where it feels like time flies by. What are you doing when you feel like you’re in a flow? You can identify these areas quickly. 

If you struggle with this exercise, take a month to pay attention and journal about what activities drain you or energize you. Marcus Buckingham’s research3,A%20strength%20is%20not%20what%20you%20are%20good%20at%2C%20and,it%20makes%20you%20feel%20strong.&text=The%20other%20implication%20of%20this,it%20means%20everyone%20has%20strengths. indicates that the activities that energize you are more than likely areas of strength. The areas that drain you are likely your weaknesses. Of course, you can also use an assessment like CliftonStrengths2 to identify your strengths.

Pro Tip: Want to get the most out of your team? Focusing on their strengths is an excellent way to improve engagement and job satisfaction. Check out our article on how to build a strengths-based team.

Fight distraction with 20/80 planning and execution

Getting distracted4 often means you have more on your plate than you can handle. For example, when you feel overwhelmed, it can lead to getting lost in busy work to feel productive or reverting to something mundane like scrolling through social media to look for affirmation or some sense of control—distractions!

Distraction often leads to procrastination and can leave you feeling even more overwhelmed and unproductive in the long run. The Pareto Principle can be used to help you regain traction on the goals that are important to you. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Address overwhelm to gain clarity. To fight distraction, first, address your sense of overwhelm. What parts of the task at hand feel unclear? What other plates are you spinning at the same time? What’s important to get done now vs. later? Are you feeling self-doubt? Why? Talk through these questions with your boss or a friend to help you clear your mind and gain understanding.
  • Plan your attack. Once you gain clarity, you will have some traction to build upon to make the task at hand more attainable. Before you start the activity or project, spend 20% of your time planning your attack. For example, if you have an hour, spend 12 minutes on your game plan and 48 minutes on execution.
  • Focus on the most important (or easiest) tasks first. Break your plan of attack into smaller chunks and steps. Rank the tasks by most important (or easiest) and focus on the top 20% of the list.

Bonus tip: Some people find that ranking their tasks from easiest to hardest is a great motivator. If you’re motivated by checking things off a list, this might be an alternative tactic that works best for you. 

Spend 20% of your week learning

What would it look like if you spent an hour and a half per day learning something that made you better at your craft? How much better at your job would you become? Or maybe there’s something you’ve wanted to learn but feel overwhelmed by the amount of time it will take. This is the benefit of applying the Pareto Principle to your learning and growth. 

There are several benefits to giving 20% of your week to learning (or approximately one and a half hours per day in a five-day workweek). Research shows that investing in learning improves productivity, engagement, and innovation. But what does this look like practically? 

Here are some ideas to apply the Pareto Principle to learning every day:

  • Spend 30 minutes in the morning reading or listening to a podcast related to your area of work or something you’re interested in 
  • Take 30 minutes of your presentation preparation time to learn everything you can about your potential new client
  • Spend 15 minutes a day on a language learning app like Duolingo
  • Invite a speaker to your team meeting for a lunch-and-learn
  • Take 30 minutes a week to meet a new colleague and learn about what they do
  • Participate in an online learning course for an hour a week 

Hopefully, this list is getting your juices flowing! What else would you add? 

Funnel 100% effort toward 20% of a problem

It’s easy to get swept up in the number of problems in the world—poverty, war, racial injustice, etc. These issues feel big, heavy, and often unsolvable. But it’s not just global issues. We also have problems in our everyday lives—a child acting out at school, being scammed by a client, or having a conflict with a colleague, to name a few.

To be alive is to have problems come up from time to time. 

In the face of overwhelm, the Pareto Principle can give you a sense of agency and hope. It might be helpful to think about this concept with the image of a funnel. 

  • Broad focus: At the top of the funnel, you see the broader problem. You might feel your sense of overwhelm kicking in at this stage, but keep going further down the funnel. Let’s say the problem you’re looking at is racial injustice. 
  • Categorization: At this stage of the funnel, begin to break up the problem into categories. What are the different issues involved? Where is the problem happening? With racial injustice, you might break down the problem into categories, including education, politics, police, workplace discrimination, etc.
  • Category focus: Once you’ve identified the various parts of the problem, begin to zero in on one category. This is where it’s best to focus on something that resonates with you most. For instance, do you gravitate to one category more than another? Or perhaps you’re already connected with others in a certain area. Start there. Let’s say your focus turns out to be workplace discrimination.
  • Focus tasks: Now that you know the category you want to focus on, narrow down the problem by making a list of things you want to see change. Using our example, you might determine some of the tasks are adjusting hiring policies, proposing training ideas, discussing the issue with HR, starting an employee resource group, etc. (Note: workplace discrimination may still be too broad of a focus. You may need to repeat the categorization step in this area to continue to zero in on something you can feasibly take action on.) 
  • Focus action: Once you have a list of focused tasks, start with the most critical, high-impact task at the top of the task that will create a domino effect toward accomplishing the rest of the tasks. In the case of your issue of workplace discrimination, maybe your next step is to start a conversation with your HR director. 

“Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.”

—Andy Stanley

The best part of this kind of focus is that it adds more pressure and opportunity for change to a single element of a bigger problem, much like how pushing water through a funnel works. It also reduces the problem into actionable steps you control, giving you more agency and a sense of hope.

Pareto Principle FAQs

What are the advantages of using the Pareto Principle?

The advantages of the Pareto Principle include clarifying your focus on the activities, tasks, and relationships that generate the greatest outcome. By focusing on the top 20% of the causes and activities that matter to you most, you ultimately affect 80% of the greater result. 
With this focus, some advantages of the Pareto Principle include improving productivity, making clearer decisions, minimizing burnout, solving problems faster, developing stronger relationships, and playing to your strengths.

What are the disadvantages of using the Pareto Principle?

The disadvantages of the Pareto Principle include basing your decisions on past results, misrepresenting various factors, ignoring effort needed in less critical areas, or poor distribution of power.
In these cases, it’s essential to pay attention to balance, integrity, and various perspectives about the whole issue or goal before making a blanket decision regarding your use of the Pareto Principle.
For example, if you are trying to determine where to put your biggest investment into your business, you may determine, based on past data, that your greatest outcome is coming from the sales department. However, you may miss the fact that to scale. You might need to put that investment into the customer service department to handle increased sales.
Another example would be deciding to lay off staff who are not contributing to 80% of the revenue without realizing how their contribution impacted 20% of the revenue you may have just lost. 
One of the biggest disadvantages is the poor distribution of power. In this case, applying the Pareto Principle could disproportionately and unfairly give more power to those with the greatest influence, who may use it to their advantage with bad intentions.

Who invented the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle is attributed to economist Vilfredo Pareto. It was later developed and made popular by management consultant Joseph M. Duran. 
Among several observations, Italian economist and researcher Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. From Pareto’s findings, Joseph M. Juran later developed a theory in the context of quality control, suggesting that 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the defects. The Pareto Principle has since been utilized in various contexts beyond quality control, including business management, production, and economics.

What are the common misunderstandings about the Pareto Principle?

One of the common misunderstandings about the Pareto Principle is that it is absolute. However, researchers have found that there is often variance in the distribution. For example, 20% of the countries own 91% of the wealth. 
Another common misunderstanding is that the Pareto Principle can be used to ignore or disregard some aspects of your business or life when it should be utilized as an observation tool to focus attention to make better decisions. 

Pareto Principle Key Takeaways

To summarize, take note of these implementation tips as you consider whether the Pareto Principle is correct for you:

  • Cut out or reduce your goals by 80%. Break down your goals into something achievable.
  • Block 20% of your time for your top 20% of priorities. Create a focused, uninterrupted space on your calendar for your highest priorities. 
  • Give your energy to the activities that align most with who you are. Spend time on the things you value.
  • Rank your to-do list. Focus on your A-level tasks for maximum outcome.
  • Leverage your strengths at least 20% of the time. You can’t be all things to all people. Work within your strengths for higher job satisfaction. 
  • Fight distraction with 20/80 planning and execution. Spend 20% of your project time planning your execution.
  • Spend 20% of your week learning. Investing in your growth takes about one and a half hours a day.
  • Funnel 100% effort toward 20% of a problem. Do, for one, what you would like to do for many.

For more ideas on how to affect change and add value, check out our article on the 13 science-backed tips to change your life.

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