Pareto Principle

Under the Pareto Principle, focusing time and energy on the “vital few” tasks rather than on the “trivial many” will increase productivity. But applying this principle to your to-do list is deceptively difficult.

In many cases, 20% of inputs cause 80% of outputs. For example: 20% of salespeople generate 80% of revenue, and a few key professional contacts provide most job leads. So prioritizing the most important salespeople and contacts makes sense.

The same logic should apply to task management, right? More time on the "vital,” less time on the "trivial," easy peasy.

In some cases, this is true. If you're learning to play the trumpet, spend more time practicing, less time shopping for fedoras and sunglasses, you will improve. If, while making a cup of coffee, you count sugar granules but carelessly grind the beans, the Pareto Principle can help.

But for two reasons, it's rarely that easy: 'vital' tasks often require 'trivial' tasks, and the principle makes it too easy to skip chores.

Here's an example:

Suppose I am a professional blogger with 10 hours in which to complete the following tasks:

  • research article

  • outline article

  • write article

  • bring trash to dump

  • wash bed sheets

My livelihood depends on writing articles, so following the Pareto Principle, I write for 8 of the 10 hours. Although generally it's a good idea for bloggers to spend more time writing, I'm left with only two hours for the remaining four tasks—not nearly enough time!

Without solid research, my outline lacks direction, and my article lacks substance. In this case, spending more time on the most important task hurt me.

And suppose a dump run takes an hour no matter how fast I drive, and that washing the sheets takes thirty minutes. Now I'm left with a half-hour to research and outline my article. Maybe I should just skip the dump and wash the sheets some other day?

Okay fine, not a big deal once in awhile, but when will either be a vital task? Compared to my livelihood, aren't chores always trivial? At some point the smell might make it vital, but do I really want to wait until then?

But there's a solution:

Break down tasks into specific actions.

For example, instead of 'research article' being the task, try: 'search Evernote archive;' 'Google around;' 'call Dan the expert.' If the Evernote search provides the most value, it is one of the “vital few” and should be given the appropriate time—Google and Dan can wait.

There will always be something that seems more important than chores. Make them easier when you can, skip them if you must, but don't pretend you're too busy for them. You're not!

The Pareto Principle can improve time management, but only if thoughtfully applied. Is it worth the effort? Maybe. Experiment, compare it to other methods, and decide for yourself.



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