How to Parse the "Vital Few" From the "Trivial Many"

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
–Vincent Van Gogh


The Best Sorts of Small Things

Much of the productivity literature speaks to external interruptions and internal struggles such as procrastination. Some of the literature speaks to the Pareto Principle and how its application to your task management can improve our efficacy.

Yet few discuss exactly how to figure out which tasks are more “pareto” than another.

OK, back up. Let’s talk terminology.

Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle holds that 20% of inputs cause 80% of outputs, and applies to many contexts. (Even if the numbers are rarely so precise, the important takeaway is that there is a small group of inputs that are most consequential, and a larger group that is least consequential.)

The practical extension is that we should devote most of our resources to the most critical inputs. For example, if 20% of salespeople generate 80% of sales, we should give them every opportunity to succeed, even at the expense of the less successful 80% of salespeople.

Similarly, a few key network connections provide the majority of job leads, and so we should focus our time and energy proportionately.

Applied to productivity, we should spend most resources on the “vital few” actions, and fewer on the less critical actions.

That’s my objective here: to describe a method I use to figure out which tasks, exactly, are of the “vital few” and which are not.

Parsing the Pareto

Parsing the pareto 20% from the 80% is sometimes easy. If you’re learning to play the trumpet, spend more time practicing, less time shopping for fedoras and sunglasses, and you will improve.

If, while making a cup of coffee, you count sugar granules but don’t grind the beans, the Pareto Principle can help.

The best time to identify the pareto tasks is before you begin. When you’re in the thick of it, it is very hard to see the forest for the trees.


Planning out only the most critical tasks also has the effect of preventing you from overplanning. It is tempting to plan out every single task because it “feels” productive, but it’s not.

Defining the pareto often clarifies what the goal itself is. It also provides a central node, helpful for determining what the other important tasks are. For example, if my goal is to “publish a book,” I would define “writing” as a pareto task, and would probably change my goal to “write a book.” This is a much better goal, for all of the reasons given in Chapter 3.

Pareto tasks compound future productivity by encouraging formation of habits and routines. When actions become habits or routines, we’re on auto-pilot. Procrastination, anxiety, and other forms of Resistance, are thoughts that enter the mind before action. With habits and routines, we’re already taking action, so there’s no opportunity for the Resistance to inhibit us.

Arguably most beneficial is the skill-building potential. By skill, I mean an ability that is relatively rare and applicable to many situations. Pareto tasks often fit this description.

Pareto tasks are often easier to measure and receive feedback from. For example, if writing, one can track how many words are written, and figure out the contexts in which we write best.

By identifying the “trivial many” tasks, we know what we can delegate to others. We can hire a freelancer to proofread or someone to design our book covers, for example. (Which I did not… but maybe next time.) Such an exercise reveals trivial actions as well as worthless and even harmful ones.

When we can eliminate a task entirely, we free up resources. It’s not as good as completing a task. It’s better.


Attaining goals requires both the vital and the “trivial.”

For example, if you write an entire book but never try the “trivial” task of showing it to somebody, no one will ever read it.

(And presumably, if your goal is to write a book, this includes actually sending it out into the world.) Thus, certain seemingly trivial tasks are, to some extent, vital.

The converse is also true; the vital can become trivial. If a first draft begins to ramble in an incoherent direction, words are being written, but they are the wrong words.

Pareto Analysis

A Pareto Analysis is a way of systematically determining which tasks are most worthy of your time and other precious resources. In other words, determining what must be done and then, of those, which are paramount.

Step 1: Identify actions

Before you can determine which actions are pareto or not, you have to get the candidates together. Don’t list every action for a particular project. There are too many, and your resources are limited.

Instead, list only those tasks that strike you as necessary and important. If something is important, but not necessary, it does not go here. (Feel free to write it elsewhere, of course.)

Hint: If thinking of a particular action gives you anxiety, that is very likely a pareto action.

Step 2: Identify the pareto

With this list made, you are now going to apply the other two requirements: A pareto task must be necessary, and must also be vital and resource-intensive.

These are important distinctions because necessary things need not be vital (designing Kindle book covers, for example), nor are vital things always necessary (you can publish a book without proofreading it — it’s not smart, but you can do it.)

It is both necessary and vital that you actually upload the completed manuscript to Amazon for it to be published, but this is not resource-intensive.

It is also important to note that most tasks have aspects of which meet the criteria and others that do not. This depends entirely on how you define the task. For example, if you define the task as “read x book,” then you’ve “rounded up,” inevitably drudging up some redundant or unimportant (nonpareto) pages.

If, instead, you take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with the book’s structure, you will realize that you can read it strategically, prioritizing the reading of certain pages over others. In theory, you can keep lowering the scale, finding the critical 20% in granular details. Keep in mind that, at some point, returns diminish.

Circle those actions that meet the criteria. These actions now wear the prestigious badge of pareto.

Obviously, other pareto actions might emerge through experience, or because they slip your mind at this moment. That’s to be expected.

Also, if it’s something you’ve been procrastinating for whatever reason, it might be time to undeservedly “promote” it to the pareto level so that it gets done.

Step 3: Order actions

Next, we list the actions sequentially — both the pareto and the nonpareto-but-necessary. (Actions are not necessarily sequential, but usually, there is a fair amount of necessary sequence between steps.)

If actions are not necessarily sequential, then put them on the same line, giving priority to the pareto actions.

Then live the list. Spend as much time as you can on the pareto, getting the necessary but nonpareto out of the way to spend more time on the pareto.

This is the list that will, hopefully, keep you on track as you pursue your goals by keeping you committed to the Pareto Principle.

Step 4: Create guideposts

Now that we’ve defined the pareto and necessary actions, we can set up the guideposts that get us from here to there.

I discussed this in greater detail in a previous post and in my book . The essential idea is that, whenever possible, don’t assign arbitrary due dates to your goals. Instead, create guideposts: movable, flexible, soft targets.

A final thought, problem, and solution

As I mentioned above, sometimes the “trivial” becomes “vital.”

Stapling your research paper before you hand it in to your professor is certainly not the most important part of your project, but it no doubt helps.

True, taking out the trash costs you 10 minutes of time during which you could be completing a pareto task, but by that logic, you should never take out your trash because there will always be something more “vital” to do.

The same might be said for taking a shower. This, of course, is ludicrous.

You must staple your paper, take out the trash, and shower!

Think of it this way: If all you do are the Pareto actions, AT BEST you’ve scored an 80. In other words: a B — .

You passed the test. You wrote the book. You completed your project.

But it’s not an A. So you have to figure out how to spend 80% of your resources on the Pareto actions and 20% of the time on the perhaps-trivial-but-still-necessary tasks.

When you must do “unimportant” stuff, be strategic about when you do it. If it’s mindless, do it in between your major sessions. It will (almost) feel relaxing because your brain has been so taxed. A bit like swinging a bat after swinging a heavier bat — it feels lighter by comparison, even though it isn’t.

This was primarily sourced from How to be a Long Term Person in a Short Term World, available on Amazon.


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