How to Use the 80/20 Rule to Work Smarter

Once upon a time, the 80/20 rule had nothing to do with the workplace. Instead, economist Vilfredo Pareto used it to describe an upsetting economic trend in Italy, his home country, where 20 percent of people held 80 percent of the country’s wealth. He said this in 1906 and by 1940, the 80/20 rule was known as Pareto’s Principle or Pareto’s Law.

Today, though, the idea of an 80/20 split doesn’t always apply to the distribution of wealth. We’ve widened our gaze to see that it could apply to the workplace. 20 percent of our efforts cause 80 percent of our results, for example. Or, it might be present on a to-do list, where 20 percent of our tasks take up 80 percent of our resources. At some companies, four-fifths of the revenue comes from one-fifth of the clients. This list could go on and on.

But the 80/20 rule isn’t just a trend you note retroactively — you can apply it to your mindset to make yourself a better, more productive worker. Here’s how to do it:

1. Break Down Your To-Do List

Keeping a detailed schedule is one of the best ways to tackle an overwhelming workload — you and your colleagues can see what you’re doing, where you’ll be and when. Still, you could be marking off your long list of to-dos the wrong way.

To be more productive, you should take care of your toughest tasks first. Think of it this way — 20 percent of the items on your list, the big projects, will generate 80 percent of the results. It can be gratifying to cross off all the tiny to-dos you have lined up, but you won’t have as much to show for it.

2. Take a Step Back

If you’re in a managerial role, you probably have your hand in everything. You lead meetings, check in on progress and have no problem hopping into the trenches with your team when they’re struggling.

A step back can serve you well, especially if you want to work smarter. As an observer, you might see that some of your team’s tasks are expendable or not as worthwhile as other tasks. On the other hand, you might realize that one neglected task could bring the whole operation down. Looking at a bigger picture can help you trim 20 percent of the work you don’t need to do, or show you what generates 80 percent of your results so you can put your focus there.

3. Ask for Feedback

Another way to ensure you’re working smarter is to ask your boss or your clients for feedback. We already know the importance of these discussions since feedback tends to leave both people in the conversation satisfied, and it can increase your sense of belonging at your company. But applying the 80/20 rule here will make you more productive, too.

By seeking out feedback, you can see what aspects of your performance generate the most success. Your clients or your boss might uncover places where you can focus more on an effort to enhance and increase results. And, just like that, you have your 80/20 thanks to an honest, open conversation.

4. Don’t Neglect the 80 Percent

We’ve already mentioned the fact that 20 percent of your customers probably produce 80 percent of your income. You’re likely to funnel more of your time and energy into these organizations and for a good reason. The whole point of the 80/20 rule is to balance your efforts so that you’re making the most impact, after all.

You shouldn’t apply the same mindset to your team, though. Picking and choosing whose careers to champion based on their performance could hurt the team in the long run. So, push everyone to become part of the 20 percent who’s bringing in 80 percent of the revenue. Not everyone can hold the best rank, of course, but your team will be more productive overall if they’re motivated to become better and produce more positive results.

5. Apply It to Potential Pitfalls Too

Every project incurs a risk — you know this already. There’s so much you can do to evaluate the risk of a particular venture such as writing down all of the ways you could lose, calculating the likelihood that this would come to fruition and tallying up how much that loss would cost you.

Once again, you’re likely to find that just a few of the risks are substantial — they’ll cause 80 percent of your problems. These are the facets you should be carefully monitoring, and you should have a plan of action in place in case one of them comes to fruition. This isn’t to say you should completely ignore every other potential risk, but you should place them on a sliding scale of importance and, therefore, attention.

Give It Your 80/20

The bottom line is, you don’t have to give everything your all. Instead, you can focus your efforts on what’s most important and reap the benefits of doing so — namely, you’ll be working smarter, not working harder, and you’ll be achieving more.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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