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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Work Less, Live More, and Be More Effective with the 80/20 Principle

Enhance your time management and work-life balance


Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

Originally published on 1 December 2023 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement


Do you think of time as an enemy? Do you feel that the day does not have enough hours to get through your to-do lists? Do you work all the time, but are still behind with everything? Do you feel that there is a gap between your input and your output in terms of results and successes?


I recently read a book on the 80/20 principle, and I wanted to share some insights from it with you. They are relevant to those of us who struggle with time management, productivity-related matters, and work-life balance. In The 80/20 Principle: Achieve More with Less, Richard Koch – a British consultant, author, and investor – offers a unique perspective on the question of time management. His approach is not exactly a celebration of laziness, nor of luck, acceptance, or letting go. Rather, Koch proposes intelligent, hyper-focused, and reduced effort. He suggests we should work significantly smarter, and significantly less.


You will probably be familiar with the 80/20 principle. It is also known as the Pareto law, and as the principle of least effort. It states that a surprisingly small proportion of efforts and inputs (20%) lead to 80% of our results. In other words, there is an extremely lopsided distribution of inputs and outcomes. By implication, the principle also suggests that the vast majority of our efforts, time, and resources is completely wasted. We tend naturally to assume that most of our efforts result in most of our outputs. But that belief is a fallacy.


Koch’s promise is that if we can understand and leverage this principle, we can generate significant improvements in productivity and success – whilst also working less: “If you know the 20 percent of causes which give 80 percent of results, you will work much less, enjoy life more, and make much more money.”


The 80/20 principle is based on the research of the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923). Pareto looked at patterns of wealth and income distribution in nineteenth-century England. Unsurprisingly, he found that they were extremely unbalanced – i.e., 80% of the wealth was in the possession of 20% of the population. However, Pareto didn’t just find that wealth was unbalanced, but predictably unbalanced.


The 80/20 principle applies to businesses and to economies at large. For example, if a company knows that 80% of its income is the result of 20% of its products, or 20% of its clients, or 20% of specific activities, it would be wise to focus most resources and energy on these 20% that matter most. In fact, the word ‘entrepreneurship’ suggests just that: The term was coined by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say around 1800. Say defined the entrepreneur as somebody who “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower productivity into an area of higher productivity and yield.”


Applying the Principle to Your Personal Life

The 80/20 principle is also applicable in our private lives – it can be useful with regards to our working habits, time management, relationships, and overall thriving. Translated into the psychological realm, we may also find that roughly 20% of our activities result in 80% of our happiness. That can be time spent with close friends or family, or time spent in nature, or doing specific activities. In our private lives, too, we can look for the small inputs that have large results. We can benefit by being much more selective about how we spend our time and who we spend it with.


I’m not usually a fan of computer metaphors or economic language and principles translated into the realm of psychology. After all, we are not businesses, nor are we machines. Thinking about the self as an entrepreneurial entity is also not helpful. And productivity and effectiveness as values in their own right are not the holy grail – in spite of what the time management industry is trying to tell us. I prefer to aspire to creativity rather than productivity, which has industrial connotations. Our aim should not be blindly to optimize ourselves and to maximize our output and effectiveness at all costs, but, rather, to be discerning about what truly matters to us and to focus our energy on that. Even if we enhance our effectiveness, what really matters is still how we put our effectiveness to use.


Yet if we look beyond the input/output and optimization metaphors, we can see that what Koch is talking about is how to spend our time and energy more wisely. And Koch is truly radical when it comes to time. Most of us feel short of time, as though the day does not have enough hours. We feel that there is always too much on our to-do lists and simply not enough time in the day to get through them. Koch argues the exact opposite: we are awash with time, and profligate in its abuse. We have more than enough time. Our true problem is simply that we do not use it well.


We should, he suggests, radically eliminate all low-value activities. If we can identify the 20% of our activities that matter – in whatever sphere – we can focus on just that and let go of the 80% of unproductive activities. As a consequence, we will suddenly have much more leisure and thinking time available to us: “If we double our time on our top 20 percent of activities, we can work a two-day week and achieve 60 percent more than now.”


Another bonus of such an approach is that when we act less, we think more. And we think better. Most valuable creative ideas come to us when we are not hyper-busy or stressed, but in a calmer, more contemplative and receptive frame of mind.


But here is also the problem with Koch’s theory: Most of us are not completely autonomous masters of our time. We may have children, partners, and dependents, and mortgages we must pay; we may work for other people or institutions who dictate our to-do lists and force us to spend our time in unproductive ways. We may also work in teams and be constantly dependent on other people’s input.


80/20 and the Stoic Circle of Control

So, a more realistic way of looking at the 80/20 principle would be to seek to apply it within our circle of control. That means being very discerning about what we can and what we cannot control, and then focusing our energy on the former. We can then apply the principle to the activities and freedoms that are clearly located within our circle of control.


Looking more closely at the working habits and task focus that we can control, we may want to ask ourselves the following:


  • How do I spend my time on an ordinary working day?

Draw a pie chart and give each activity percentage points to visualise the insights from this exercise. For example, you may spend 20% of your time doing emails, 30% attending meetings and calls, 10% writing proposals, 20% researching new business, and 20% surfing the web. Or you might spend 50% of your days travelling, and 30% in client meetings, and 20% with admin. Or you might spend 20% of your day writing, 20% coaching, 40% getting lost in thought and online, and 20% feeling guilty about this fact and researching ways not to do that – like me. 😊


Next, ask yourself:


  • Which of my work activities matter most? What are the 20% that actually lead to my successes – however we may define them?

  • How can I spend more time on the activities that truly matter?

  • And which of the non-generative activities can I minimize? Which activities can I say no to in the future?

This is of course all easier said than done. It is nevertheless a very helpful mental exercise. At the most basic level, an 80/20 analysis of the working habits we can control might provide us with a compass – a clear sense of priorities and knowledge of what is and what is not important. What is more, saying no to pointless busyness can be hugely liberating. It can free us up to find more creative ways to do things and to spend our time.


A final but crucial point: The time we save by applying the 80/20 principle to our work tasks should NOT be reinvested in work. The point of this exercise is precisely to work less but smarter. The point is to free ourselves up to take breaks, to relax, to think, to just be, to connect with others, and to do more nourishing, energising, soul-soothing things – all the things that makes us feel alive and connected to our deeper purpose.



References

Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: Achieve More with Less. Updated 4th edition. London and Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.


Image: Kevin Ku @ Unsplash

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