Getting things done: Pareto’s Principle

I have a great interest in decluttering and first encountered this principle in a book on home organisation and later in an excellent 1970s management book Timetrap: how to get more done in less time by Alec R. Mackenzie (Timetrap is available second-hand from Retrorocket).

Pareto’s Principle is also known as the 80/20 rule and the principle of imbalance. This principle was originally propounded by Pareto as an economic theory to show that 80% of the wealth is retained by 20% of the population (and vice versa). However, for decades the Pareto principle has been applied to business management:

“Observation that where a large number of factors of agents contribute to a result, the majority (about 80%) of the result is due to the contributions of a minority (about 20%) of factors or agents…for example that some 80% of the sales of a firm are generated by 20% of its customers…it is however a heuristics principle, and has not been proved as a scientific law”

See Business Dictionary for more information.

Not having enough time to do the important things at home and work is a constant problem. The Pareto principle has been applied (and distorted) in numerous ways to provide business solutions: achieve the most at the your most efficient time of the day (20% of the day, 80% of the important non- computer tasks), focus on specific customers (20% of customers 80% of sales) etc.

Although it is ironic that a principle developed to highlight social inequality has been adapted to increase capital I and many other perfectionists use it to achieve tasks that may otherwise be overwhelming.

As a perfectionist, this principle provided me a much needed template for action. It can be used / abused in many ways: If I need to complete a task, I focus on 80% of the result which allegedly requires 20% of the effort and the remaining 20% of the result which needs 80% effort can be saved for a rainy / quiet day.

A good example of this principle in action is recategorising a dusty bookshelf.

Instead of making the job at hand more complicated apply the Pareto Principle. Take the books off the shelf, clean the shelf, dust the books and place the books back: you have a clean bookshelf and books. At a future time, the consuming task of recategorisation can (hopefully) be done before the dust builds up. This is a very subjective thing – some may argue that recategorisation is more important and/or takes less time: good, do that first.

For me it is cathartic that there is a logical system I can apply with a large impact and smaller effort at the outset; this in turn provides me the impetus to complete the remaining 20% of the job later (probably). The result is that action is taken, an important job is complete and task paralysis does not take hold too often.

In sum, although debilitating perfectionism can also be overcome using the ‘snapshot in time’ analogy (where the work is as perfect as it can be within the time given to complete it) the Pareto Principle frees me from thinking a job is unachievable and/or incomplete due to its lack of perfection. Instead I think, “Excellent: clean shelf and books. Next time I’ll recategorise the books”.

Task done!

2 thoughts on “Getting things done: Pareto’s Principle”

  1. good one!
    Another self-management tool… if you want to call them that is the ‘just try it for 15 minutes’
    I often use this for washing dishes, just do a few and before you know it you’re having a good time and finishing the job. Same story with homework and other jobs you’re putting off!

    You could try this with your re-categorisation, just do 15 minutes and worst case scenario is that you’ve made a start!
    An essential part of this is congratulating yourself when you’re done!

    • Hi Annora
      Thank you for your comment:)

      Personally, I really like The Pareto Principle as applied above and although that is blatantly subjective, I also understand your apparent cynicism.

      I have never really had a problem with doing work (except maybe housework!), for me this article is about achieving the most that you can in the time you have to do the task.

      The bookshelf cleaning vs. recategorisation is an analogy to illustrate the 80/20 rule. Recategorisation is another task for another day (or minute, or year!)

      In my opinion “the just try it for 15 minutes” (or half an hour)is about doing something…anything! Whereas the Pareto principle can help [me] achieve a large amount of focused, quality, prioritised work.

      The dishes will probably get done without Pareto. Task completion vs. procrastination is a major issue for many small business owners and others: this approach has been successful… and it ‘fits’ with my methodology:)

      In saying this, I do understand that everyone has their own take on what is great and what is bunkum! and I agree we should congratulate ourselves (and others) on a task completed.

      Thanks again for your feedback: I now live in fear of writing the next article! Pareto help me! lol


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