Why the 80/20 Rule Could Make You Less Productive

This is a guest post by Ruben Berenguel, @berenguel.

In this post I’ll explore some of the fallacies tied with the 80/20 rule applied to enhancing your productivity, as well as giving some possible solutions to its shortcomings. Read on, enjoy and share your view in the comments section!

If you are anything into increasing your productivity, I am sure you have heard of the 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle. In case you have not, the Pareto rule states that 20% of your inputs lead to 80% of your outputs. If you are running a company, 20% of your clients buy 80% of your production, to be clearer. This principle was observed by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the beginning of the 20th century and was put into fame by The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss. From his book it spread to almost all time management and productivity advice out there, where it is usually stated as I wrote above. And this can be a very bad thing.

The problem with the Pareto principle is complex. When taught, it comes combined with Stephen Covey’s idea of life quadrants, where you split your tasks in 4 categories according to whether they are important and urgent (important-urgent, important-non-urgent, non-important-urgent, non-important-non-urgent). In this splitting, Quadrant 2 activities, corresponding to non-urgent-important tasks is where 20% tasks are assumed to be, and the tasks every life coach urges you to work on.  Thus, you start discarding all other things and work happily in Quadrant 2. But you made a mistake there.

You can’t mix apples and oranges as much as you can’t mix work and leisure. And productivity geeks are usually ripe for fluking at this: they treat leisure time as non-urgent-non-important. And then, relaxing with friends, mowing the lawn or playing with your kids is delayed or canceled to just work a little more in Quadrant 2. Your relationships degrade, your home turns to a mess and you become just a workaholic (NY Times). You have fallen to the productivity trap.

If you apply the 80/20 rule to your life, be sure to first make clear what are you giving up, and don’t mix leisure with work, or even different projects at work. Always keep some buffer time to relax, take it easy and disconnect from stress. More on this later, in the practical part of this post.

In addition to this bad application scenario, the Pareto principle is just a rule of thumb. It works sometimes, but sometimes it does not work (and can fail miserably). An interesting example comes from Paul Krugman in The New York Times (Graduates vs. Oligarchs, 20060227). But you don’t need to go that far. You can check your favorite example. I did, my random example: my favorite basketball team, Club Joventut Badalona (Wikipedia), in what I think was one of its best seasons, 2007-2008. Back in that season Rudy Fernández (NBA player, European champion & former world champion) was still playing for the team, and was its best scorer. Go for the numbers game and let’s see if the Pareto rule holds. The team made 2970 points, an 80% of that is roughly 2376. Rudy made 636 of these points… and 20% of the team roster made… 1377 points. You see? Even in this simple test, the Pareto principle doesn’t hold. There is more in a team that just the top players (usually).

There is more in your work life than your top tasks. Your overall work life works like a team: small tasks have its place, too, and help you achieve greater goods. But small tasks can be approached in different ways. Our language shapes the way we think (if you don’t believe me, read this article in Scientific American, 20090818: Does Language Shape the Way We Think?), and the way we approach tasks can change the end result as well.

  • You should not spend your time in small tasks: Spending is here the key word. You should not spend time, never. Small tasks that may imply you are spending your time are constant mail checking, gossiping with your work mates, being in your kids play checking your iPhone.
  • You should invest your time in small tasks: Investing is not the same as spending. You can invest your time in answering mail correctly, in creating a good relationship with your office mates, in enjoying time with your children.

You can’t really tell what can have a biggest output. There are always high yield activities that have a potential output thousands of times bigger than these small errands individually. For example, investing half an hour daily in writing an ebook will do more for your blog than spending half an hour daily in commenting in other blogs. Change your mind frames. What happens if you invest half an hour daily commenting in other blogs? Don’t you think it sounds better? Your ebook may be lousy and turn into nothing, and one of your random but well written and to the point comments may catch the attention of a book publisher and land you a writing position.

In the long run, small activities like this example give huge benefits, if done daily. They are like snowballs falling from a mountain. They may hit a tree on their way and disintegrate, or grow to engulf everything on its pass. The high yield activities sometimes are just big explosions: once you are done with them there is nothing more to drill, the well goes dry.

Now lets put all these ideas into real practice. When you want to apply the Pareto principle to your life, first split your activities in sets, like socializing, work-project1 or hobby-guitar. You want to split your time in big categories and then in sub-categories of it. A real life example would be (activities in no particular order):

  • Work: Thesis, Project A, Project B, Teaching A, Teaching B, Student Questions.
  • Blog: Post Writing, Guest Posting, Blog Commenting, Layout tweaking, Socializing.
  • Leisure: Guitar Playing, Programming, Drawing, Reading, learning Icelandic.
  • Others: Do things with my girlfriend, friends, work mates, play with my cat, parents.

Each of these tasks belongs to a different set, and each set depends on itself (well, not entirely: work and blog can be linked, leisure and others too) you can’t take time from leisure to move to work, for example, but could move time from blog to work. In each set you can split activities depending on which are more likely to result in more output. A clear example would be my thesis in the work set. Also, each item has also a big list of subtasks, for example, for my thesis it may look like:

  • Corrections of current draft,
  • Finish proof at page 54,
  • Add corrections to Section 3,
  • Start the next case,
  • Correct again.

There is no task here that should not be done. I can not choose to not correcting again, or even starting the next case before correcting most gaps in the current version. Usually within a project if planning is correct there should be no unnecessary tasks, even in each set of tasks the best case is when there is nothing that you can give up without affecting the rest.

Of course a different game is where you spend your time. Spending your time 80% in your biggest work task is time-wise, it is something you definitely have to do with big impact. But giving some other work task 0% time is a big mistake. You have to assess your sets of activities and for each individual activity, its fundamental tasks. Once you have everything written down pick a red marker and start streamlining. Remove all tasks that are unnecessary for a project. Once you are done, remove all activities that are not fundamental. There may be none, it depends on how you write your set of activities. In my leisure time I could add watching TV, book shopping, idle web surfing and similar things, but I already choose to remove them. They are not fundamental, they should be part of other things (like going book shopping with my girlfriend, or watching TV at my parents).

Once you are done with this process you only have important activities left. Choose your biggest target for each set (that would be thesis, post writing, programming and girlfriend in my case), this is where most of your time should be spent, should be your highest value activity. For the rest, give them the time you can or they deserve. Maybe in some set you don’t have a clear ‘this is it’ task, then you can split the time you allocate to it accordingly. In my leisure set, programming is the most relevant, but not much than guitar playing or learning Icelandic. The only task I really don’t usually give time is drawing. Your mileage may vary, but think about what, when, how and overall, how much.

Sorting your tasks in sets will keep you from being a workaholic: there is a time for work and there is a time for playing. Go and apply it.

About the author: Rubén writes on Mostly Maths about programming, Linux and time management. A math PhD student and aspiring procrastinator, he writes about fighting time expenditure and continuous improvement.

11 thoughts on “Why the 80/20 Rule Could Make You Less Productive”

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  4. Thanks for this Ruben! I always thought the Pareto principle could be misleading. It really depends on how you define your variables. For instance, in your basketball example could it be that the 20% that contributes to the 80% is the coach? It is hard to measure this in an objective way (maybe we’d have to do some experiment where we change multiple coaches mid-season).

    Great stuff overall. It really got me thinking of different ways I can break down my activities and prioritize them in better ways.

    • I’m very glad you liked it Steven. Indeed, it may very well be possible that the most effective part of something is… a hidden variable (like the coach, in this example). The Pareto rule has to be used very carefully.



  5. This is great, I like what you said about keeping work and leisure separate – if we don’t make time for the relaxing and social things in life they can be pushed to the back burner, and they are what make life fun!!
    Changing the way you look at time is invaluable too, it can be invested wisely or frittered away….but occasionally a little frittering isn’t the end of the world:)

  6. Ruben, This was a fascinating read and very relevant, I believe. I see many bloggers giving up their leisure time and suffering for it. I also appreciated your point on how small tasks might blossom into a big impact. Thank you.

    • You are welcome Sandra, I am very glad you enjoyed it! It is not only bloggers who trade their leisure for work. In my work field (I am doing my PhD in Mathematics) it is assumed that you will work something like 8-22 in your thesis/research, and even do something on weekends. Of course, I don’t do it (well, I trade some of that time for blogging and a little leisure time), but I know people who do (or have done). They did not burn out, but were pretty close at times… Everyone needs more sense of perspective when working eats your life.




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