The Pareto Principle: Get More Out Of Less

Aug 10, 2020 1 Min Read
pareto principle


For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes ― Vilfredo Pareto, source of the Pareto principle.

The most efficient groove

In this write-up, you will learn about (or perhaps relearn) the Pareto principle, its roots, and the lens through which we can apply the principle for productivity in everything we do, be it learning, leading, managing, and/or teaching. 

Throughout our lives, we pore over books and browse websites for the simplest possible solutions to problems, and aim to improve our skills and productivity. We are repeatedly, and unknowingly, stumbling upon the Pareto principle.

This is a principle most applicable to our daily lives. Never heard of it? It is quite simple, really. 

80% of productivity in any given organisation comes from 20% of the workforce in that company

Look at your emails, and you will discover that 80% of what matters from those messages come from only 20% of them. This principle covers everything we do. It is about the most efficient groove we have. The 20% that gives us 80% of what we need.

The peas and the pods

The Pareto principle was named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who saw the imbalance in land ownership in Italy at the time. Twenty per cent of the population owned 80% of the Bel Paese land. 

Funny that he first gauged this after realising that 80% of the healthy peas from his garden came from 20% of the pods. These incidents would go on to inspire this principle. It is an age-old idea that yields timeless benefits.

For whom the bell tolls

The inverse is also true (and alarming). Consider this: 80% of productivity in any given organisation comes from 20% of the workforce in that company. Yes, only 20%. Some may argue for a 90/10 or 70/30 split, but we’re splitting hairs at this point. The concept is the same. A very few are producing most, and most are producing very little. Not a very balanced relationship, I must say. 

Now that we have established this understanding, how do we then improve numbers? Imagine if 30% or 50% of the population produced more. What if we supported and rewarded the 20% more so that they performed even better for their organisation? How about getting the 80 per cent to behave like the 20?

Read: 4 Ways to Show Your Worth as a Super Employee

Not every ‘I’m busy’ is created equal

Many times we hear people saying they’re busy without actually looking at the output of that busy-ness. Being busy does not equal being productive and managing time well is a step towards being more productive. Next time you think you are busy, take a look at just how you spend time ‘being busy’.

Once you have learned to sift through the salient 20% from the less essential 80%, you are on your way to positively applying the Pareto principle in your life.

If nothing much comes out of being busy with one particular task, spend less time doing it. If what you see as outputs are merely a structure or a collection of actions that do not create meaningful change or are less impactful to your organisation or learning – spend less time on them.  

Paretoing for educators

As we are caught between a rock and a hard place with the acceptance of pandemic pedagogy and instant changes to the education ecosystem, we are faced with a cacophony of voices, all preaching methods, tools, coping mechanisms, online learning capacity, online instructional strategies, lack of connectivity and more. 

This is when we must embrace the fact that not everything we do is equally important or impactful. We need to make about 20% of the actions that deliver the most return. What are the less important yet necessary tasks? Once we have identified these, we will be able to focus on the most valuable ones. 

Editor’s note: So I just need to read one? Sweet!

Imagine if we focused on the 20% that matters in all that we did. Which of our daily tasks have the most value and the most impact? Is it the automaticity of document signings that we do daily or the scheduling that we do each week?  Should all topics be presented online or should we choose the most important to be presented and discussed online, while the other 80% are distributed in tasks and experiential assignments? There has to be a decision on that 20% in whatever that we do. 

Paretoing for students and learners

For students preparing for examinations, take note of the most important 20% from the content of a course. There’s no way the exam will cover everything, and any good teacher or lecturer will tell you which topics often come up. Being focused and strategic is being smart here.  

Once you have learned to sift through the salient 20% from the less essential 80%, you are on your way to positively applying the Pareto principle in your life. As an educator, I would suggest that you revisit the rest of the course materials in your own time to have a holistic understanding of the course theory and practice. I reiterate here, that the worthy 20% is subjective and dependent on context. Therefore, it is upon us to decide the most valuable 20% of what we learn.

Paretoing in decision making

Even in deciding where and how funds should be channeled, leaders need to bear in mind the most pertinent 20% that deserve the most funding and the other 80% which might benefit from later or less funding. 

If we focused on mastering 100% of a language before we even start using it, we would be the most inefficient learner in the history of second language learning.

In management, there is also a need to learn to manage members of your organisation through the lens of Pareto knowledge. Many are good at completing tasks provided without much quality to enhance and improve the organisation strategically. Tell them to do it, and they do it, but nothing more. 

This almost robotic state of mind is always on for task-completion among staff in general without sufficient focus on the most productive 20% output. I’ve observed time and time again that this is almost always the missing link in all my years of being a leader and educator. 

If we instead created a conduit for strategic thinking for the 20% quality output, we could potentially have more employees who are confident, fulfilled and accomplished – suggestive of a positive trend in leadership and learning productivity. 

This capacity to identify the most valuable and impactful tasks or activities versus just what we need to finish makes a difference in productivity, leadership, and time management. In learning a new language, for example, within just 20% of the language lies the most important parts used for communication, and therefore should be the focus. 

If we focused on mastering 100% of a language before we even start using it, we would be the most inefficient learner in the history of second language learning. 

The Pareto principle as a way of life

Always apply the Pareto principle to what you do. If you apply a Pareto analysis on your friendships, thoughts, teaching, learning, and/or leadership, you might quickly realise that 80% of your joy and fulfilment come from just 20% of the people you know.

Or maybe even all of your joy and fulfillment.

Equipped with this knowledge, you can decide how much time to spend on each one of them. Some do not deserve a lot of your time – in fact, some deserve none of it. Reduce the amount of time spent thinking about things that do not bring joy, comfort nor productivity to you. 

Look for those healthy pods from your garden.

If you are interested to read more about the Pareto principle do check out:

  1. 80/20 Principle: The secret to achieving more with less and ‘Unreasonable Success and How to Achieve it’ by Richard Koch.
  2. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done by Peter Drucker.
  3. The ruling class in Italy before 1900 by Vilfredo Pareto.
  4. Pareto analysis (Second Edition) by Gerardus Blokdyk.

See Also: No Matter the Struggle, We Always Have the Power of Choice

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Associate Professor Dr. Adelina Asmawi is a barefoot leader at the University of Malaya. A Melbourne University alumna, her expertise is in professional development, TESOL and instructional technology. She is a marathoner, a karaoke champ, a book author and Founder of award-winning PEARL™ project.

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