Why the 20% Rule is Key to Heightened Productivity

Fab Giovanetti

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There is a very famous principle you may have heard before, dear reader, the one of reinventing the wheel.

A lot of people are afraid to share their learnings, tips, tricks or even to help others simply because of the fear of not being original.

Take the story of this gardener, for example. Every year, he had peas growing in his garden patch. Yet, he noticed a peculiar trend going on there.

He realised that every year, 20% of his pea pods in the garden produced approximately 80% of the peas.

In 1906, he turned this simple fact into a principle known by productivity and time-management consultants worldwide. That enthusiastic gardener was an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, and his principle is called the Pareto Principle.

Also known as the 80/20 principle, it states that 80% of the output or results will come from 20% of the input or action.

From time management, marketing, to business and sales, the 80/20 principle has had hundreds of applications.

Yet, at its core, Pareto’s discovery can truly help us with one of the key tasks we’re looking to master. Priorities.

Ask yourself: what tasks do you spend 80% of the time doing that bring in 20% of the returns?

What is a priority anyway?

Depending on which definition you choose, there may be different nuances — however, this from the Cambridge Dictionary by far my favourite:

“something that is perceived more important than other matters”

Perception is a big part of a priority, as it shapes the way we rank tasks, values, principles, and projects in the first place. In Western societies, if a person is busy with having too much work, we assume they must be important.

If a person isn’t busy out, they feel like they are not achieving enough.

Welcome to the concept of urgency

On top of our current programming, taking care of urgent responsibilities can give you an adrenaline rush, which makes you feel energised and alive. Instead of focusing on urgency, we should prioritise our overall goals and mission.

Having a clear vision for your future makes it easier to make choices and generally improve your overall management skills. Don’t let urgency and to-do lists be what shapes your plans, but the mission.

An extreme and poignant example comes from Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor.

In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl observed that the most common trait among the Holocaust survivors he knew wasn’t their health, intelligence or family: it was their vision for the future.

“The lesson one could learn from Auschwitz and in other concentration camps, in the final analysis was, those who were oriented toward a meaning (…) toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future (…) were most likely to survive” beyond the experience. “The question was survival for what?”

That famous jar metaphor

There is quite a powerful metaphor, which is also well known comes from a professor who once presented his students with an empty jar.

This story appears in many forms, some even incorporating the fourth element of water.

However, its original source is unknown. So consider the following to be a metaphor.

One day, in a lecture room at a very famous University, a professor conducted an experiment. He filled a jar with rocks and asked the students if they thought it was full.

They said it was. In response, the professor poured in gravel, which filled in the gaps between the rocks. Next, he poured in the sand, and finally, to completely fill even the tiniest gaps, he poured in water.

Think of that jar as the time in your life: the rocks as the important things, and the sand, gravel, and water as the rest.

If you put in the sand and gravel first — the unimportant daily chores — there won’t be room left for the rocks.

But when you put in the important things first, everything else will fall into place.

Putting it all together

As I said at the beginning of my article, this is not me reinventing the wheel. This method is based on the prioritisation process laid out by Brian Tracy who wrote the book, Eat that Frog.

The method outlines 90% of the value that you contribute to your work efforts is contained in your high-return 3 tasks.

Being able to plan these tasks into your calendar and have them at the top of your priority list is what, overall, can make you more efficient in the long run.

Is it really possible that only doing three things every day can help you maximising your goals in less time?

By focusing on high-return tasks and aligning them with your goals month by month, you can reclaim what is most precious to you — your own time.

In order to prioritise efficiently, you can combine a few principles discussed in this piece.

“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.” — Tony Robbins

First, in order to prioritise you need to apply urgency to tasks and areas of your life that need attention. Whether you apply this to your business or your personal life, make sure you take the time to define what this looks like for you.

Remember, align your priorities with your overall mission, goal or (as I like to call it) your purpose.

To help you find what you should really focus on, it’s time to apply Pareto’s principle.

Once you have refined your priorities based on how relevant they are to your goals, it’s time to only select the activities that have the greatest return.

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