The 80-20 Principle

If you read books, blogs, or other materials devoted to productivity, time management, or goal setting, sooner or later you will encounter the 80-20 rule, also commonly called Pareto’s Principle. It derives from the work of Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who showed that 80 percent of that country’s wealth was controlled by 20 percent of its population. This formulation of the relationship between causes and effects was adapted by other social scientists and later applied to a variety of other contexts, often with the tag phrases “the trivial many” and “the vital few.”

Proponents of this principle use it to analyze where the best results come from and where one’s focus and energy should be applied. In business contexts, it’s frequently used to suggest that 80 percent of your profit will come from 20 percent of your clients. In academic terms, you could use this rule to consider the possibility that 80 percent of your success will come from 20 percent of your efforts. Therefore, you should make sure you devote time to tasks in that 20 percent category. If you see that 80 percent of your success in a tenure review will come from your publications, the writing of which takes up 20 percent of your work time each week, then you make sure to fit in those “vital few” hours of writing.

More isn’t necessarily better

One corollary of Pareto’s principle is that it is the quality of your efforts that repays handsome dividends, rather than the quantity. Considering that 80 percent of a successful class comes from 20 percent of your preparation efforts is a good reminder against over-preparing,a mistake many faculty make according to Robert Boice.

Choose wisely

Most academics I know have many different professional demands on their time, including their own research and writing; collaborations with other scholars; teaching and mentoring students; professional courtesy tasks like manuscript reviewing, promotion reviews, and recommendation letters; department, college, and university service and administration; and service to national or international professional organizations. All of these things are important and contribute to your professional reputation and identity. But you can’t pursue all of them equally. Pareto’s Principle offers a tool to help make difficult choices. Just ask yourself: is this vital or trivial? Will it enhance my most important creative, personal, or professional goals? Is it in the 20 percent of tasks I’m going to make my first priority, or is it in the other 80 percent which will receive my secondary attention and energy?

If you begin spending more of your time on what’s more important, some of what was originally in your 20 percent will then become your 80 percent, encouraging you to become even more clear about precisely which activities produce the results you seek.

Personally speaking

I’m not an economist, and I’m a bit leery of the ways in which disciplinary ideas like this one get imported and reapplied into other contexts. I don’t think of the 80-20 principle as a factual rule, but rather as a useful framework for thinking about allocating my time and energy. It’s not the only decision tool I use in evaluating my professional commitments, but it can be useful both for making choices on a day-to-day basis and over the longer term.

How might you use the 80-20 rule to allocate your time and energy? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Alan Stokes]

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