How to Use the Pareto Principle to Increase Productivity

By Bill Peatman | Updated: 12 Apr, 2022

You have heard of the 80/20 rule—80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people, for example.

It turns out that the rule has its roots in economic theory, and it applies to everything.

What is the Pareto Principle  

In 1896 Italian economist Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto observed that 20 percent of the people in Italy own 80 percent of the land. Pareto then surveyed other countries and found that they all have the same land ownership ratio.

It turns out that 80 percent of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 20 percent of its people.

In the United States, 20 percent of Americans pay 80 percent of income taxes.

Microsoft found that fixing the worst 20 percent of software bugs solved 80 percent of computer glitches.

There is more:

  • 20 percent of workplace hazards cause 80 percent of job-related injuries.
  • 20 percent of your exercise generates 80 percent of your health benefits.
  • Slightly different, 15 percent of professional baseball players are responsible for 80 percent of wins.

You get the idea!

How to Use the Pareto Principle

The 80/20 rule is also called the Pareto Principle. Since 80 percent of output is driven by 20 percent of our work, if you want to be more productive, you do not need to look for more work but focus on the 20 percent that delivers the most output. The ratio of effort to output is also remarkably close to Tim Ferris’ “4-Hour Work Week,” which suggests that you can get forty hours of work done in just 10 percent of that time. 

Do you struggle with productivity in any area of your life, whether business or baseball? The Pareto Principle can help you boost your output. You can put the Pareto Principle to work with these five steps.

1. Take a Productivity Inventory

Start by identifying the activities that achieve the most impactful results. For example:

  • If you are in sales, measure your sales by customer and find the 20 percent of customers that make the largest purchases (odds are they will account for 80 percent of your sales). You can generate more business focusing on those top customers instead of the other 80 percent.
  • If you are a manager, look at the highest performers on your team and focus on the top 20 percent. You get the idea.
  • In marketing, identify the campaigns that generate the top 20 percent of your leads. Ramp those up.

2. Review Your Calendar

When are you most productive?

  • Are you a morning person or a night owl?
  • Look at your calendar and identify the times of day, times of the week, and times of the month for signs of when you are most productive.
  • Try tracking your time—on your own or using a time tracker like Time Doctor or Time Rescue.
  • A time tracker will show you where your time goes, and you can optimize your schedule for when you work best.
  • Look for relationships with sleep.
  • If you are most productive in the morning, make sure you get plenty of sleep by turning in early. If you work better at night, do the same by sleeping in.

3. Rethink Your Schedule 

Adjust your calendar accordingly once you review your calendar and find your peak performance times. Schedule the activities you identified in your inventory and do them when you are most productive. Then:

  • Block these times off in your schedule.
  • Turn off alerts and other distractions during that time.
  • Schedule low-impact work when you are least effective.

If you are best in the morning, try not to look at email until later in the day because you can easily get lost in that black hole. Also, if exercise revs up your productivity, schedule it!

4. Delegate 80 Percent

If you can, delegate 80 percent of your activities that are not productive. Delegating busy work is one of the most common reasons people hire virtual assistants. A remote assistant can take on time-consuming tasks that are important but do not drive businesses forward, such as:

  • Scheduling meetings—it takes 25 minutes to schedule a business meeting.
  • Planning travel—it takes 12 hours to plan a door-to-door business trip.
  • Filing expenses—another 30-minute time suck.

Paying yourself to perform these tasks does not make sense. If you cannot hire an assistant, see if you can hand these tasks off to someone else on your team. If you do not have that option, schedule these tasks for your unproductive time or look at automation tools like self-scheduling calendar apps and travel and expense platforms.

Remember Your Personal Life 

The Pareto Principle also applies to life outside of work. Look at the 20 percent of activities that bring you the most joy and satisfaction? Apply the same steps above to those—block out time for the most meaningful activities and delegate or ditch the rest. Look for:

  • The people that are most important to you.
  • Hobbies like cooking and hiking.
  • Vacations and travel.

Or do nothing from time to time! Many of us have spent more time working from home, and more time working period. Our personal lives and relationships have suffered as a result. Use the time you save by delegating unproductive tasks to invest in yourself and your happiness. Take your life back!

Use the Pareto Principle to Do More with Less 

It will take time to get your 80/20 life dialed in. Be patient with yourself as you begin. Start with one trial week and see how it goes. Remember, the purpose of productivity is not to be more efficient so you can do more unproductive work. As Tim Ferris said, “Doing less is not being lazy. Do not give in to a culture that values personal sacrifice over personal productivity.” Do less so you can do more of what you work for—friends, family, travel, or if it is what feeds your soul, work!

About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.