The 80/20 Rule

Posted on May 20, 2010


Lots of variations out there, but it boils down to: 80% of your results come from 20% of your causes. It’s called the Pareto Principle, and it really does hold out pretty often. 80% of your produce comes from 20% of the plants, 20% of your organization produces 80% of your deliverables, the foundational 80% of your labor is produced in the first 20% of your efforts. 20% of the world’s population controls 80% of its wealth.

The idea is that if you can nail down the most productive 20% of your life, you can still walk away with 80% of your potential. I’ve used this to my advantage all my life. I’m a chronic juggler, tossing in just as much as I can, content to let a few things fall if it means that I can do twice or three or eight times as many. Quantity over quality means things are often done inelegantly, but a lot of things get done.

Seth disagrees with me. I’m okay with that. His point is that the last 20%, the difference between getting it done and doing it magnificently, is worth 80% of your attention, because it’s the 20% that differentiates us from everyone else. It’s a good point.

I think we’re both right. (It’s another tent-lines thing.)

Some things are about quantity (like time with your kids, housekeeping, gardens, work, and service.) The more you include, the better your life. Some things are about quality (like time with your kids, worthwhile projects, developing talents, and service.) The better you do them, the better your life.

Life is about deciding. Quantity or Quality? We have to decide. There are only so many hours in the day.  At one time, school may be a quality thing (I hasten to add that for me, right now, it’s not.) If it’s a quantity thing, then sometimes 80% is quite enough. My house is 80% clean. My gardens are 80% tended. My job is 80% done. I’m helping with homework and insisting on chores 80% of the time.

There are other things that are worth the extra 20%, that pulls 80% of your energy. Listening when my son is stressed about buzzing his head or helping my daughter make things to “sell” in her school store are worth every bit of that 100%. I don’t want to be mediocre as a parent or as a friend. That’s where quality comes in, and Seth’s right.

The problem is that frequently we don’t decide. We just flow and let life choose for us either quality or quantity. We get caught in the thick of thin things. We forget that what is most measurable is usually least important. We focus on the last 20% of a frivolous thing and disregard the need for 100% on something important.

Today I stopped at Wal-Mart after my class to pick up googly eyes and gak-making materials for the twins’ projects tomorrow. It was a “quality” choice. I didn’t read the case studies for my class, but I did get a great deal out of the discussion. It was a “quantity” choice. I’m determined to make those choices consciously.

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