In the early 1900s, Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the wealth in his home country Italy, was owned by only 20% of the population.
Intrigued, he started looking for other examples like this and discovered that it applied in many other areas as well. For example, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people, 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pods, and even 80% of the letters he received were from only 20% of his correspondents.
What is the Pareto Principle?
"In many cases, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes."
This is the Pareto Principle. Often referred to as the 80/20 rule, it states that:
80% of consequences stem from about 20% of causes.
Another way to say that is—
Only about 20% of the work you do is responsible for 80% of your outcomes.
The idea is thought-provoking, especially within the context of how you manage your everyday life. Needless to say, the 80/20 rule can be a useful tool for both your personal and professional life. By understanding where it comes from and how it works, you can start using it to your advantage in many areas of your life — not just work.
In business, the 80/20 rule has been found to be true again and again. For example, 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers. And 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its products. In life, the same pattern follows. About 80% of feelings of fulfillment come from 20% of the things you do.
The pros and cons of the 80/20 rule
"Of the things we have to do, we should do 80 percent as quickly as possible, and reserve the other 20 percent for our very best."
- Brian Tracy
There’s plenty of upside to planning your personal and work life with the Pareto Principle in mind:
- It can help you focus on the things that are most important to you
- You use your time better
- You achieve more with less effort
- It can help you identify areas where you need to make changes
- Uncovers new opportunities that weren’t so obvious before when prioritizing tasks
While the 80/20 rule is a great tool, it isn’t perfect. Plus, you can’t talk about the good without talking through some of the not-so-good. There are a few potential downsides to using it:
- You can get caught up in the numbers
- It’s easy to start seeing everything as a competition toward optimization
- You start focusing on the wrong things and completely miss the point
Even knowing the cons, in your personal life, the 80/20 rule can be a godsend. It forces you to take a good hard look at how you’re spending your time and what you’re getting out of it. Think of the Pareto Principle like a filter that helps you decide what’s worth your time and what isn’t.
For example, you might decide that you want to do more of your hobbies because they relax you. But you only have so many hours in the day. How do you decide which hobbies to prioritize? If you want to get the most out of your list of hobbies, the 80/20 rule says you should focus on the 20% of hobbies that will give you 80% of your feelings of relaxation. In other words, rather than trying to do them all, single out a very small handful, and focus your time on those.
It’s a simple example. But the same goes for any other activity you want to do more of—working out, cooking, meeting work deadlines, spending time with family, and the likes. Once you know what you want to get out of a set of choices, you can use the 80/20 rule to help you focus on the things that will give you the most bang for your buck.
How to apply the 80/20 rule to your own life
"The 80/20 Rule can be applied to just about any aspect of your life. For example, 20 percent of your clients are responsible for 80 percent of your income."
- Zig Ziglar
Consider some bite-sized ideas. You can use the 80/20 rule to:
Eliminate distractions and focus on what matters
The next time you find yourself glued to your phone or glued to the television, remember the Pareto Principle. Only about 20% of the content on your phone or TV is responsible for 80% of your enjoyment. The other 80% is filler.
To apply the 80/20 rule here, try to eliminate the filler and focus on the 20% that you actually enjoy. That might mean unsubscribing from some email lists, only committing to a few shows at a time, muting certain people on social media, or deleting a number of the apps on your shows.
Find your most productive hours and use them wisely
We all have times of the day when we’re more productive than others. For some people, it’s first thing in the morning. For others, it’s late at night. The key is to identify your most productive hours and use them wisely.
Consider tracking your most productive hours for a whole month to uncover a general pattern. Then, make sure you’re spending those hours on the most important tasks on your to-do list.
Focus on your strengths with more clarity and consistency
To apply the 80/20 rule here, try to focus on your strengths and delegate or outsource your weaknesses. That might mean working with a coach or taking a class to improve your weak points.
Focus on the small 20% of things that brings you the most contentment
The Pareto Principle says that only about 20% of your activities are going to be responsible for 80% of your happiness. To apply the 80/20 rule here, try to focus on the things that make you happy. That might mean spending more time with your family and friends, or doing more of the things you love.
The biggest takeaway from understanding the 80/20 rule
What’s the biggest lesson you can learn from how the 80/20 rule works across just about every area of your lives?
A few actions will always provide outsized returns more than a ton of actions will. So there’s no point in trying to do it all, all the time.
A few customers. A few daily tasks. A few relationships. A few goals. In a way, the Pareto phenomenon is life’s way of telling us that focusing on the handful of things that matter isn’t just a motivational quote worth posting about — it’s a reality.
Whenever you want to make a change in your life, big or small, always remember the Pareto Principle: a few things will always make the most difference. The secret is in learning to get better at identifying what those few things actually are.
But how to get better at identifying the 20% that makes the biggest difference? After all, you can make the biggest difference by identifying this 20%. However, you can develop this skill over time. One of the best things to do is to be intentional about tracking what matters in your life.
You can do that is by using a planning tool like Sunsama. Not only does it integrate well with the likes of Notion and ClickUp (both great tracking tools!) but it also offers plenty of automation features so your 80/20 efforts can run on autopilot.
The 80/20 rule with Sunsama
The Pareto Principle is a useful tool for both your personal and professional life. At Sunsama, we’ve built our entire app around the idea that a few things will always matter more than a ton of things together.
P.S: In case you want to read more about the Sunsama philosophy of long-term, sustainable productivity, hear it in a quick podcast here —
Sunsama helps you focus on your most important tasks by organizing your to-do list around your most important goals. That way, you can make sure you’re always working on the things that matter most.