Productivity Hacks: The 80-20 Rule in Action

Productivity Hacks: The 80-20 Rule in Action

More than just a rule

The glorious 80-20 rule (or the Pareto principle) states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. There’s a ton of information online that supports this famous rule of thumb. It’s a real thing, I promise. It’s also a concept that you can have fun with. If you’re looking for a little inspiration or a nudge to help you reach your goals, you can use the 80-20 rule to brainstorm ideas.

You can use the 80/20 rule to #brainstorm new ideas. Share on X
trello screen shot

About two years ago I created a Trello board called “Reminders” to brainstorm 80-20 rule ideas. I wanted to improve my day to day operations to make more money. I came up with a brainstorming activity to focus one skill towards one goal. Ideally, I would completely stop doing some activities, delegate others and double down on my most productive tasks. It turned out to be pretty useful. I still revisit the results and make occasional refinements.

Keeping the 80-20 rule in mind, the goal is to shift your efforts towards the top 20% of the activities that produce 80% of your positive results. It’s not easy. It’s tough to identify which skills and activities are the most beneficial. And it’s challenging to cut your long-term bad habits (kinda like being on a diet). Because it’s tough, I recommend coming back to this process every once in awhile rather doing it as a one-off exercise.

And if you ever need a pep talk, I highly recommend checking out Darren Hardy.

One thing and one skill

finger pointing to one thing

The first and easiest undertaking is to pick one goal that’s inspirational. A single choice focuses your brainstorming. For me, I chose a specific income that I was trying to earn. I have other goals and aspirations in life but I settled on a financial goal. It’s measurable and a good indicator of the health of my business; a KPI dare I say?

Great, what’s next? What can I do to achieve my goal?

No matter how you slice it, there’s a single skill or activity that influences your success the most. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to identify. And it doesn’t mean that a single skill causes success. We’re looking for more of a correlation than a cause. What skill or activity correlates the most with achieving your goal right now? It could be an area of improvement or an existing talent that needs more focus. It depends on your situation. Do you need to improve a weakness or increase a strength? Maybe a mixture of both.

This was hard for me to recognize. With the help of a friend I made a long list. We pruned it down to eight skills with my favorite one highlighted on top. I kept the edited list because there’s a good chance that things will change. For the time being, I picked marketing as the single skill that most effects my ability to earn a higher income. I felt that getting in front of new potential clients was the biggest factor for growth and financial success.

A little math

If 20% of your actions account for 80% of your results, then 80% of the other actions only account for 20% of your results. Most of what you do is ineffective compared to your most productive activities. This is deceptively simple.

chalkboard math

An oversimplified 80-20 rule example: if you sell five different items for $5 total profit, then one of the items is worth $4 to you. On average they’re each worth $1 profit. This means your $4 profit item is 400% more profitable than average. Wow, four times more profitable: 4X! Well not quite, it gets better.

In the 80-20 world, the least profitable four items only bring you $1 total profit (averaging $0.25 per item). That’s $4 for your all-star compared to a $0.25 average for everything else. In this oversimplified example, the most profitable item is 16 times more profitable than the average of the others. That’s the magic of the 80-20 rule. The 20% that accounts for 80% of your results is actually 1,600% more potent. Holy smokes.

Focusing on your top 20% makes you up to 16 times more productive and effective. Using the same logic means that your top 10% is up to 81 times more effective than your other activities. I’d show my work but that feels too much like math class.

  • 80/20 = 4
  • 4 squared is 16 or 1,600%
  • 90/10 = 9
  • 9 squared is 81 or 8,100%

The main idea is that as you do your most productive actions, your effectiveness follows a power law distribution not a linear path. This gets hard to see in real life because as the activities become more valuable, they become rarer and less day-to-day.

Productivity hack #1: Delete List

The easiest way to practice the 80-20 rule is to stop doing the least effective activities on your to-do list. I came up with a “Delete” list of 20 things that I do that are clearly ineffective. These are the bad habits that get in the way. One of my worst offenders was email. I was spending a lot of time using email to communicate with clients and freelancers. To save time, I started making short phone calls, checking email fewer times per day and using project management software. By removing unnecessary email from my day, I freed up time for better activities.

Checking #email fewer times per day is a high-leverage decision. Share on X

Keep in mind that you can turn the 80-20 rule upside down. 80% of your personal setbacks are also caused by 20% of your actions. It might be easier to identify things that you should stop doing when you see them as harmful. Your bad habits are the best items to fill up your Delete list. Late night drinking might not show up on your calendar, but it’s definitely making an impact on your productivity.

Productivity hack #2: Delegate List

Most people can’t just delete 80% of their to-do list and magically become uber-successful. There are lots of things that still need to get done to achieve your goals. But you don’t have to do them all yourself. You can delegate some of your to-do list to free up time for your One Skill and most productive tasks. When I was doing my 80-20 brainstorming, I came up with nine things to delegate to stay focused on my top 20% activities. They’re not necessarily things that I can’t do. They’re just tasks that need to get done that don’t directly relate to my core business, my strengths or my One Skill.

WordPress logo

For instance, I’m a competent WordPress developer. I can comfortably design and develop most kinds of small business websites. But I’m a speedy graphic designer compared to my code development skills. Design is in my top 20% and development is in the other 80%. So when I’m designing, I’m 16 times more profitable than when I’m developing code. You guessed it, I started hiring more freelance developers to implement designs into WordPress. Delegating code development frees up time to focus on design and marketing which are both more profitable (for me).

Productivity hack #3: Double Down List

OK, you’ve got a goal. You picked a skill to focus on that moves you closer to success. You listed some things to stop doing altogether. You also listed some things that have to get done but someone else can do them. What’s left? The good stuff. You can now create your Double Down list of activities that are super productive and effective.

I eventually came up with a list of 22 activities to focus on. That’s too much and leads to a hefty to-do list. I went back to my One Skill and looked for connections. I was able to narrow my Double Down list to seven activities that support my One Skill. These seven activities moved to the top of my list. I now have a single goal that I’m trying to accomplish using a single skill that’s backed up by only seven activities. Not too shabby. If something comes along that doesn’t fit, I’m much more likely to decline it or delegate it to someone else.

In practice

This 80-20 brainstorming exercise rearranged my schedule. That’s the biggest impact. I work on marketing and personal development first thing in the morning. Next comes paying design work. As long as I’m working in my top 20% I feel good, like I’m on the right path.

The most significant improvement is that I’ve removed hesitation from my decision making process. Less analysis paralysis. In the past, there were times when I just didn’t do anything productive because I didn’t know what to focus on. When you have a specific goal and skill focus you’re much more likely to understand your next logical move. Doing 80-20 brainstorming keeps you moving in the right direction. And it can be a fun activity to get your inspirational mojo flowing.

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