This is the first in a series of posts about the lessons I wish I’d learned earlier in life.

This may come as a surprise but I’ve all but given up on achieving a real work/life balance. Rather, I’ve started to benefit tremendously by introducing a little imbalance into my day. I’m referring to the 80/20 rule of time management, which is rooted in something known as the Pareto Principle.

What is it?

I first came across the 80/20 rule when I picked up “The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less” (Richard Koch). At the time, I sometimes accused myself of being lazy for not “working hard” but I realized what I was doing was living an 80/20 lifestyle and in fact probably being a lot more productive than those working harder than myself.

Simply put, the 80/20 rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, balanced. When applied to work, it means that approximately 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of the results. Learning to recognize and then focus on that 20 percent is the key to making the most effective use of your time.

According to Wikipedia:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes. Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population. It is a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., “80% of your sales comes from 20% of your clients.”

Some Practical 80/20 Tips

1. List unproductive or meaningless activities and eliminate them

Reason: 80% of the activities give only 20% of the value

List and look at all your activities. Only a few of them give the most value and meaning. Do you really need the rest of them? Eliminate the time wasters and keep the important stuff. Be ruthless; don’t be afraid to say no if you need to.

2. Spend most of your time on your most important relationships

Reason: 20% of the relationships gives 80% of the value

From all our relationships, only a small portion of them gives the most value to us. These are the few people with whom you have strong emotional bond. Usually these people are your spouse, your family, and a few close friends. You should spend the majority of your time nurturing these relationships.

3. Focus on creating more memorable moments in your relationships

Reason: 20% of the time in a relationship gives 80% of the memories

Well, the figures here are actually more like 5%-95% than 20%-80%. From all the time we spend in our relationships, there are only a few moments which give us unforgettable memories. Focus on making more of these.

4. Focus on your strengths

Reason: 20% of your skills give 80% of the returns

The few skills that give you the most returns are your strengths. It’s important to identify them so that you don’t waste time working on things which give you only small return. To be effective, you should do only a few things, the things you are very good at.

5. Find your productive “place” and make the most of it

Reason: 20% of your work time gives 80% of the results.

Everyone has a productivity “sweet spot”. Some people are most productive in the morning while some others are most productive in the evening. Maybe you work best alone, while others are most productive when they have some background noise. Whatever the time or condition is, try to identify yours and make more of it.

6. Stop reading everything

Reason: 20% of the stuff you read gives 80% of the value

Some books (and/or blogs) give you much more value than the others, so they deserve more time and attention. These are the few sources which could significantly improve your life. While for most books it is enough to read them just once, you should reread the important ones until you can effectively apply their lessons.

7. Learn to skim content

Reason: 20% of the content of a book gives 80% of the value

This is an important lesson if you love to read. There are so many interesting books to learn from and yet so little time. What you need to do is identify the critical parts of a book which make its top 20%, read it, and skim the rest.

8. Pack unused stuff or simply throw it away

Reason: 20% of the stuff is used 80% of the time

Only a small portion of the stuff you have is used often. The majority of it is rarely used, if ever. While you do need some of it to anticipate certain situations (for example, a first aid kit), most of it is practically useless. So identify the useless stuff and pack it or – even better – throw it away.

9. Focus your saving effort on the really big stuff

Reason: 20% of the categories makes 80% of the expenses

While trying to reduce your expenses on the small expense categories is good, you will get the most results if you focus your effort on the major categories. Write your expenses down, see where you spend the most and kill it.

How not to use the 80/20 rule:

1. 80 + 20 = 100

Don’t get caught up on the numbers. Both 80 and 20 are just examples of one type of uneven balances. The fact that they add up to 100 is a coincidence. You could call this the 50/3 or the 37/9 rule – the point is that your inputs don’t always equal your outputs.

2. 80/20 Applied Recursively

One argument I’ve heard against the 80/20 rule goes like this, “If you keep killing the 80%, eventually you’ll end up with nothing.” I suppose the people who argued this point felt they were being clever – I think they were being smartasses.

Once again, the numbers here aren’t that important. When you have a limited amount of time, you can’t perform every task possible. The 80/20 Rule suggests you look through all the tasks you normally could perform, pick the top 20% that create the most results and focus on them. Whatever time you have left can be spent on the less productive 80%.

3. The 80/20 Rule may not always work for you

When it comes to skill building, be careful. It might take 2 years to become 80% proficient but in order to get that last 20% of skill you need to invest another 8 years. (Medical Doctors are a good example of this.)

Be honest with yourself – if you absolutely need to be 100% proficient, focus all your energy to get that last 20%. Otherwise, move on.

4. “But I still have to do it…”

An argument I’ve heard against the 80/20 rule frequently goes like this, “Sure some tasks are less valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to get done.” Answering e-mails, making phone calls or having meetings may appear wasteful, but they still need to get finished, right?

This argument has an element of truth, but it conceals a bigger lie. The truth is that, yes, there are things that need to get done even though they aren’t wildly important. If I stopped answering e-mails I might miss opportunities, have my network degrade or lose important messages.

The bigger lie is that you have no control in adjusting where time gets spent. If e-mail isn’t that important, your goal should be to reduce the time you spend on it. If meetings aren’t contributing, you should have shorter meetings. If your hands are really tied and you have no control over how your time is spent, what’s the point of reading this post?

Putting it all together:

The point of the Pareto principle is to recognize that most things in life are not distributed evenly. These techniques may or may not make sense – the point is to realize you have the option to focus on the important 20%.

See what activities generate the most results and give them your appropriate attention.