Gábor Till

about engineering leadership

Perform better by doing less (The 80/20 rule)

Cover Image for Perform better by doing less (The 80/20 rule)
Gábor Till
Gábor Till
6 min read

Today my wife came up to me and asked me “What is the 80/20 rule, I learned about it a long time ago, but I don't remember it?”. At first, I looked at her a bit strangely because I thought she was joking. The 80/20 rule is one of the most important tools in my everyday life. I often use it to help me perform better by doing less. So, what is it all about?

What is the Pareto principle?

The Pareto principle is an observation (not a law) states that most things in life are distributed unevenly. The principle that also known as the 80/20 rule specifies that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Where is this coming from?

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who was born in 1848 and the principle was named after him. Once he made a small but interesting discovery. Pareto noticed that 20% of pea plants generated 80% of healthy pea pods. This observation caused him to think about uneven distribution. At the time, Pareto was studying wealth in various nations. He began analysing the distribution of wealth, and he discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by just 20% of the population. Later, he discovered that virtually all economic activity was subject to this principle. For example, 80 percent of the wealth of Italy during that time was controlled by 20 percent of the population. He also examined different industries and found that 80% of production typically came from just 20% of the companies. He ended up with the following conclusion: 80% of results will come from 20% of the action, whether its economy or not.

What is it good for?

Self-improvement

Kevin Kruse, New York Times Best Seller author, interviewed hundreds of self-made millionaires, straight-A students and Olympic athletes. For them, handling every task is impossible. They use the Pareto principle to help them determine what is of vital importance. Then, they delegate the rest, or simply let it go.

Do you have a to-do list?

The concept suggests two out of ten items, on any general to-do list, will be worth more than the other eight items together. First, write down ten goals. Then ask yourself: If you could only accomplish one of the goals on that list today, which one goal would have the greatest impact? Accomplish that item, then you should continue to work at those goals that you’ve chosen as the most valuable.

Eat The Biggest Frog First

The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex, but the payoff and rewards for completing them can be tremendous.

Before you begin work, always ask yourself, “Is this task in the top 20 percent of my activities or in the bottom 80 percent?”

The rule for this is: resist the temptation to clear up small things first.

If you decide to start your day working on low-value tasks, you will soon develop the habit of always starting and working on low-value tasks.

In computing

The 80/20 rule essentially concludes that the majority of defects are from the minority of variables in a system. For example, Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most-reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated.

One really exciting thing we learned is how, among all the software bugs involved in reports, a relatively small proportion causes most of the errors. About 20 percent of the bugs cause 80 percent of all errors, and — this is stunning to me — one percent of bugs cause half of all errors.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, Full Text of 10/02 Ballmer Memo

Statistics show that users never use 45% of an app’s features, 19% are in rare use, 16% are used occasionally, while only 20% are used frequently or always. Based on this statistic, we can sum up that if we focus on 20 percent of the core functionality of the app, we can get real benefits and guarantee its further development. The remaining 80% of features will serve as additional bonuses for more sophisticated users.

Is this a silverbullet then?

Of course not, but why?

20 + 80 != 100

There’s a common misconception that the numbers 20 and 80 must add to 100, but they don’t! 20% of the employees could create 10% of the result. Or 50%. Or 80%. Or 99%, or even 100%. The point is that the majority of the results are driven by a minority of causes.

Be the richest man in the world

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, worked on Wall Street and climbed the corporate ladder to become senior vice-president of a hedge fund before leaving it all in 1994 to start the company.

If Bezos had applied the 80/20 rule in 1993 in an attempt to discover the most effective areas to focus on in his career, it is virtually impossible to imagine that founding an internet company would have been on the list.

Learning something new

The process of learning a new skill or starting a new company or taking on a new adventure of any sort will often appear to be an ineffective use of time at first. Compared to the other things you already know how to do, the new thing will seem like a waste of time. It will never win the 80/20 analysis, but that doesn't mean it is a wrong decision.

Conclusion

Pareto's principle can help prioritize quality efforts, directing attention to those vital few areas where the most significant gains can be made.

As a leader, you must surely face the constant challenge of limited resources. Rather than trying to do the impossible, you can use the 80/20 approach to prioritize the most important areas and achieve rapid success.

So, the question is: which 20% of your work drives 80% of your results?

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