Maximizing Efficiency the 80/20 Way

Golden Section Ratio by Patrick Hoesly

No complex math is needed to put the 80/20 principle to good use, just a bit of forethought.

If you’re familiar with anyone involved in the realm of Lifestyle Design (See our Recommended Reading list), I’m sure you’ve come across the Pareto principle before. For anyone who hasn’t, the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule) essentially states that in almost every situation 80% of the effects are a result of 20% of the causes.

For example, 80% of profits come from 20% of customers, 80% of problems are caused by 20% of clients, 80% of the weight you lose is a result of 20% of your behavioral changes, etc.

Of course, actual ratios are rarely so consistent. It may be 95/5, 70/30, or whatever. The consistent part, the part that’s important to take away, is that in every case a majority of effects are brought about by a minority of causes.

So, why is this important?

It’s important because it means that, in general, there are two types of actions – those which fall into that 20% that cause 80% of the results, and those that fall into the 80% that are only responsible for that last little 20% of results. I call the first, the 20% with the big effect, High Return Variables and the latter, the majority responsible for that paltry 20%, Low Return Variables.

The 80/20 Rule in Practice: Examples of High and Low Return Variables

The two easiest real-world examples of this principle that come to mind are weight loss, and language learning. Alright, that may be because I’m right in the middle of a weight loss challenge and a language learning challenge, but still.

Weight Loss – Losing weight is, at its very essence, a chemical process. More calories need to be burned than ingested and insulin levels need to be kept low enough to keep the body in a state conducive to fat loss and muscle building. While exercise is important for this, being mindful of what goes into your body is even more so. The person who exercises obsessively but eats a diet of junk will not lose nearly as much weight as the person who barely exercises, or even never exercises, but has a carefully controlled diet.

Language Learning – You can never learn a language just by studying, you have to get out there and use it, but you can roughly break language down into two components – grammar and lexicon. Grammar is learned, really learned, by chatting with people and getting corrected. Lexicon, by coming across new words or actively picking new words to learn.

In both grammar and lexicon, there are High Return Variables and Low Return Variables based on frequency of use. Frequency lists show that 80% of dialog is composed with 20% of available lexical items. That means that to understand 80% of what’s being said, you only need to know 20% of the words in the language. The same goes for grammar. Certain grammatical points will come up time and time again and be extremely useful, while others almost never get used. The person who focuses on the stuff that comes up the most often will get a lot farther a lot faster than the person who doesn’t.

Making the 80/20 Rule Work for You

In those two examples the individual who focuses their efforts on diet first and the individual who focuses their learning on the most common lexical and grammatical items first will show much more progress much more rapidly than individuals who waste their time on less important variables. The key then, in any endeavor, is to spend some time at the outset to determine which variables are the High Return Variables and which are not. Once this is determined, you can make them your primary focus. Work smarter not harder and all that.

So how do you determine what variables are High Return Variables? Well, that’s the somewhat tricky part because it will depend for each different goal or activity you’re applying it to. The best way to figure it out is to start by dropping any ‘I have to do this or that’ mentalities. Those will get you nowhere and the key here isn’t to just do it the way everyone else does, it’s to do it the most efficient way possible.

Once you’ve dropped any preconceptions on how something ‘has to’ be done, go through and dissect all the different variables/actions you can take to reach your goal. First, cut everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Be brutal here and treat each action like it’s a lead weight on a sinking boat, if it doesn’t really need to be there – toss it. Also remove everything that doesn’t have some kind of directly measurable effect. This will come in handy in the next step, and if there’s no way to measure the effect of an action there’s no real way to evaluate it.

After you’ve dumped all the superfluous actions, go through those that you’ve kept and rank each of them according to how big of an effect they have based on whatever metric applies to them. Sometimes, you may not really know. That’s fine, in that case do a little testing of everything first. Other times you may just have to work through the possible benefits in your head of each action. You may not know for sure a website will get you more customers than business cards, but it’s easy to reason that a website has more potential than business cards, so you would rank getting a website higher than having business cards printed.

Now that you have a ranked list of all the actions to take, in order of highest magnitude to lowest magnitude of effect, get started. You don’t necessarily have to follow the list point by point, but you’ll do much better using it as a tool to focus your attention on what is actually going to matter.

Have any other suggestions for ways to use the 80/20 principle? Let us know.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • vin

    The 20/80 principle is a converter. It is just being experienced. Depending on the friction.

    • I’m not entirely sure I follow what you mean by saying it’s a converter. I’m not using it here to do any actual math, only to highlight the fact that there are almost always high return and low return actions and you can accomplish more by focusing on the few high return ones than by spending all your time on the low return ones.

      For me the 80/20 principle is a scale for me to weigh my decisions. I can ask, “Is this in the 20% of things that will lead to 80% of the results, or the 80% of things that won’t help much?” Then can decide whether to actually do it or not based on the answer.