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The Top 4 Misapplications of the 80/20 Rule

The Top 4 Misapplications of the 80/20 Rule
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    Eighty percent of the output comes from twenty percent of the input. That is basically a summary of the Pareto Principle, or as it is more commonly known, the 80/20 Rule. The rule comes from Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who noticed that 80% of Italy’s wealth was in the hands of 20% of the population.

    The 80/20 Rule points out the imbalance of effects. Just as one person might have several times the wealth as another, one hour spent on a critical project might be worth $10,000 while another might only be worth $20. The goal when using the 80/20 Rule is to maximize the small and powerful twenty percent and reduce the wasteful eighty percent.

    Despite the popularity of the rule, few people seem to understand it. I’ve seen hundreds of misapplications and confusions spouted throughout the web and in print. Some of these errors are due to not understanding what the rule means. Others are just my opinion of unfair attacks on an otherwise useful principle.

    Here are the worst attempts at using the 80/20 Rule:

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    1) 80 + 20 = 100

    I’ve seen a few times where people try to create a diagram explaining the 80/20 rule with a pie chart. One fifth of the pie chart is labeled 20% and the rest is labeled 80%. While those of us with basic math skills can see how this adds up to 100%, the calculation undermines what the rule is about.

    The 80/20 rule argues that 20% of the input creates 80% of the output. Inputs and outputs aren’t the same thing, and therefore can’t be made into the same pie chart. The 80/20 Rule could just as easily been called The 55/3 Rule, if 55% of the results were created by 3% of the inputs.

    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.

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    2) 80/20 Applied Recursively

    One argument I’ve heard against the 80/20 rule goes like this, “If you keep applying the 80/20 rule, eliminating the wasteful 80%, eventually you’ll end up with nothing.” I suppose the people who argued this point felt they were being clever by using a literal, mathematical interpretation of the rule.

    Once again, the numbers here aren’t that important. The actual applications are less mathematical. When you have a limited amount of time, you won’t be able to 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) 80/20 to Perfection

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    Another way I’ve seen the rule misapplied is when building skills. 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. While this is a fair use of the rule, the advice with skills often goes against the 80/20 Rule. Instead of eliminating the need for that last 20%, you invest most your time to master the last 20%.

    The point of the 80/20 Rule is that you should downplay or minimize the inefficient 80% of inputs. There are times, of course, when this rule doesn’t apply. Mastering a skill can be one of those areas where the 80/20 advice is faulty.

    However, by recommending the opposite of the 80/20 rule, you can’t really claim the 80/20 rule is in practice here. That would be like saying, “haste makes waste,” is the same advice as, “he who hesitates is lost.”

    4) “But I still have to do it…”

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    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 an you have no control over how your time is spent, what’s the point of reading productivity blogs like this anyways?

    How to Really Use the 80/20 Rule

    1. Pick an area of your life where you feel there is an imbalance of effects. This won’t be true of all areas, but many situations are out of balance (money, time, health and possibly even relationships).
    2. Try to identify the key 10, 20 or 40 percent of inputs that are creating most your results. This could be the 10% of time that creates the most returns. It could be the 40% of relationships that create the most happiness for you.
    3. Find ways to emphasize the key percentage. Spend more time in those activities. Place them first in your schedule. Meet up with your key friends more often. Invest more of your money in the best expenses.
    4. Find ways to downplay or eliminate the rest. Get rid of activities that don’t have a high payoff. Stop spending time in relationships that don’t create enough value. Stop wasting money on investments that aren’t giving you a greater quality of life.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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