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How Useful Is the Pareto Principle?

How Useful Is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results from any series of actions are caused by 20% of the actions themselves. In other words, most of the results we get are because of a small minority of our actions. The rest are either wasted or produce little of value. This sounds like a useful observation. However, before you decide the Pareto Principle is true and can be used to guide your actions, I want to ask two important questions.

  1. Can you identify which actions make up the useful 20%? And can you do so in advance?
  2. Does this useful 20% always contain more or less the same actions?

Let’s take the first question. It’s easy to feel intuitively that most results arise from a small group of actions. The Pareto Principle feels immediately valid. It also feels like a practical tool. Identify the “magic 20%” of actions and you can more or less dispense with the other 80% without much impact on your results. What a marvelous saving of time and effort.

Of course, this only works if you can reliably distinguish the 20% of actions (or people, or events) that produce that disproportionate amount of benefits. It also assumes every result comes from a single, identifiable action — or at least a small, obviously linked group of them.

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But is this true? Don’t some results rely on the interaction of large numbers of events, choices, actions and decisions? Can we know which count and which don’t? What if we dropped some, only to find later they were essential in some way? Maybe they only produce good results in combination? Cutting seemingly unnecessary actions because they don’t obviously fit into the “magic 20%” might turn out to be a poor idea.

The Pareto Principle is perhaps most often applied to sales. Suppose you could reliably identify the 20% of sales calls that produced 80% of the orders you took this week. How much might the success of those calls rely on the market intelligence, knowledge and simple practice you gained by making the other 80%? Could you miss out all the rest, or even a significant number of them? That would include new customers being encouraged to place larger orders, prospects and old customers who might be won back from a competitor.

My second concern is this: is it always the same 20%?

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Let’s stick with the sales calls. This week, 20% of your calls produce 80% of your sales. Pareto rules! Next week, you need to sell just as much. Will you visit the same 20% of customers and receive the same orders?
Surely that’s unlikely. They only just placed an order. Most, maybe all, need to use up that order before buying again. Fine. You just need to find another 20%. But how? Everyone else was in the “unproductive” 80% last week? But if Pareto works, at the end of the next week you’ll once again find 80% of orders came from a new 20% of calls.

What’s going on? My guess is the Pareto Principle distinguishes groups you can only find after the event, once you can see what worked and what didn’t. The membership of the “magic 20%” of people or actions shifts each time. Wait long enough and every one will sometime be part of that 20% group.

If that’s so, the Principle is almost worthless as a guide to future action, which is how it’s most often used. There may be some actions or people (20% again? Who knows?) that figure so rarely in the “magic group” they could be removed without loss. There may be some regular members of that group that could be identified and given more focus and investment. Either way, what’s needed is time, careful observation and recording over many occasions, good records and much patience and reflection. None of these are actions or qualities much associated with today’s frenetic organizational pace.

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I’m not saying Pareto is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the lengthy and extensive research needed to find out. I’m merely suggesting it’s neither the universally applicable principle, nor the simple measure, nor the practical guide to decisions we’ve been asked to believe it is for so long.

To sum up:

I think the Pareto Principle has great intuitive attractiveness — which says nothing about whether or not it works, nor how it works (if it does). However, these questions remain unresolved:

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  1. How do you know which 20% is producing the results? Can you even find out at a time when the knowledge might be useful? I suspect you can usually only find the answer — if there is one — after the event. And if that’s so, it leads me to a second question.
  2. Is it always the same 20%? If it’s not (and I suspect it isn’t), over time maybe the whole 100% will be in that magic 20% group sometime. And if that’s true, the Principle applies only to a specific occasion (if it applies at all).

If any of my concerns is valid, the whole idea becomes worthless as a guide to future action or allocating resources (which is how people try to use it).

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within and Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the fun and satisfaction to management work.

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Last Updated on March 31, 2020

Why Do I Procrastinate? 5 Root Causes & How To Tackle Them

Why Do I Procrastinate? 5 Root Causes & How To Tackle Them

Procrastination is something many people can relate to and I, myself, have been there and done that. Yes, I write all about productivity now, but when I first started out on my career path, I would often put off work I didn’t want to do. And most of the time I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

So what changed?

I thought to myself, “why do I procrastinate?” And I started to read a lot of books on productivity, learning a great deal and shifting my mind to the reasons why people procrastinate.

My understanding brought me a new perspective on how to put an end to the action of procrastination.

Procrastination slows your goals and dreams way down. It can create stress and feelings of frustration. It rears its ugly head on a regular basis for a lot of people. This is particularly apparent at work with day-to-day projects and tasks.

But, why do people self-sabotage in this way? Essentially, there are 5 reasons behind procrastination. See if you can identify with any of these in your own work life.

1. The Perfectionist’s Fear

Procrastination is sometimes a subconscious fear of failure.

If you put off a task enough, then you can’t face up to the potential (and usually imagined) negative results. If you’re a stickler for minor details, the stress of getting things ‘just right’ may be too much and cause you to delay continuing the task.

Either way, fear is at the root cause and can sabotage your desire to move forward.

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How to Tackle It?

Try visualizing the completion of your task in a positive way.

For example, you have a presentation that your boss wants you to conduct for a potential client. Visualize yourself standing in the meeting room confident, meeting the eyes of the client and seeing them light up as you explain the concept simply and concisely.

Imagine your boss telling you how great you did and you were the best person for the job. Think about how it would feel to you and focus on this as you move forward with the task.

2. A Dreamer’s Lack of Action

This is a person who is highly creative and has many brilliant ideas but can’t quite seem to bring them to fruition.

The main reason for this is because there’s usually no structure or goal setting involved once the idea has been created. This aimless approach ends up manifesting as a lack of decision-making and significant delays on a project.

How to Tackle It?

Write down a timeline of what you want to achieve and by when. Ideally, do this daily to keep yourself on track and accountable for progression. Creative minds tend to jump from one idea to the next, so cultivating focus is essential.

If you’re designing and creating a new product at work, set out a task list for the week ahead with the steps you want to focus on each day. Doing this ahead of time will stop your mind from wandering across to different ideas.

Learn about how to plan your time and take actions from some of the successful people: 8 Ways Highly Successful People Plan Their Time

3. An Overwhelmed Avoider

This is one of the most common reasons for procrastination; the sheer overwhelm of a daunting task.

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The complexity of a task can cause the brain to lose motivation and avoid doing it altogether choosing instead to stay in its comfort zone.

The search then starts for a more enjoyable task and the harder tasks are put off. This can cause stress and dread when the task inevitably comes up to be completed.

How to Tackle It?

Break the challenge down into smaller tasks and tackle each one individually.

For example, if you have a project that has technical elements to it that you know you’ll find challenging, list each step you need to take in order to complete these difficult elements. Think of ways you can resolve potential hurdles. Perhaps you have a coworker that may have time to help or even consider that the solution may be easier than you initially think. Put each task in order of most daunting to least daunting. Ideally, try to deal with the more challenging parts of each task in the morning so that momentum is created as the tasks get easier through the day.

A reward system will also help you stay motivated so, once completed, you can enjoy your treat of choice.

If you want to know how to better handle your feelings and stay motivated, take a look at my other article: Procrastination Is a Matter of Emotion, Here’s How to Stop It

4. The Busy Bee Who Lacks Prioritization

Either you have too many tasks or don’t truly acknowledge the differing importance of each task. The result? Getting nothing done.

Time is spent switching constantly from one task to another or spending too much time deciding what to do.

How to Tackle It?

It’s all about priorities and choosing important tasks over urgent ones.

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Make sure to question the value and purpose of each task and make a list in order of importance.

For example, throughout your work day, you can waste a lot of time dealing with ‘urgent’ emails from colleagues but, you need to ask yourself if these are more important than working on a task that will affect, say, several office projects at once.

Help yourself to prioritize and set a goal of working through your list over the next few hours reassessing the situation once the time is up.

In my other article, I talk about an effective way to prioritze and achieve more in less time: How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

5. The One with Shiny Object Syndrome (Distraction-Prone)

This is another common cause for procrastination; just simple distraction.

Our brains aren’t wired to focus for long periods of time and it looks for something else. So throw in a bunch of colleagues equally looking for distractions or checking your phone mindlessly, and you’ve got a recipe for ultimate procrastination.

However, this type of procrastination may not always be an unconscious decision to sabotage and put off work. It’s simply a result of your work setup or types of coworkers you have. Only you know the answer to that.

How to Tackle It?

Be mindful of your workspace and potential distractions. Schedule a specific time to converse with your coworkers, put headphones on to minimize listening to what’s going on around you, and switch your phone off.

Aim to do this for 20-30 minutes at a time and then take a break. This will be a much more efficient way of working and getting what you need done. This is also why scheduling down time is so important for productivity.

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Whether this type of procrastination is self-sabotage or being a victim of a distracting environment, either way you can take control.

If you need a little more guidance on how to stay focus, this guide can help you: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Bottom Line

I’m going to be bold and assume you identified with at least one of these procrastination pitfalls.

You could be trapped in the endless cycle of procrastination like I was, that is, until I decided to find out my why behind putting off tasks and projects. It was only then that I could implement strategies and move forward in a positive and productive way.

I killed the procrastination monster and so can you. I now complete my tasks more efficiently and completely killed that feeling of stress and falling behind with work that procrastination brings.

I know it’s not easy to stop procrastinating right away, so I also have this complete guide to help you stop it once and for all: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

Featured photo credit: Luke Chesser via unsplash.com

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