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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 July 10, 2020

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

 

Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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