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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 August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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