How To

Applying the 80/20 Rule At Work

photo: andhij

Trying to get more done at work? With distractions, emergencies and low-value busywork eating up a large part of your day, it can be a struggle. Most employees respond by working harder, which usually involves longer hours, tighter deadlines and a lot of beating yourself up for not getting more accomplished.

We’ve got nothing against hard work: often the only way to meet your goals is to knuckle down and handle things yourself. However, we all know the expression “work smarter, not harder” — yet most of us rely on “work harder” to get us through every situation. Don’t get us wrong; you can’t think your way out of every problem. Still, if you’ve been relying exclusively on working harder, there are some tricks that will help you be more efficient.

Read on to learn what the 80/20 rule at work is and the benefits of applying it.


The key rule of thumb and mind-set to develop is something called the “Pareto principle.” The Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of results come from 20% of inputs (and, conversely, the other 20% of results come from the other 80% of inputs). The principle was named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian mathematician from the turn of the last century. Pareto noted that 80% of land in his native Italy was owned by the wealthiest 20% of the population. Pareto went on to comment that 20% of his garden’s pea plants produced 80% of the peas he grew.

The Pareto principle states that a little imbalance can actually benefit us. By focusing on the things that produce the biggest results, we can get the lion’s share of the results, with the minimum amount of effort. It still involves hard work, sure, but you can achieve your goals in an efficient way, rather than the feeling you’re bashing into a wall over and over — a feeling we’ve all had when chasing our goals. We all know to apply this principle to some extent, and we all try to focus on crucial things even if it means ignoring trivial ones, but you can gain valuable insight on your work by trying to apply the principle to all aspects of your work life. Read on for ideas, both obvious and subtle, of how to make the 80/20 rule work for you.

The core of your work

The most important use of the 80/20 rule is defining the “core” of your job. What are the central actions and roles that make up your job? All jobs have a lot of daily to-dos and minor activities, but underneath it all are the central tasks that are most important — the things that cause problems for the company or the customer if they aren’t done. What are the few things that, done right, will mean you’re doing your job well? What does your boss look at when he or she thinks about the work you’re doing — what numbers matter most? What responsibilities? What about your clients and your coworkers?

Use the 80/20 rule to identify your core tasks and make sure you do them with excellence. If you’re a boss, you should never delegate the core tasks of your job to your team, unless you’re grooming somebody to take your job when you get promoted or leave. If you’re an employee, you should never drop the ball on these tasks. While you’ll never leave work for the day with everything “done,” if you are completing your core tasks with excellence, you’re 80% of the way there, and that’s more than most.

Knowing what to let slide

Applying the 80/20 rule at work helps you know what to let slide when you don’t have time to do it all. We all have stretches of time that are busier for us than usual, and you will need to make decisions about what gets done and what has to wait. For instance: You’re in sale and the top 20% of your clients make up 80% of your sales — these are your most valued clients. Let’s imagine that you return to your desk and have missed two calls: one is from a “star” client from the top 20%, the other from a lesser client. Both calls are valuable and both customers are cared about and looked after, but who do you call first? The star client, of course. If something comes up unexpectedly, and you aren’t able to return both calls right away, you have at least accomplished 80%. While getting interrupted like this isn’t ideal, it’s a fact of business life and you’d do well to prioritize your work to deal with the threat of interruptions — get the most important work done first.

The most results, the least time

The sales example is a bit simplified: salespeople naturally attend to their bigger clients first. They work on commission, so calling the star client first is just a salesman following the money. The principle, however, works for all aspects of work: just as there are star clients and core parts of your job, the 80/20 rule can be applied to your productivity as well. Don’t worry, we’re not going to start some hand-waving rant about productivity in the workplace; there is, however, a better way than dashing to complete everything and leaving work feeling drained, mentally and physically.

If you invest a little time and thought, you can figure out the keys to an effective workday and how you can focus on them. For instance, the principle states that 20% of your coworkers (or, if you’re the boss, your employees) produce 80% of the results. Identify these “get-it-done” people and work with them as much as you can rather than the other 80%. Say you need some information and can get it by calling one of two people. The first is a disorganized mess, while the other seems to have everything right at hand. Which call would be quicker and more efficient? There’s a huge time savings there, and that’s just a phone call; apply the principle to all your work with others and stick with the efficient people. You’ll get more done.
Finally, apply the principle to your own day: is there a time of day you’re most effective? The one hour where you’re wide awake, most energized and undistracted? That’s the time to tackle your toughest, most valuable challenges. If you align the best 20% of your day with the top 20% of your list of work, you’ll get more done in that sprint than most accomplish in a 10-hour day.

Working smarter

The Pareto principle is just that: a principle, a rule of thumb. We don’t actually believe that 20% of customers produce 80% of your value on the dot. Your top 23% of clients could produce 80%, 60% or even 90% of results. The point of the principle is to realize that certain actions have outsize results, and by focusing on these and making time for the rest of your work afterward, you ensure you’re getting the most done you can. Work is work, and while thinking about it can give you better results, you’re still going to be working hard to get those results.

“Applying the 80-20 Rule at Work” provided by