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The 80/20 Rule in Life

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 principle, is a famous rule of thumb for determining where to focus your energies. It was named for an economist who discovered that in most countries 80% of the nation’s resources was owned by 20% of the population. It turns out, though, that the rule applies to many, many phenomena besides land ownership! Businesses and economists have embraced this principle over the years, but it can be incredibly useful to keep in mind for many other areas of your life.

What does this mean, in a nutshell? Well, it often means that 80% of consequences are the result of just 20% of your actions. You probably spend 80% of your time with 20% of your acquaintances, wear the 20% of your clothes that are your favorites 80% of the time, etc. And, you will probably find that 80% of your lifetime learning comes from the 20% of your experiences that were most meaningful for you. Of course the exact proportions really vary, but the underlying idea is the same – we get a disproportionate amount of payoff from the effort that we spend on just a few key areas. For this reason, the rule is often stated as “the vital few and the trivial many”.

The 80/20 rule is a great antidote for perfectionistic tendancies! Don’t worry about doing something perfectly in order to pull it off. Just remind yourself that you’re probably already 80% done if you can simply do the most vital, key details. Often, the rest is just gravy – good if you can get to it, not critical to your success. Even if you do need to slog through all the little details, if you focus on getting the critical 20% right first, you will often be better prepared to get through the trivial tasks that are remaining. Your overall outcome will be improved.

There is an infinite number of possibilities for applying the 80/20 principle in life. Here are a few examples:

  • (from business) 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers
  • likewise, the most problematic 20% of your customers are responsible for 80% of your total problems.
  • 80% of the improvement in the appearance of your house can come from the attention you pay to the most crucial 20% of your household chores.
  • 80% of your stress comes from the 20% of things about which you are most worried.
  • 80% of your productivity in a given day comes from the 20% of your time that was used the best.

If we want to improve an aspect of our lives, it stands to reason that it is important to identify the most critical, productive elements and be sure to get those right first. It sure beats getting bogged down by obsessing over trivial details. (Ask me how I know!)

More info on the 80/20 Rule:

A great article on, with a nifty visual demonstration

Pareto Principle on Wikipedia

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