Do Less to Get More

2 People working productively on their floor cushions

Sweating the small stuff is killing your productivity. Many people want to be more productive but don’t know exactly how to achieve this goal. Increasing productivity can be done two ways: 1) Increase the amount of time you spend producing; or 2) increase the amount you produce in the same amount of time. Instead of focusing on simply being more productive, strive specifically for #2 - to be more efficient with productive time.

Unfortunately, many people think about increasing productivity in terms of increasing the total time spent on producing. This war-of-attrition style productivity is not a good way of getting more done. It leads to burn out and takes time away from other important things like health, hobbies and spending time with loved ones. 

Increasing the amount you complete - your efficiency - within a given time frame is a far better strategy of increasing productivity. But most of us know it’s not that simple. It’s one thing to say “be more efficient”, it’s a very different thing to implement. Becoming more efficient with your productive time takes practice, patience, and persistence and requires forethought to achieve. This is why many people default to the first method of increasing productivity, spending more time being productive. It’s simpler. 

Although becoming more efficient takes some practice and thought, there is a well described economic rule that, if understood and implemented, can greatly increase your efficiency in productive pursuits. The rule is called the 80/20 Rule, and it is based on something from economics called The Pareto Principle. The Pareto Principle states that, for many outcomes, about 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. Pareto first noticed this relationship between causes and consequences when he realized that in Italy and several other countries, roughly 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. To illustrate how the 80/20 Rule can be implemented to increase productivity let’s continue with this example of Pareto’s initial discovery.

The year is 1896 and Mario is running an Italian landscaping company. It's time to start marketing his service, but Mario is a busy person and landscaping in 1896 takes a long time. Mario wants to make sure he’s as productive as possible when it comes to marketing. Mario has been dragging his feet on marketing because he’s worried he’ll have to spend a ton of time going door-to-door and creating advertisements just to get some clients. One morning Mario reads an article by Vilfredo Pareto that says 80% of the land in Italy is owned by 20% of the population. A lightbulb goes off in his head. This is great news! He realizes that instead of increasing the amount of time he spends marketing he can direct his marketing efforts towards the 20% of the Italian population that owns 80% of the land. This will increase the efficiency of his marketing efforts. By spending the time to identify these large landowners Mario is ensuring his marketing is relevant to the audience, he’s reducing the amount of marketing he needs to do by decreasing the size of the pool of potential customers, and he is increasing the size of the contracts he’ll get - more land requires more landscaping.

Mario’s brilliant idea illustrates how the 80/20 Rule can be implemented. This simple example highlights how increasing the efficiency of one’s productivity is a better solution than spending more time being productive. Mario is reducing the time spent marketing and increasing the potential value of the customers he’s marketing to. He’s enjoying compounding benefits and is going to crush it.

It worked for Mario, but does the 80/20 Rule actually hold up in the real world? Turns out that across a wide range of natural phenomena and anthropogenic activities, it does. Some other examples include:

  • 20% of criminals commit 80% of the crimes
  • 20% of employees are responsible for 80% of the results
  • 20% of students achieve grades higher than 80%

Why does the 80/20 Rule apply to so many scenarios? We can look to math and statistics for an explanation. The 80/20 Rule applies to so many scenarios because it is roughly described by a power law distribution, as are many natural phenomena and anthropogenic activities. A power law is a relationship between two values that follows a function where relative changes to one of the values leads to a proportional relative change in the other. This change occurs regardless of where these values start. Simply put, one value changes as a power of the other. A simple example of a power law is the relationship between the area of a square and the length of its sides. If the length of a square’s sides increases by a factor of 2, then the area of the square increases by a factor of 4.

Now, that’s all well and good but what is more important than why the 80/20 Rule works is how to make it work for you. Here are a few tips to help you increase your productivity with the 80/20 Rule:

1) Determine the mission

Determining your mission is the necessary first step. Without a specific mission you will spin your tires, being unable to identify the 20% of causes that will drive the majority of your results.

For example, Mario’s mission was to get more clients for his landscaping business.

2) Prioritize your tasks

Once you have determined your mission you need to analyze the tasks required to complete the mission. You can do this many ways, but looking at data or trends can be an effective tool. If you don’t have data you can always start collecting it now, or look to another source in your field.

For example, Mario saw Pareto’s article that showed 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. Based on this data Mario prioritized his marketing efforts to those 20% of people that owned 80% of the land.

3) Write it down

You know your mission and have prioritized your task in order to identify the 20% of causes you will focus on. Now it’s time to execute. The hardest part. I recommend writing down your mission and priority tasks somewhere so that you will see them often while working. This will help keep you focused during your productive time and will help you get back on task when you become distracted by something outside of your 20% of causes.

4) Review

Depending on the nature of your work productivity can be a moving target. If you feel like your mission and priority tasks are no longer within the 20% of causes that will get you 80% of your results don’t be afraid to review them and rejig as necessary. 

Remember that there are 2 ways to increase your productivity. You can 1) increase time spent being productive or 2) increase the amount you get done while being productive. Use the 80/20 Rule to execute the second option. By focusing on the 20% of causes that drive 80% of your results you will maximize the amount you get done while being productive.

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