Prioritize with The Pareto Principle

This is part 3 in the series How to double your productivity.

Here’s a thing I wish they taught us in school. Or maybe they did and I wasn’t listening.

In 1906 the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the income in Italy was received by 20% of the people.

This was later developed into the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80-20 rule and the law of the vital few) by quality management guru Jospeh M. Juran. It goes something like this:

In many cases and for many phenomena 20% of the causes accounts for 80% of the consequences.

This means that 80% of the causes only accounts for 20% of the consequences.

So, focus your time and energy on those important 20% of tasks and activities that will give you 80% of the results.

Identifying those 20% is often not that hard. If you write a list of ten things you have to do today or right now and order them, from top to bottom, in order of importance then the first one or two things at the top of the list will most likely account for 80% of the value in your life. It’s worth the time to take a few minutes and try to figure out which of all the things you feel you have to do that are the really crucial ones.

Today, for me, such a thing is to study for tests in school next week. Some other things I also have to do are to go food-shopping, do the dishes and get some new light-bulbs. Getting the first thing done will obviously have much higher value and consequences to me than the other three.

I’ve also used the principle in another way in school. Since, in some courses, lectures don’t provide much value to me I have skipped a lot of them. I found that I could both learn and get the grade I wanted more effectively by focusing on reading the books for the course. It was more effective for me. For others it might be more effective to keep the main-focus on the lectures and less on the books.

When writing an article for a paper or a blog, the first 20% of the text will often account for 80% of the number of readers. Meaning: focus a lot of time and effort on the headline and possibly the first 2-3 sentences. For headline-tips, I suggest reading the excellent

To have a successful blog (repeated over and over again in numerous “How to build a better blog”-lists everywhere), the important 20% seems to be to fill your blog with useful and valuable content. In the end, that’s what your readers want and what will make them come back over and over again to your website.

I find that keeping the Pareto Principle in mind during the day keeps my mind on what is most important thing I could do right now. It keeps the mind on track and your own priorities from getting screwed up by all kind of things, thoughts and people.

It brings a kind of clarity into your life, since it keeps you focused on the important things and alleviates the stress of feeling that “you have to do” many of the less important things. It frees you from rules such as “I have to attend every lecture” and lets you make your own rules. It makes life easier and often gets you where you want to go faster and smoother.

Before you do something, ask yourself: does this belong to the 20% group?

A problem when trying to use this principle is that the crucial 20% is often things we procrastinate about. It might because sometimes it’s hard work. And these few activities can have a big effect on our lives and change can be uncomfortable. You could have a look at 7 ways to move beyond procrastination to get started.

The most effective thing though might just be to see the results of focusing on those few important tasks and activities. When you start to see some real, positive feedback it can really make a difference in the way you feel and think.

Finally: think of the Pareto Principle as a rule of thumb. It’s not an exact measurement. In some case it might be a 90-10 ratio instead of 80-20. In some cases it might be less.

Now, in what ways can you use the Pareto Principle? And what 20% of your life brings you 80% of the value?

In the next few days, in part 4: Some additional ways to tell if what you’re doing is really the best thing to do.

Free Exclusive Happiness Tips

Subscribe to The Positivity Newsletter and get weekly tips on happiness, self-esteem and plenty more.

You’ll also get three free guides on how to stop being lazy, what to do when life sucks and 21 things I wish they’d taught me in school.

100% privacy and no spam. You can unsubscribe anytime.

About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I wanted to thank you for the links that are coming my way from your site. Congratulations on being so busy! I have put you on my blogroll and hope you will take a look at my site too. I know I will be coming here more often…I am a big Brian Tracy fan myself. Also on my site you may run into a few success books that you might have missed. In any event, I wish you continued success with your terrific blog.


  • makarand

    it was excellant give me for more feedback to priotirise the things

  • Here’s an 80/20 project: a group of orphans needs to buy food sources that will keep producing food all year long (chickens, plants, fish, etc.). But what funds come in at such a slow rate, spread out over time, that they’re forced to eat them in them in the form of rice (only rice) as the funds trickle in. If they could get funded all at once, it would change their ability to feed themselves.

    How much do they need? $1000. Yep, a thousand dollars for the whole project. So, if 20 people sat down and figured out the cost of one night out: dinner/movie/coffee/dessert, and gave that amount this week, the project would be funded immediately, and these kids would be able to learn with full bellies, and keep on producing their own food. We’ll never get 100 people to give $10 each. But if we can get 20% of those people (20 people) to give $50 each, they’re funded.

    Here’s the project. I know it well, and have given to it before. Care to join me?

    Oh, and pssst. Pass it on.

  • leela

    very informative and useful self improvement tips on your site.

  • Rick

    Love the Article thanks for sharing…