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Boost Your Efficiency with the 80/20 Rule

Suggestions for more thoughtful and self-aware time management.

February 3, 2015

Shira Lurie is in the first year of her PhD in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political dissent in the early American republic. You can find her on Twitter @shirby9 and her blog Shirby’s Dream World.

The 80/20 rule is an economic principle that asserts 80% of outputs are the result of 20% of inputs. It is occasionally referred to as the Pareto Principle, named for an Italian economist who proposed that 80% of the country’s wealth was held by just 20% of the population (I like to think of him as the original Michael Moore). As a historian, percentages and words like “outputs” tend to confuse me, but the important thing to glean from the 80/20 rule is the suggestion of a correspondence between time/energy spent on a task and the results it produces. The idea is to increase the useful inputs beyond just 20% to at least a majority of your daily activities.

I’m sure this does not come as a big surprise—most people, grad students especially, try to maximize the rewards of their labors. But we still invest a lot of time into tasks that yield minimal results. Don’t believe me? Just ask yourself how much of your average day involves reading and writing emails. Now, of course, emailing can’t and shouldn’t be completely avoided—but it won’t get you your degree. The 80/20 rule teaches us that we should be aware of how much time we lose completing activities of lesser value. Here are a few suggestions to minimize these occurrences:

  • Create certain periods of the day to spend on necessary, but minimally important tasks, like emails or phone calls. For example, at times when I need to be very productive, I check my email only at the beginning and end of the workday. By confining these activities within their own pre-scheduled blocks, you will ensure that the rest of your day can be devoted to the uninterrupted completion of work that yields a higher value output.  

  • Place time limits on activities that tend to run longer than they need to, like meetings and lunch dates. These interactions are often important, but they usually drag on longer than is necessary. Having a time limit in advance will ensure that you get down to business right away and will motivate the group to be productive. 

In addition to less important tasks, the 80/20 rule also reminds us to spend our time proportionally—we want our inputs to roughly equal our outputs. Creating this balance can involve making time-consuming tasks more efficient by orienting them towards their final goal. For example:

  • Instead of reading entire books essentially cover to cover, read for the argument. This is a great example of the 80/20 rule, since only a small fraction of the information in most books will end up being memorable or useful in the long run. Know what you want to get out of the book before you begin and keep that goal in mind as you read.

A balance between inputs and outputs can also be achieved by maximizing time spent on the most useful tasks. Locate those activities that yield the greatest results (ie. your 20%) and find ways to grow that percentage. For instance:

  • Prioritize those items by placing them at the top of your to-do list every day. Ensure you complete them first before moving onto other, less impactful tasks.

  • Devote more time to those tasks either daily or weekly.

Despite its name, the 80/20 rule is not actually about hard numbers; it’s about imbalance. The 80/20 rule calls for more thoughtful and self-aware time management. We can all boost our efficiency by thinking critically about how we spend our time and what good we reap from it.

What are your thoughts on the 80/20 rule? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Keith Chu and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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