By Blair Williams, founder of the WordPress membership plugin MemberPress and affiliate program plugin Easy Affiliate.
You’ve probably heard about the analogy where our actions are like a single pebble cast into a pond. The ripples one stone sends out are far-reaching — meaning that even small actions can have larger-than-expected outcomes.
Did you know that this phenomenon where small actions have larger outcomes is actually an observable and well-documented concept?
Enter the 80/20 principle, otherwise known as the Pareto principle. This principle, in essence, states that 80% of an outcome comes from 20% of its causes. It explains how small actions, a small group of people, events or elements are responsible for a disproportionately large percentage of a result.
This principle may appear in our own lives in a few different ways:
• Most businesses likely have a handful of stellar employees who contribute an enormous amount of benefits to the company.
• From your entire product range, there often may be one or a small number of offerings that create the most sales.
• You likely wear a small percentage (20%) of your wardrobe most of the time.
• The most relaxing and deepest part of your sleep cycle usually lasts for just a small part of your entire night’s rest.
As leaders, being aware of this phenomenon and applying it at work can help us in many ways. Here are some ways you can better meet your goals and learn more effectively by applying the 80/20 principle.
Prioritize Your Goals
Do you have many goals and are unable to achieve even a fraction of them? This could be because your energy and attention are dispersed while trying to meet several goals at once. Instead, what if you could focus on just a few of your goals and give it all your energy? You’d likely see a massive boost in your happiness levels and productivity.
The idea of focusing on a few things is also featured in the “Getting Things Done” process by David Allen. The problem isn’t having too many things to do. It’s about giving each task the attention they deserve at the right time.
Here’s an interesting way that the 80/20 principle and the Getting Things Done (GTD) process align. In the GTD model, you need to make a complete list of everything that needs to be done, ranging from buying coffee filters because you’re running out of them to negotiating a multi-million dollar deal.
And the first thing you knock off your list is anything that can be done in two minutes or less. I find that when you get rid of the smallest and seemingly trivial tasks, the sense of relief you feel is disproportionately higher.
What’s happening is that the seemingly small jobs which are many in number occupy a great deal of mental space. Being done with the small and quick tasks frees up your mental energy and significantly boosts your productivity.
One of the most impactful uses of this principle can be seen in learning. Let’s look at two specific examples to highlight how you can focus on a small amount of content to improve your overall knowledge substantially.
Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Chef, mentioned in his book that he was able to gain proficiency in the Japanese language in just three months, a feat that normally takes people several years to achieve. He did this by learning core words from a sports manual. Instead of learning several thousand kanji characters, he learned 214 traditional radicals.
According to Ferriss, we only use a small number of words from a language’s entire vocabulary. Try to learn the most commonly used words you can and you’ll boost your working vocabulary to a high degree.
Taking Courses And Studying
Another example is from Robert Koch who wrote the book The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less. He applied this principle to his studies and was able to easily pass his exams and graduate from Oxford.
He found that anywhere between 80%-100% of an examination could be answered from learning 20% or less of the information on the syllabus.
When learning, focus on the fundamentals and avoid trying to gain a complete understanding of the topic. When you learn your core concepts via an intensive course or good books, you can always pick up more through experience and by using online media.
Get Better Results From Small, Focused Steps
As we move up the career ladder or grow our businesses, we have less time and energy to explore new things. We’re better off finding a few things that work well and then leveraging them to get the best effect.
This might mean putting more of your attention on your best customers, adding more support to your best-performing products or focusing on what you’re good at as a leader and then delegating the rest to the right people.