Applying the 80-20 Rule to Work-life–Fellow 4HWW’ers, any help?

July 16, 2007 by Jared Goralnick

This entry is an exercise in applying the 80-20 Rule, or the Pareto Principle. In the 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss explains that the day he spent applying this principle to his life he “literally changed [his] life forever” (pg 70). I’m wondering if Tim’s life was just more messed up than mine because I’m not finding the dramatic insight I’d like. Or maybe I’m going about it all wrong. Fellow 4HWW’ers: if you’re reading this I’d appreciate any insight you can offer into a better way to go about this. How have you applied this to your lives? What sort of “sources” have you considered?

The initial two questions that Tim proposed:

  1. Which 20% of sources are causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness?
  2. Which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness?

Here are some of the things that I came up with as leading to unhappiness and/or problems (from my work life):

  • When business is slow
  • When I’m disorganized
  • When I’m distracted and unproductive

But those are all more states of being than particular sources. And the things that bug me most in my personal life are of a similar sort. If this question were phrased differently as what it is that I least enjoy then I might answer it differently–though none of these lead to “problems” or “unhappiness”:

  • Developing training programs
  • Once I figure out a solution, having to carry out all the details of implementing it
  • Collections
  • Going to events where I don’t know anyone to try to drum up new business

I had a similar challenge on making up a list of the things that make me most happy at work, though it was a little more fruitful:

  • Making people happy (through solving their problems, connecting them with a referral, etc.)
  • Solving problems
  • Working with or for sharp people
  • Completing projects
  • Getting checks in the mail
  • Being productive on big things or profitable things

While I could be more specific to examples of these, it really doesn’t matter whether I’m training, working with an employee, or developing an Excel application–it’s not the what but the why that affects me. Any time good people, high-level productivity or rewards are involved I’m happy.

I don’t have too many manual processes left, and those are only minor sources of unhappiness (plus, automation and outsourcing will be a whole different topic) . Contractors not fulfilling deadlines does irritate me, but I’m always looking for better folks. The occasional miscommunication with clients is something that also bugs me, but it’s both minor (it means we have to fix something we hadn’t budgeted for) and something I’m working to address by developing processes for my employees and myself around client communication (so that fewer specificiations slip through the cracks).

I did go ahead and apply the Pareto Principle to determine the most profitable clients, but this didn’t really offer information I didn’t know. While it’s true that a few clients provide the majority of revenue, I’m already seeking out similar profiles. I don’t have any clients that frustrate me. And big checks are not always what I want most–big clients with big budgets have their own sets of annoyances. If anything, my biggest frustration is with our government’s helplessness on approving and delivering various parts of projects–and yet they still pay us more than anyone else–so how does one reconcile that?

Am I going about this all wrong? I’m very interested to hear what experiences others have had in applying the Pareto Principle to their workflow and lives.

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5 Responses to “Applying the 80-20 Rule to Work-life–Fellow 4HWW’ers, any help?”

4 Trackbacks

  1. – I’m not special, and neither are you.
  2. – Fresh air in, dirty smelly stuff out
  3. – Why don’t you just GO HOME?
  4. – Avoiding the low hanging poop


  1. gduty

    A couple of applications of the 80/20 principle have made a huge difference for me:

    - realizing that time is on my side and is not a commodity I have to take as much advantage of as possible; permission to think and take time to find truly key actions, and goals even if best practices are already defined.

    - the constant reminder that we can’t assume out of hand that we know what on our to-do list is really important, since we usually think a majority of it is. Statistically only 20% will be. That makes quiet contemplation at least as important as any of the bustle we engage in to get things done.

    I haven’t applied it directly to quality of life issues like happiness, but have found that those issues improve naturally when I apply it to concrete business or personal goals.

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