How The 80/20 Rule Can Help You Become More Efficient

I am a big fan of the 80/20 Rule, otherwise known as the Pareto Principle. Now, I will start off by saying that there are times when variations and flexibility of this rule may be called for. For instance, there are times I use a 90/10 approach. But, for the most part, these variations are more of the exception than the rule. Now that we’ve acknowledged the possibility of variation, let’s get back to the 80/20 principle. I continuously seek ways to apply this tenet, and it has helped me prioritize my work, life, and health. In this article, I share the history of this principle, how it affects productivity in various industries, my experience with it, and how your awareness and application of this can help you positively to achieve your personal and professional goals and increase your productivity.


The Story Behind The Pareto Principle And How I “Met” Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto

Residency training is demanding. Even more so, a surgical residency can be gruesome. Residency training hours are now limited to 80 hours a week – which if you think about it, is still 2 weeks of work crammed into 1 week if we are going based on the average 40-hour workweek.  When I was in training, the 80-hour workweek rule was not in effect yet until the final year of my residency.  It was normal to work 100-120 hours a week. I still remember rotations where I would arrive at 3:30 a.m. so I could round on all my patients, get their labs and vitals, see the ones that had issues overnight to make sure there were no emergencies or surprises before we had team chief rounds at 5 a.m. During this training time, I became more curious about time, how to make it work for me, and productivity in general. After all, I still had to eat, sleep, learn, operate surgically, and get better at my craft amid all the pressures of so much to do and so little time. I set out to educate myself about learning and developing efficiencies, building systems and processes, prioritization, and other life skills that were not taught in medical school or residency training.

During this quest of mine, I discovered Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto. To summarize, according to a article, “Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto was born in Italy in 1848. He would go on to become an important philosopher and economist. Legend has it that one day he noticed that 20% of the pea plants in his garden generated 80% of the healthy pea pods. This observation caused him to think about uneven distribution. He thought about wealth and discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by just 20% of the population. He investigated different industries and found that 80% of production typically came from just 20% of the companies.”

The application, or, rather observation of this “rule” has been noted and seen throughout every business. As the aforementioned article points out, “This ‘universal truth’ about the imbalance of inputs and outputs is what became known as the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule. While it doesn’t always come to be an exact 80/20 ratio, this imbalance is often seen in various business cases:

  • 20% of the sales reps generate 80% of total sales.
  • 20% of customers account for 80% of total profits.
  • 20% of the most reported software bugs cause 80% of software crashes.
  • 20% of patients account for 80% of healthcare spending (and 5% of patients account for a full 50% of all expenditures!) I find this statistic rather interesting.”


How Does The 80/20 Rule Apply To Your Life

Whether you are working remotely or onsite, you’ll find the 80/20 principle helpful in your goals for work, health, life balance, family, friends, and the rest of life in general. By focusing on those things that produce the most results and eliminating or outsourcing activities that don’t, you free up additional time to accomplish more of what is vital. According to the amazingly productive Brian Tracy, “The Pareto Principle is a concept that suggests two out of ten items, on any general to-do list, will turn out to be worth more than the other eight items put together.” That’s a pretty easy concept to grasp, right? However, he goes on to state that, “The sad fact is that most people procrastinate on the top 10 or 20 percent of items that are the most valuable and important, the ‘vital few,’ and busy themselves instead with the least important 80 percent, the ‘trivial many,’ that contribute very little to their success.

For example, when I’m seeing patients and I’m discussing treatment options, I apply this rule with patients and their families. As we review the pros and cons of each treatment option, the question is, “Which one of these will produce the best possible outcome?” If there are 5 possible options to treat a problem, which one solution will yield the best results? If there are 10, which 2 are best? I keep narrowing the list down until I get to the best one. Another instance where I apply this is in my to-do list. I constantly need to prioritize where to expend energy, time, and effort for maximum results for my work, my patients, my team, my health, and my life.



What This Means For You – How To Apply The 80 20 Rule To Goal Setting

 Like many things in life, the more you practice, the better you become. The same applies to the Pareto Principle. So, here’s how you can practice it:

First, take a piece of paper or your electronic device – whichever you prefer – and write down ten goals. Then ask yourself: If I could only accomplish one of the goals on this list today, which one goal would have the greatest positive impact on my mission today? When you identify that goal, then reiterate the process, and continue working your way down the list of goals. As you narrow down your focus in applying the 80/20 rule, don’t be surprised if you find some goals are irrelevant and need to be abandoned altogether, and some that are of great importance need to make it onto your list. What you’ll find is, after you complete this exercise, you will have determined the most important 20 percent of your goals that will produce 80 percent of the impact you are seeking to accomplish. This can be applied to work, family, health, and life.


I remember recently when I ordered my home exercise bike. After it was delivered, I had it on my to-do list to unpack it and set it up. However, I kept procrastinating on getting the task done until I applied this principle as walked past the unpacked delivery box. I asked myself, “what is the one thing that if I did it on my list this weekend will have the biggest, most positive impact?” After asking that, I knew that unpacking and setting this up was most important because I could start working out at home as soon as possible which would have a big positive impact on my health and my life in the long run. So, I set it up, rather than relying on unpredictable gym hours. Despite all that came flying at me that evening, not until I had that clarity of the 80/20 did this get done. Unpacking a box seemed so mundane, but when it was put in the context of the 80/20 principle, it became very easy to prioritize getting this action done. It was the one thing on that list at that point in time that would have the biggest positive long-term impact.


I will end this piece by asking you this:  What is the one thing that if you did it today will have the biggest positive impact on your life? Identify what it is, and take action on doing that thing. And when you have completed it, repeat the process again and again. You’ll be amazed at how this small step will lead to notable changes in the coming weeks, months, and years of your life. I hope this brief introduction to the 80/20 Principle helps you as much as it helps me since I learned about Pareto. Try it today. You won’t regret it. Even if it only helped you accomplish just one thing, then it has worked!