Apply the 80/20 Rule to Weed out Gross Inefficiencies

Last Updated May 28, 2010 8:42 PM EDT

You may not know it by its official name -- the Pareto Principle -- but you certainly know what it is. Also called the 80/20 Rule, it says that in any system, you can generally count on 80% of the effect to come from just 20% of the causes. It's a powerful rule, in part because it's usually right.

The question: How can you learn from and apply it within your own work day to eliminate inefficiency and become more productive?

Recognizing that the Pareto Principle is all around you, infested in everything you and your company does, is empowering. It means that even a cursory analysis of your work day should allow you to identify small changes which yield large gains in productivity.

Where to start? You can conduct your own time audit, in which you track your activities in 30 minute intervals throughout the day for several days.

If you don't want to be that rigorous, you can look for Pareto even without the time audit. Here's some low hanging fruit to consider:

  • E-mail. Look for trends in your e-mail traffic. Is a particular person, project, or message thread consuming a disproportionate amount of your time?
  • Clients. You have to love all your clients, but they're not your kids -- you don't have to love them all equally. Look for the one that, like a needy child, soaks up more of your time than seems reasonable.
  • Tools and processes. What do you do every day or every week which exacts a heavy toll on your time and your soul? Status reports? Entering sales data?
When you identify your personal Paretos -- and there's probably at least one in your day -- then devise a strategy to extricate yourself. Ask yourself:
  • Is it really your problem to begin with?
  • Can you delegate?
  • Is it something that you have to do at all? If you stopped doing this thing, would anyone notice?
  • Can you streamline or simplify a process which is taking an unreasonable amount of your time?
  • If it's a client, what would happen if you dropped him or her? Would it free you to take on more profitable, less demanding work?
Have you ever looked for the 80/20 in your own day? What did you find, and how did you deal with it? Share your experience in the comments -- I promise it won't take 80% of your day.