The 80/20 rule

Today I want to look at the Pareto principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule.

As an Office Goddess, you make everything you do look effortless, although afterwards you can explain just how complex it was. No whinging while doing the task, mind. There’s no real secret to getting everything done – it’s just a combination of hard work and good planning. However, you can make things easier for yourself by focusing on the tasks that are the most important.

The basic tenet of the Pareto principle is that 80% of the value comes from 20% of the activity. That doesn’t really hold up in project management. If you did only 20% of everything on the project plan you would soon come unstuck. Pareto is useful in uncovering what project you should be doing: you can generalise, for example, that 80% of the problems come from 20% of awkward cases. But you can’t just avoid 80% of the project work.

So, for project management, look at 80/20 another way.

Some things need to be done right, others just need to be done.

The first job is to work out which tasks fall into which category. Why waste time on stuff that doesn’t give you any value? On the project plan, there will be 80% of tasks that need to be done to high quality, right first time, on budget, yadda yadda. But the remaining tasks just need to be done.

Yep, just churn out that report, type up those minutes, shove all those papers in a drawer and call it filing. Those things don’t have to be high quality deliverables, they just need clearing off your to do list. No one cares if they are not done to perfection. If you care, stop! You’ll be more efficient if you spend time on the things that are more important to the overall job at hand. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It’s not always easy to know what is the small stuff. I would say it’s the things that fall into the ‘not urgent, not important category’ in the figure below.

Sometimes even urgent stuff is not required to be completed to the highest quality levels.

Ultimately, you have to decide what’s urgent, what’s important and what’s the 20% of stuff that just needs to be done. But if you can crack those distinctions, you’ll be a lot better at organising yourself and making all those things on your to do list disappear.