How to 80/20 the hell out of your life – the Pareto Principle

Published July 20, 2016   Posted in How to Think

What if I told you that 80% of the effort that we put into life is dreadfully unnecessary? If you believe the Pareto Principle, then you are probably already familiar with how much effort it truly takes for most of us to derive happiness.

Pinterest: How to apply the Pareto Principle to your lifeActually, the principle is more generic than a measure of happiness. 80% of your output comes from only 20% of your input. Output could be anything, good or bad. But generally, we expect satisfaction from the things that we do. Most of us don’t set out in life expecting to be miserable and alone.

In business, this principle states that 80% of your total revenue comes from 20% of your customers. In sports, 80% of a baseball team’s runs are scored by 20% of its players. In an office, 80% of your problems come from 20% of the staff…and similarly, 80% of the work is completed by 20% of the workforce. In finance, 80% of a nation’s wealth is held by 20% of the people.

The examples go on and on. While not always true, the concept is sound. Deceptively little effort is required to generate a significant return on our energy.

Note: I shall not bore you with the gory details of the Pareto Principle. Instead, I’ll let Wikipedia do that for me if you wish to read more on the principle’s background.

Pareto Principle

I’ll have some extra cheese on my slice of Pareto, please

The Pareto Principle means the majority of what we do is a waste, and if we could only identify the 20% effort we use to derive our sweet, sweet happiness, we could streamline our lives into a machine-like process, efficient and dependable. It’s a study of maximizing benefit and minimizing effort. Basically, we’d all turn ourselves into economists.

Great, but how?

How to 80/20 your life, in Pareto style

Over the past several weeks, I took special note of the things that I do during the day. This included the web sites I routinely visit, the things I do during breaks (I work from home), the types of exercises I do at the gym, even the food that I eat and the money I spend.

How about the people that I think about the most during the day? The emails that I send. The phone calls that I make (and take). Hell, even the coffee mugs that I use for my morning cup-o’-Joe!

I have a ton of choices in my everyday life that govern my level of happiness, and it is remarkable how little time it takes to keep my happiness pegged near the top. The rest is just, well, fluff.

For me, that fluff is work. Unfortunately, I spend a vast amount of my day doing that work. Work provides the paycheck that I need at the moment to fund our plans for early retirement from full-time work, but my job brings almost zero happiness into my life. To say that 80% of a typical work day provides 20% of my happiness is probably an overstatement, but it also depends on the day.

You may recognize a similar trait in your life, and if you do, you’re already setting the groundwork for 80/20’ing the hell out of your life.

Assess your life

An honest assessment of your daily life makes the 80/20 principle work.

Consider your possessions. What if I told you that 80% of the things you’ve bought in the past year bring you only a trace of happiness? Think of the things you’ve bought. Look around you. In drawers. In cabinets. In closets. There’s probably a lot of crap there. Crap that you probably don’t use.

As useless as many of your purchased items may be, there are several that you still use, that bring you happiness, that fill a void in your life…about 20% of the stuff you bought, maybe? Give or take?

Next, food. My wife and I include staples in our diet that we use damn near every meal. These foods include sweet potatoes, grilled broccoli/cauliflower and tofu (yes, tofu!). We build different meals around these staple foods, but a small selection of ingredients make up a large percentage of our meals. Are there foods in your diet that make appearances in a majority of the meals that you make?

At work, what tasks bring in the biggest return or the most credit? Usually, these are small things, like keeping your boss in the loop, or sending out a weekly status email. Are there tasks that you spend a lot of time on that never seem to do any good? If you work 10-hour days, two of those 10 hours are probably your most productive.

Switching the ratio of 80/20 at work

If you’re like most people (including me at the moment), you are working your job primarily for money, but your passions probably lie elsewhere. For me, my passions are traveling, blogging, photography, and videography. Unfortunately, full-time work usually relegates this ratio to something like 20/80, spending 20% of my time doing things I enjoy and 80% of the time doing things I don’t.

After all, working full-time is draining. Working full-time exhausts a lot of us, leaving the evenings with little opportunity to engage in what we truly enjoy. After grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, running errands and generally just getting-stuff-done, our options are limited.

The 20/80 work to fun ratio is destroying our happiness.

How do we switch that around? We flip the 20/80 ratio by spending less time doing the things that only bring us 20% happiness. In other words, work. “But money!”, you might say. Fair enough, I understand the need for money.

But ask yourself this question: Is the money that you’re earning, working a job that you do not truly enjoy, getting spent on material possessions that, as we observed earlier, bring very little satisfaction into your life? In other words, is your 20% happiness money funding your 20% satisfaction buying habits?

If so, perhaps that money isn’t as necessary as you may think. Maybe that extra money is keeping your work to fun ratio at 20/80.

A few ideas to try:

  • Drop your hours at work. Many companies offer flexible schedules, like yours?
  • Only do chores on Tuesday and Thursdays after work and leave Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to pursue your other interests that make up a substantial part of your happiness.
  • Design time into your morning, like my wife did, for hobbies.

Even if you have no intention of making money from your hobbies, there is profound wisdom in finding a way to spend more time doing them! Removing the fluff from your life puts the 80/20 principle in the driver’s seat- forever.

The point of the Pareto Principle

We need not calculate the numbers, here. Think of this rule as a guideline. A precise calculation will almost never add up to exactly 20%. That’s not the point of this exercise.

Instead, the intent is to pinpoint the 20%-ish of things you do, say, eat and buy that account for the vast majority of happiness in your life, and forget the remaining 80% that’s just fluff. The truth is the fluff is what most of us stress out about the most…the things that we cannot control..the things that don’t affect our lives.

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27 responses to “How to 80/20 the hell out of your life – the Pareto Principle”

  1. Not having to calculate things is so important – more time spent doing something you don’t really want to do! Love trying to find this balance. We are going to downsizes houses next year so it will be mandatory to get rid of about 80% of the stuff we have. I think we will be just as happy with the 20% we use all the time! (Yep – drinking out of the same coffee cup I do everyday…why do I have 20 more in the cupboard??) We eat a lot of the same things too – (OK – haven’t tried Tofu yet…) I need to give this a try in other areas of life too. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Vicki! Getting rid of 80% of your stuff so you can enjoy the 20% that remains is an awesome plan. Makes you pick and choose those things that are truly important to you! 🙂

  2. Great thoughts and reminders on what brings happiness and efficiency in life. I’m a huge believer in being very efficient (with my time, money, etc). Sounds like a little bit of spring cleaning (literally in cleaning out the closet), but also when it comes to rethinking your work habits, meals we prepare, etc. Great post!

  3. The Pareto principle is so powerful. I first picked up on this in The 4-hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and have found countless ways to apply this at work and at home.

    One of the cooler applications here is that you can “compound it”:
    – 80% of your output comes from 20% of your effort
    – 64% of your output (80% of the 80% above) comes from just 4% of your effort (20% of the 20% above)
    – 51% of your output (80% of the 80% of the 80%) comes from just 0.8% of your effort (20% of the 20% of the 20%)

    When you put it that way, you get about half of your output/happiness/etc from just 1% of your time. As you go down each compounding level, I think it’s harder to identify what the critical 4% or 0.8% of activity is, but if you can nail those, you’re sitting pretty 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Fascinating, Chris! I agree, if we can determine what is responsible for those numbers, we definitely are sitting very, very pretty.

  4. Kate says:

    I could definitely use this in relation to my possessions and groceries. I tend to eat the same foods over and over again so I’ve gotten better at grocery shopping (and reducing food waste) but there is still a lot that could be done. And I’ve been working on getting rid of excess stuff for the last year but it feels like that is a job that will never be done.

    Thanks for providing some much needed motivation and a reminder at how much this principle can help improve our lives 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Kate. Like you, we tend to buy the same things every week as well, rarely wavering (but it does happen…occasionally). Sometimes, the wife and I like to live dangerously! 🙂

  5. Arrgo says:

    I agree that working full-time can be really draining, even more so when you don’t like your job. Getting up early every day, the commute, working 8 or more hrs, errands then the normal responsibilities when you get home, there’s not much time or energy left to enjoy or accomplish much of anything for yourself. Your best and most alert hours of your day are spent for the company. You just feel like you are spinning your wheels all the time.Weekends and vacation time isnt really enough. To a certain extent, I dont mind working. The problem is there aren’t enough hours in the week to work full time and also accomplish all your personal interests at the same time.

    • Steve says:

      Yup, it really can. Once I truly started to realize just how much time a full-time job takes from me (it’s more than just the time spent at the office), I was quite literally appalled. I don’t want the most productive hours of my day to be spent at the office. I have more important things to do than that! 🙂

  6. So true! We both cut back on work and cut back on expenses, and it made such a huge difference. We also decluttered and found more space and time. Since we only work 3-4 days per week, we give ourselves those days off of chores, and have relaxing time together instead. We can still get caught up on the essentials on our days off.

    • Steve says:

      It’s nice not putting in a full 5-day work week. Spend a day (max) getting chores done, then the next two or three days actually doing something that you enjoy. Looks like you have an awesome balance!

  7. Mr. SSC says:

    We eventually decided that we weren’t going to do “chores” on our Friday’s off. Since we get every other friday off, we found we would use them up running errands, doing stuff around the house, etc… and it didn’t feel like a day off. Especially now with kids, we use those (well I still will anyway) days to do what we want, which can be playing music, video games, going out for lunch, fishing, kayaking, napping… You get the point.

    I’ll have to try and apply the Pareto principle in other areas of my life. I have been reading a book “Essentialism” by McKeown about being more effective, getting out of ruts, and the main thing from the book is “Less but Better”. Similar to the Pareto principle. Take what you like, and go for quality over quantity, remove all the fluff that comes with things and make it “Less but Better.”

    • Steve says:

      Nice plan, Mr. SSC. You recognize how much time is being taken from you each week and are actively making strides to reverse that course. Very well done, and I’ll have to check out “Essentialism”. It sounds interesting!

  8. Mr. PIE says:

    As I was reading this enjoyable post, I was also taken back to thinking about a post written by the Mad Fientist on “Happiness through subtraction”. Subtracting that 80% is the key. We should tell those expensive therapists it is all just math! Only kidding.

    Unloading that excess baggage in the form of physical stuff and/or mental stuff is necessary and it is an ongoing project to keep it in check before it builds up to be too much again.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Mr. PIE. Yup, these two posts are very, very similar. And I agree, this is definitely an on-going process. The goal of 80/20’ing your life is never truly complete!

  9. It’s a great concept that we would use frequently with clients in my prior profession. It was sometimes even in the client’s best interest to “fire” some of its own customers — those low-revenue, high-frustration buyers who create more grief than they’re worth. We can apply that lesson to our own lives, too — not all activity generates the same value, and there’s some point where the diminished marginal returns just aren’t worth it anymore. Nice post.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Matt. It’s true, firing clients that provide very little value relative to the cost it requires to keep them as a client is a real trade-off to be considered. Sometimes, the negative outweighs the positive. 🙂

  10. I can really identify with this concept, especially when it comes to work. I hate my job, but suffer through it for the paycheck to pay off our debt. I was wasting so much time when it came to days in the office, only really being productive about 20% of the time (probably). Now, I tweaked my schedule and started to do other things during traditional working hours to use that time better. I don’t feel like I’m wasting 80% of my time anymore.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Harmony. I know how you feel about suffering through a job for a paycheck, but good on you for finding a way to get the most out of it! That’s something that too few of us actually figure out how to do.

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  13. Kathryn King says:

    Very good article!!! I enjoyed the 20/80 principle! My little bro told me you have to love your work because you are there 75% of your life! God bless you and your family 👪!!

  14. […] more importantly, they also tended to be our least popular articles. And, as we learned from the Pareto Principle, happiness in life revolves around focusing in on the 20% of our life that makes 80% of the […]

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  16. Ah 20%….I always find my time at work to be wasted. I ask my boss if he will let me cram in the work and then enjoy the rest of the time…he is not convinced.

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