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.
Actually, 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.
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.
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.