80/20 rule helps you work smarter, not harder

Working hard but hardly finishing? You may be putting too little effort into the activities that will really pay off. Learn how to lighten the load by taking shortcuts and applying the 80/20 rule to your efforts.

If you're the first one in the office and the last to leave or feel that you have more work than is humanly possible to do in a normal workweek, this article is for you. You can minimize your workload without shirking responsibilities or compromising quality by learning to take acceptable shortcuts and by mastering the secret of the 80/20 rule or Pareto’s Principle.

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered that, when left to a natural progression, 80 percent of efforts yield 20 percent of results. This concept is also called the Vital Few and Trivial Many Rule. I’ll discuss how to put the 80/20 to work for you in Step Five.

Finally, your diligence pays off
This article is the last in a series designed to help you chart a course to a shorter, more productive workday. In this five-step process, every step builds on preceding steps. If you start to lose your grasp of an earlier concept, go back and master it before moving on.

Here’s a summary of the entire process:
  • Step One: Be aware of your day teaches you how to identify tasks you’re responsible for and classify them according to priority—a helpful tool used in later steps.
  • Step Two: Break bad habits offers a list of common practices that can be avoided to save valuable time.
  • Step Three: Manage your time provides a guideline for breaking your day into blocks of time and tips on sticking to your personal schedule.
  • Step Four: Take shortcuts (below) points out ways to cut through the chaff and get to the heart of your responsibilities.
  • Step Five: Make distinctions (below) describes how you can apply the 80/20 rule to your schedule.

Step Four: Take shortcuts
When you think about taking shortcuts, it brings up images of reduced quality and shoddy workmanship, but not all shortcuts will compromise your level of output. The practices below can help you get rid of unnecessary and time-consuming tasks in a way that won’t crimp your end result.

Each of these items will help you shave minutes from various tasks. So the next question is, how can saving a few minutes here and there improve your productivity? If applied sparsely, this method won’t create a noticeable difference. But if you consider these tips carefully and apply them where you can, those few minutes saved here and there add up to serious time. It could make the difference between going home on time and staying late every night.

Don’t wait to communicate
You don’t want to wreak havoc with other people’s workloads, so you need to be sure to stick to corporate procedures. However, you may be able to grease the wheels with a little psychic ability. When discussing an issue or task, include the people who will be involved later on by targeting the endpoint. This means copying people on e-mails and inviting them to meetings. Often these people will pick up the ball and run, leaving you free to finish your work. This practice will also reduce their ramp-up time when they finally get involved.

Don’t procrastinate
Treat incoming requests like hot potatoes—move them on as quickly as possible. This may seem contrary to the time management guidelines from Step Three, but if you’ve created your schedule with enough flexibility to handle ad hoc requests, this shouldn’t affect your timeline. If you’re flooded with “quickies,” do them when you’ve allowed for time, but never linger on an item. The longer you’re responsible for something, the more yakking you’ll have to do about it.

Bullet lists are your friends
Using concise language will not only improve your productivity, but others’ as well. A single sentence with a bulleted list takes less time to prepare and process than an eloquent description. Be liberal with your bullets—you never have to reload.

Be predictable
Use processes and templates for everything. If you send out 10 e-mails a day about this job code or that module, be sure to format them consistently and you’ll no longer have to explain what that number at the top means. Give others credit for being smart enough to pick up on these concepts—if they don’t know, they’ll ask. Include the important and relevant information and leave it at that. If you do it the same way every time, no interpretation will be necessary.

Avoid rework like the plague
Often a task you set out to do has already been done elsewhere in bits and pieces. Don’t be afraid to reference these sources, or compile them if you must. Always be resourceful and familiar with the goings-on in the office. Rework is a waste of time and resources. You can save hours by avoiding it.

Step Five: Make distinctions
Everything covered in this series leads up to this final, important step. At this point, you should have a good understanding of where your time is spent and how to avoid obviously wasteful activities.

To apply the 80/20 rule, use the task lists you created in Step One of this series and the schedule created in Step Three. On your schedule, highlight the tasks from your list of primary responsibilities. You may be surprised to discover that you spend most of your time working on secondary and tertiary tasks, while your primary tasks receive the least focus.

The secret to making the method work in your favor is to adjust your behavior and spend more time on the tasks that produce the greatest results.

You may need to delegate responsibilities—or re-estimate their value. Awareness is the key, as it is with every step in becoming more productive. Realizing which duties actually generate the most results allows you to give those duties the attention they deserve, which can vastly increase your throughput.

How much time did you save?
If you’ve been following this series, share your success or failure with others. What worked for you? Are there any other practices that helped you along the way? Let us know by posting in the discussion below or sending us an e-mail.


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