Using the "80-20 rule" to help set priorities

In a previous blog, Joe Rosberg discussed the "importance vs. urgency" matrix, as explained by Steven Covey.

Another useful tool for setting priorities is the "80-20" rule. I first learned about it years ago, from a book entitled How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein. This rule is known more formally as the "Pareto principle," being developed and expounded by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In simple terms, the 80-20 rule states that 80% of effects stem from 20% of possible causes. Put another way, 20% of your work is vital, while 80% is trivial. For example,

  • 80% of a company's sales come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of software bugs come from 20% of the code
  • 80% of help desk calls come from 20% of the end users
  • 80% of help desk calls involve 20% of supported applications

I could go on, but you get the point. If you look at your own lives, you probably see how this rule applies to you in other ways as well.

"Work smart, not hard" is a quote I have often heard, and it makes sense. As Joe pointed out, time is valuable for all of us, and we hate to see it wasted. When deciding on which tasks to do first, therefore, consider this 80-20 rule. What 20% of your tasks, when you finish them, will benefit 80% of your customers, or would solve 80% of your troubles? Give priority to the "vital few," rather than the "trivial many."

I'm not saying the 80-20 rule is ironclad and should be followed blindly. However, it's an important factor to consider in planning your work and your time.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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