80/20 Rule.

What do we want from life? I guess for many the word “happiness” comes up in the answer to that question. Don’t worry, this is not a guide on how to find happiness in your life. The answer to that is quite simple: inside yourself.

Perhaps the second most popular answer to the above question is “more”. This is where I can help. It’s not always wise to want more and more, but would it not be great to be able to have what one currently has with far less work and/or effort?

Obviously everyone has a limited amount of resources; most people have limited amounts of money, and everybody has a limited amount of time on this earth. Let’s not even mention how little concentration one can achieve with today’s distractions.

So, knowing that we have a limited amount of resources, it makes sense to use these resources that we do have in the most efficient way possible.

This can allow you to either:

  • Work Less
  • Accomplish more for the same effort/time

Both of these are worthy goals and actually not that difficult to accomplish, with the correct knowledge.

Enter the 80/20 Rule, Perhaps one of the most interesting principles around.

The 80-20 Rule is also known as:

  • The Pareto Principle
  • The Law of the Vital Few
  • The Principle of Factor Sparsity

In a nutshell, it’s very, very simple:

80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The appeal of this rule is immediately clear: More results using fewer resources/work.

Every intelligent person should apply the 80/20 rule to their own life. It’s simply the best way to deal with the pressures of modern life. It’s one of the great secrets of our times.

This principle was discovered by Vilfredo Pareto in 1906. He noticed that this principle applied in two specific cases, and that got him thinking.

Case 1: 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced roughly 80% of all the peas.

Case 2: 80% of the land in Italy at the time was owned by 20% of people.

This is hardly surprising when you think about it enough. I mean, mathematically speaking it makes perfect sense. Let’s get good old Wikipedia on the case (if you are not mathematically inclined then feel free to skip the next paragraph).

“Mathematically, where something is shared among a sufficiently large set of participants, there must be a number k between 50 and 100 such that “k% is taken by (100 − k)% of the participants”. The number k may vary from 50 (in the case of equal distribution, i.e. 100% of the population have equal shares) to nearly 100 (when a tiny number of participants account for almost all of the resource). There is nothing special about the number 80% mathematically, but many real systems have k somewhere around this region of intermediate imbalance in distribution.”

A few more examples:

  • A business makes 80% of its profits from 20% of its clients.
  • A website receives 80% of its visitors from 20% of the content.
  • 80% of your exercise time (the High-Intensity stuff) may be responsible for 80% of your fitness.

And a couple of more amusing ones:

  • 80% of the world’s beer drinks be 20% of beer drinkers!
  • 80% of married people are responsible for 80% of divorces!

Quick interlude: I wonder what kind of overlap there is in the 20% of people who drink 80% of the world’s beer and the 20% of people who are responsible for 80% of divorces?

Clearly, it would be very cool to be able to 80/20 everything in your life. Imagine what you could do. Work two day weeks and accomplish far more than you are currently. Almost sounds too good to be true.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done.

Before we go any further, I think it’s wise to discover a bit more about the history of the 80/20 Rule.

A Short History Lesson on the 80/20 Rule.

While our dear friend Pareto did a great job in discovering the 80/20 rule, he wasn’t so great at communicating it with others. His ideas were taken by the Italian Fascists under Mussolini and twisted for their own agendas.

In fact, it took over 40 years and a couple of world wars for the ball to start rolling and for people to start sitting up and paying attention. This was the result of the hard work of two men: an engineer called Juran and a Harvard lecturer called Zipf.

Juran rediscovered “The Pareto Principle” in the form of “The Rule of the Vital Few” while Zipf created and elaborated “The Principal of Least Effort”

The Principle of Least Effort also conveniently explains why your desk is messy. The frequency of use draws near to us things that are frequently used!

As America was too busy enjoying its newfound superpower status, it simply ignored both of these men and they didn’t find an audience for their radical, but not-so-new, ideas.They both ended up in Japan where their theories did not fall on deaf ears. Together they were responsible for the “Quality Revolution” of the 1960’s. This goes something along these lines: “80% of the problems in a product are caused by 20% of the engineering or manufacturing techniques”

By concentrating on the 20% of manufacturing techniques or design that caused the vast majority of the problems for the consumer, Japanese companies were able to create vastly superior products to their American counterparts in terms of reliability. By the time that products from Japan started flooding the United States, there was a such a large gap in terms of quality control that US business could not afford to continue ignoring Juran and Zipf.

An example of this is IBM, who in 1963 realized that 80% of their computer’s power went towards processing 20% of the code. They decided to completely rewrite their code to make that 20% as efficient as possible. The result? Their machines were far faster than their competitors and they become the dominant computer company for the next few decades. Then, along came Microsoft…

Anyway, fast-forward to the present day and many people have heard about the 80/20 Rule and most of the can probably parrot the usual phrase “80% of the results from 20% of the work” but hardly anyone has stopped and actually thought what that means!

And here ends the history lesson.

When the 80/20 rule is pointed out to business owners, they are often taken aback that four-fifths of their company are not really contributing much to the bottom line. This often puts people on the defensive. After all, if you tell someone that 80% of what they are doing is a waste of time, you are telling them that they are wrong.

By the way, let’s clear up a misconception about the 80/20 rule that’s thrown around all over the place. The split is not always 80/20. It can be 87/13, 99.5/0.5, or even 95/35.

Please notice that last split. The numbers don’t add up to a hundred. While it instinctively looks incorrect, it’s actually a perfectly possible combination. You have to remember that the 80/20 rule is actually comparing two sets of data. If I bring up the rule again you will immediately understand:

80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes

Data Set 1 is the result from the work. (i.e. the effect or effort)

Data Set 2 is the work itself.

So in the previous split of 95/35: 95% of the results come from 35% of the work.

Make sure you have understood this before continuing. After all, if you don’t understand a principle you are hardly ready to begin to apply it to your life.

Nasim Taleb, author of the Black Swan would agree that in this highly globalized and fast paced world the 99.5/0.5 ratio is quite likely! The 80/20 rule is, in fact, obsolete and the result/work ratio is even more skewed. The division of wealth in the 21st century is much closer to the 99.5/0.5 split than the 80/20. The vast majority of today’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.

I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of this book – it will change the way you think. I read and re-read it for over three months on the way to work until every last word sunk in.

Then I quit my job.

The Big Question

“How can I apply the 80/20 rule to my own life?”

We are actually going to deal with this question in another essay, but before you can even consider answering this question, you really need to learn how to “think” in the 80/20 way. You also need to know what you want from life. Imagine if you had no constraints. Unlimited amounts of money, free time, etc. Absolutely no restrictions. What would you do?

What would you do?

Surprisingly you might need to actually spend a fair bit of time doing some serious thinking before you can answer this question. Hell, I’ve been thinking about it all summer and I am still not 100% sure!

Anyway, once you have answered this question you need to make your life match this hypothetical reality as closely as possible. This may well require some radical changes in the way you think and in the way you do things.

So, how can you apply the 80/20 rule to your own life? The way to answer this question is to ask yourself two simple questions, and then see how you can apply them to the various aspects of your life. This will make you think about how you can change your life for the better.

But before you can do that, you have to realize that at least 80% of things in life are completely out of your control. There is no point getting angry and frustrated about what you cannot control.

Focus on the 20% that you can control, such as your thoughts and your reactions to external events. This is a cornerstone of the stoic philosophy and perhaps one the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever read. Take time to think about it.

“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr.

So, to apply the 80/20 rule to your life you need to ask yourself these two simple questions:

  1. Which 20% of my work is giving me the majority of the results?
  2. Am I able to move resources away from my other work to concentrate on the work I identified in question 1?

The real trick is to stop wasting your 80% of your time on the things that produce little to no positive results in your life. Your life will be simpler, more productive and you will actually have more time and less stress. After all, the rewards in life are not given to those who work the hardest, but to those who simply do the best job regardless of the effort they put in.

Work smart, not hard.

That’s it! It’s quite simple really. In the rest of this article, I will explore the different ways that one can apply the 80/20 mindset.

It’s really worth expanding on this concept. Let’s have a think:

If you accomplish 80% of your work in 20% of your time, the ratio of work to time is 4:1. We can express this as a productivity level of 4 (we get this by dividing 4 by 1)

If you accomplish the remaining 20% of your work in 80% of your time, the ratio of work to time is obviously reversed and thus 1:4. We can express this as a productivity level of 0.25 (we get this by dividing 1 by 4).

So the productivity ratio between your productive work and unproductive work is:

4 to 0.25 which can also be read 16 to 1.

So you are over 16 times more productive when you apply the 80/20 rule and concentrate your energies on that productive 20%! This is secret to the ultra-achievers in life. After all, they don’t physically have more time than you have so how is it possible they get so much done?

The Winner Takes It All

It’s all about resource distribution and reallocation. Did you know that the word “Entrepreneur”, coined by French economist J.B Say around 1800, literally means:

“Someone who shifts economic resources out of an area of lower productivity into an area of higher productivity and yield.”

The world is becoming more and more non-linear. Amount of work = amount of reward does not exist. You are now rewarded for the way you think and the decision you make, not for how many hours of back-breaking labour you do in a week.

Wealth from investments dwarfs the amount of wealth you can create through actual work. The Capitalist system is actually designed to reward investments and punish the worker. Think about it, in America the person who goes to work in an office five days a week pays somewhere around 30% in tax to the government while the guy who lives a life of luxury and doesn’t actually have to go to work only pays 18% tax on his investments.

I know what you’re thinking, what about the people who have huge salaries? Well, that actually confirms the 80/20 rule. While there are actors and musicians who earn incredible sums, there are multitudes of other actors and musicians who barely make a living. The top few percent of wage-earners in those industries earn the lion’s share of the profits. While we are on the subject of actors, let’s talk about movies. Only a tiny fraction of movies, something in the region of 3%, in the last fifty years, have earned 90% of all the box-office income.

Another, less obvious way the world is non-linear is how small differences can grow over time and become huge gaps. It’s a bit like a spaceship that cannot correct it course. If you point it towards Mars and you are even a fraction of a degree out, the spaceship will miss Mars by hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Another example of this is the process of evolution. If one species is slightly stronger or faster, it can use that advantage over time to become the dominant species in that habitat.

So sometimes all it requires is being first, or having a slightly greater share in the beginning, and then you can use that small advantage (your 20%) to create a huge gap later.

Apple is a great example of this. They released the iPhone only a year before other decent smartphones became available. That small lead helped them become one of the world’s largest companies in terms of stock value. Looking at the iPhone’s market share today in terms of units sold, it doesn’t seem that impressive. They don’t even have 50% of the market. What Apple do have is the lion’s share of the profits. Roughly 70% of the profits in the smartphone industry are Apple’s. That’s impressive.

Modern historians and scientists know about this non-linearity, it’s about time the general public caught on too. Let’s now learn two ways of thinking that can help us see the world as it really is.

A New Mindset.

So why care about the 80/20 Rule? Can one not just carry living life and ignoring it? Of course you can but you will be working harder for less money, less happiness and with less time to do the things you actually want to do.

The 80/20 Rule is how the world works. It doesn’t care what religion, colour, sexuality or country you are from. Things work this way. It’s extremely valuable to be able to think with an 80/20 mindset. It’s very different from conventional thinking, but that’s the whole point! It’s supposed to be counterintuitive!

Don’t think for one moment that you can read this article and come away as a new-found 80/20 man or woman. Unfortunately, change doesn’t happen quite so fast. What you require is a new mindset. A new way to think and a new way to analyze situations.

Firstly, get rid of what I call the 50/50 fallacy. We have been mistakenly brought up to think that the world is a fair place and that hard work is rewarded. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in the West we are subjected to a democratic regime and so we obviously see the world through that prism. That’s just not the case. Smart work is rewarded. Sometimes working smart means working hard, but nobody cares how long you spend doing something, they just want it done well. If you can take a shortcut and get the same result in half of the time, why not?!

Remember: One unit of work does not equal one unit of reward.

You also need to learn to stop thinking in the traditional manner. This is normally very action oriented and grounded in the present or immediate future. This short-term thinking will lead you nowhere.

So, how do we avoid conventional thinking, and what exactly is 80/20 thinking?

Just to recap, let’s bring the definition of the 80/20 rule up again.

“80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”

Let’s break it down. Causes/work/effort can be divided into two distinct categories: The Majority and the Minority.

  • The Majority has little impact
  • The Minority has a large impact.

That’s pretty damn obvious. No surprises there. What is often surprising is how concentrated the impact is. Let me give you an example:

Imagine a company has 100 products. As you might expect, 20 of these products account for 80% of the profit.

What is surprising is that the most profitable product accounts for 50% of profits. The top two most profitable products account for 70% of the profits, and then the remaining 18 most profitable products in the top twenty fill up the remaining 10% to give us 80% of the total profits.

This is often how things play out. So the surprising thing is that in the real world, the 80/20 rule will often be the far more non-linear than we would ever expect.

The 80/20 Rule is just a good benchmark, that’s all. It’s a convenient metaphor and a useful hypothesis. You still need to use your head creatively and work out which 20%, which 80%.

Earlier I explained that if you want to 80/20 your life, you need to ask yourself two basic questions:

  1. Which 20% of my work is giving me the majority of the results?
  2. Am I able to move resources away from my other work to concentrate on the work I identified in question 1?

What I didn’t mention, is that there is an alternative. You could attempt to raise the average level of the unproductive 80%. This is generally not as profitable or productive. Please note that when I say “profitable” I’m not necessarily talking about money.

This approach is fairly conventional and it’s nothing earth shattering. After all, if a company had 10 factories and 8 of them were unproductive, they would probably try and do this. Most managers seem to prefer to have a large company rather than a profitable one! It’s in their interests, after all, a small profitable company requires far less “suits” than a huge conglomerate.

How to go about working out which 20% of your work is giving you the majority of your results.

here are actually two ways to go about this. The first is more analytical and second more creative. Don’t feel that you can only use one way or the other depending on what type of person you are.

Different situations will require different methods. With our Amazon example earlier, one needed real analytical data: profits, number of books etc.

If you don’t own a business or have any investments, I urge you to put the 80/20 rule into effect and skip the “Analytical 80/20 Thinking” section and go straight to the “Creative 80/20 Thinking” section – A good example of using the 80/20 rule.

Analytical 80/20 Thinking

Sometimes you just need to do some number crunching. This is especially applicable if you are running a business or any other type of enterprise. Guesswork often won’t cut the mustard or you just need to be 100% sure before you pour all your resources forward. This is where analytical 80/20 thinking comes in. Of course, this isn’t just for business owners and managers, anyone can use analytical 80/20 thinking in their life, but it tends to be more applicable to people who run some kind of organisation.

Analytical 80/20 thinking is used for two reasons. You either want to change the 80/20 relationship or you want to make better use of it.

You start with a blank canvas. Make no assumptions, especially if it’s your business you are examining. Instead of immediately taking the first metric and trying to 80/20 it, create a list of all possible metrics that you are able to track. As this is all based on numbers, only include things you are actually able to track.

This is a non-exhaustive list to get you started:

  • Number of units sold
  • Overall profit
  • Profit per unit
  • Revenue
  • Overhead
  • Time
  • Cost
  • Manufacturing time/difficulty
  • Customers profitability
  • Customer problems
  • Time to deal with different customers
  • Staffing requirements

After you’ve done this, you need to create a hypothesis and test it out.

It’s normally not very obvious what you have to. This actually makes sense: if it was obvious, everyone would be doing it!

When you use analytical 80/20 thinking you are actually trying to examine the relationship between two sets of data. What you are trying to find is the imbalance.

  1. The first set of data always represents people (customers, staff, readers, etc) or objects (generally products).
  2. The second set of data always represents a characteristic of the above. So if for your first set of data you choose customers, your second data set might be the dollar value per customer. Alternatively, if you chose an object as your first data set (i.e. Beer), then your second data set could be something along the lines of “Brand”. This would be useful if you wanted to know which brands of beer in your country accounted for the majority of the sales.

As I said earlier, you need to think deeply, creatively and unconventionally.

It’s far better to spend an entire afternoon thinking and then take fast, decisive action than to jump straight in and then have a host of problems pop up later because you didn’t bother to take the time to think. Remember, you don’t get rewarded for the quantity of your work, but for the quality.

The same rules apply to studying. Your professors don’t care how many hours you pour over your textbooks. They want you to understand your subject and pass your exams. If you can absorb 80% of the value of a book by reading the introduction, the conclusion and a few key chapters then you are far better of doing that instead of painstakingly reading the entire thing and underlining each and every mildly significant sentence.

In this case, you could perhaps look at past exam papers on your subject and see the type of questions that come up most of the time and focus the majority of your efforts on that. While a very simple approach, this is a clear example of analytical 80/20 thinking. You’ve discovered the which 20% comes up 80% of the time and then you are increasing your efforts on that 20%.

Let me give you another example but this time it’s of an incorrect use of the 80/20 rule. This is what would happen if you used “traditional” thinking with this radical concept.

Let’s take Amazon’s original business: Books.

It’s true that they sell a lot of units of a small selection of books. These, unsurprisingly, are called bestsellers. Hardly rocket science. With conventional thinking, one would say: “Great! So let’s just get rid of the other 95% of books we sell and focus on the bestsellers!”.

This would be a huge mistake.

Due to a lack of true analysis, Amazon would be figuratively cutting its own head off if it followed that business strategy.

In fact, there are quite a few different ways to look at how the 80/20 rule plays out in Amazon’s business:

  • The number of each book sold (as we saw above)
  • The profit margin of each book.
  • What do the top 20% of customers want?
  • Why do 80% of customers visit Amazon?

In reality, Amazon makes far more money on unpopular books than on bestsellers. The reason for this is twofold:

  • Unpopular books outnumber best sellers by a huge amount. 99% of books are not popular! Bestsellers only account for roughly 5% of the sales.
  • The profit margins on unpopular books are often greater than on bestsellers.

This is often called the “long tail”.

This is just a quick example to show you how careful you need to be when applying the 80/20 rule. If you combine the 80/20 rule with conventional and obvious thinking it will need to disasters. Remember, the 80/20 Rule is unconventional and so it follows naturally that the conclusions you reach should be somewhat surprising and unconventional.

Creative 80/20 Thinking

For the individual, this is really where it’s all at. After all, who really has the time to go number crunching in everyday life? Everything would just stop. So we need shortcuts, we need ways to approximate the result of analytical 80/20 thinking but without the overheads that come with actually doing using analytical 80/20 thinking.

Often the most important decisions in life are not really decisions. They just happen, or at least we think they do. Life “happens” to us and then we wonder why we don’t feel in control. Sometimes there is no control.

Often a lot of the important decisions are made without analysis, things happen and then you estimate and act. There is no time for anything else. This can have positive as well as negative consequences.

A stark example of this is Japan towards the end of World War 2. When Japan went to war against the United States it was relying on the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour to be a decisive blow against the US Navy. Unfortunately (for them) this wasn’t the case and so the Japanese High Command decided that by stubbornly defending each and every peninsula in the Pacific they could force the United States into a peace treaty. They knew from that moment that they could not win a naval war against the United States. They also knew that the United States could not suffer the same kind of losses that the Japanese could suffer without serious repercussions on the home front. This plan was going quite well for the Japanese. Both sides were suffering heavy losses and the US Generals were very weary of trying to land troops in Japan itself. What the Japanese High Command did not foresee was that America was developing a weapon of virtually limitless potential. Within three days Japan had two of its cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, turned into ash. Six days later Japan surrendered to the Allies. There was no time for anything else. They had no need to estimate what would happen to their country if they did not surrender. The crucial decision to surrender ended up not being a decision at all. This goes to show that without proper planning you end up with little choice in any matter.

So how does this relate to you?

The very first thing that you need to do to start thinking creatively in terms of the 80/20 rule is this:

Be conscious that the 80/20 rule exists everywhere.

If you just ho-hum about your daily life without reminding yourself that you need to be actively searching for imbalances to exploit, you will just not do it! In the long run, it will become automatic but, for now, you will need to keep it at the forefront of your thoughts.

Question everything you do. Why are you doing it? If you think something is a waste of time, then it probably is. Think about it. I can’t give you a step by step approach for this.

You need to think about how to creatively apply the 80/20 to your own life. That’s the “creative” part of “Creative 80/20 Thinking”.

The second thing you need to do is exactly the same as what you need to do with Analytical 80/20 thinking:

Start with a hypothesis. Except that this time, instead of doing a huge analysis on the whole thing, you are simply going to guess. Well, I say guess, of course, I mean an intelligent estimate.

Remember that many things in life cannot be quantified and so creative 80/20 thinking is all you’ve got. After all, how do you actually measure happiness or job satisfaction?

As we saw earlier, the 80/20 ratio is mathematically a good place to start, but don’t be afraid to assume that the particular ratio you are looking at is even more skewed and extreme.

You need to be constantly asking yourself:

What is the 20% that is leading the remaining 80%?

While this may sound like a simple question, you need to be creative with it. Don’t just look at the obvious but try and find the oddities, the ironies in the way things are done.

Do not make assumptions.

In case it hasn’t hit home yet, the whole point of this new mindset is to stop thinking conventionally.

How to 80/20 Your Time

“Time is an illusion.” Albert Einstein

As I explained earlier, you need to think creatively about how to apply the 80/20 rule to your own life.

I don’t know you, I can’t give you specific advice about your situation. What I can give you is a template that you can use as a starting point. You can, and should, modify the ideas that I will present here to suit your own needs.

Starting with time as the primary point to apply the 80/20 rule might see a strange starting point but it’s actually the fundamental building block of the whole 80/20 approach to life. If you can manage to change the way you view time, to turn in from an enemy into a friend, you can reap huge rewards.

Just think about how we use the word ‘time’ in day to day conversation. Often the way we use words is indicative of the way we think.

  • I haven’t got the time.
  • This is a waste of time.
  • I want to spend time with you.
  • Let’s take the time to do this.
  • This is time consuming
  • I have time to kill
  • I had a lovely time
  • There’s no time to lose
  • Your time is up
  • Time out
  • and many more..

The first thing to realise is that the majority of events and achievements in life happen in the minority of the time. Generally speaking, the vast majority of the average person’s time has little to no value.

There are small fragments of our time here on earth that are far more valuable than the rest. An individual’s major achievements that add value to their own, or other people’s lives, happen in the minority of their time. It doesn’t matter if you measure their time on a daily, weekly or even yearly basis.

Think about this: the average person spends 32 years of their life asleep!

The trick is to recognise these fragments and make as much use of them as possible. Ideally, one could identify what makes these time fragments so valuable and then try and replicate them. As usual, this is a case of focusing our energies on the valuable 20%, except that when we talk about time the valuable part is often just 5% or less.

If we accept the fact that only a fraction of the time in our lives is significant we can arrive at the conclusion that nobody is short of time. This makes sense: after all, if we only make good use of five, ten or twenty percent of our time, there can be no shortage of it!

Try this short experiment. Try and remember the entire year so far from January the first to the current moment. Unless you are highly gifted, you may find this extremely difficult if not impossible.

Of course, that’s what journals are for. I bet what you do remember from this year is that special 20% of time. The time that really counts. The highlights. Everything else seems to blend away into the background until only a small selection of events stand out. That’s what represents your year so far, and that is also what represents your life. Obviously, this won’t follow the 80/20 rule precisely, I mentioned above how the key moments are generally less than 5% of our overall time. You can’t really accurately measure it and you don’t even need to.

Now you might be thinking ahead here and expect me to say that what we require is a method to manage our time more efficiently. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem with time management is that it’s the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

What is required is a completele change in the way we approach time. The problem with time management is that it makes the assumption that we already know what’s the best use of our time. If this was the case, why would we need to manage our time any better? If we knew what was the most important thing to do in our lives, we would probably be doing it already. As I stated in my previous article, without a lot of deep thinking it’s often very easy to reach incorrect conclusions.

If you were to write out a list of absolutely everything you have to and want to do in life, you would quickly come to the conclusion that there just simply is not enough time to accomplish it all.

Isn’t it strange how with all the technological advances in the last 50 years, people still manage to be busy? Considering that in every single industry in the world the average worker is many times more productive than 100 years ago, isn’t it absurd that weekly working hours are slowly creeping up each year? This is more to do with the profit-driven system we live than anything else but, within this we can see why our attitude towards time is wrong.

We think of time as a resource, something that we can spend, waste, save etc. A resource very much like money. Except, time is nothing like money. It’s not like we can accumulate time in a vault and then use it later on. Time is democratic, money is not. Time continues it’s march and leaves nobody behind. Nobody has the power to stop time.

Thinking of time the 80/20 way

Firstly, we need to accept that our current notion of time is not logical. There is no point trying to patch up our time problems with small fixes. A bold solution is required.

Secondly, we are not short of time. It’s quite the opposite, we have plenty of time! Senece makes this points beautifully in “On the Shortness of Life”, which is a mind-alterning and highly recommended read.

We just need to increase the amount of time we spend on pleasurable and profitable activities. Ideally you could work far less than half the time and enjoy a much higher level of productivity and happiness.

As mentioned earlier, do not think of time as the enemy, think of it as a friend. After all, time is simply the thing that links the past, the present and the future. The time that has already passed has not been ‘lost’, it’s been invested. Whether it was a good investment or bad is up to you to decide.

There is always more time coming up, that’s the beauty of time itself. At a fundamental level, humans seem to understand this.

That’s why we don’t measure our days as a long list of numbers. Can you imagine if instead of calling next Sunday by it’s name, we called it Day 4938123 and the following Monday was Day 4938124!

Finally, we should think about ways to ‘spend’ less time doing actions and more time thinking about how to accomplish them according to the 80/20 rule.

A quick tip to get you started: if you have a project, assign yourself more planning time than you normally do and then give yourself only 60% of the time you would normally require to complete it.

There are two facts that work in your favour if you do this.

Firstly, work has a tendency to expand so as to fill the time available for its completion. This is know as Parkinson’s Law.

Secondly,time-wise the last 20% of a project is by far the most productive because everybody involved can see the deadline approaching. While almost halving the time for work on any given project seems counterintuitive, it can often lead to a doubling of productivity!

So we know that trying to do things more quickly or become more efficient with the use of our time is not the way forward. In fact, this way of thinking is actually part of the problem.

By viewing time as this narrative sequence, running left to right we get the feeling that every moment we live in is immediately ‘lost’ forever. A much better approach is to view time as something that is always with us (it is!) and that is growing and that we are growing with it.

This is a much healthier approach to time and gets rid of a lot of the guilt associated with ‘wasting’ time.

Time is not the enemy, our use of time on the other hand may well be. Stop and think, is there an imbalance in the way you use your time? If you are like most people, you can probably answer that question with a yes.

So how should we go about ending this imbalance?

So now we are going to attempt to do the 80/20 analysis of time. Some, if not all of the following issues may be true in your life:

  • 80% of your happiness is experienced in 20% of your life.
  • 80% of time you are not doing anything of lasting value.
  • 80% of your achievements are attained in 20% of your life.
  • You feel you don’t have enough time for everything.
  • Time flies!
  • You work 80% of the time.
  • You only feel creative 20% of the time.

If any of these issues are applicable to your life then perhaps you need to read the following seven points on how to sort out the time imbalance in your life:

1. Dissociate Effort and Reward

In other words: Work smart, not hard. Let me do a ridiculously arrogant thing, and quote myself from within the same essay that the quote comes from!

The real trick is to stop wasting your 80% of your time on the things that produce little to no positive results in your life. Your life will be simpler, more productive and you will actually have more time and less stress. After all, the rewards in life are not given to those who work the hardest, but to those who simply do the best job regardless of the effort they put in. You are over 16 times more productive when you apply the 80/20 rule and concentrate your energies on that productive 20%! This is secret to the ultra-achievers in life. After all, they don’t physically have more time than you have so how is it possible they get so much done?Wealth from investments dwarfs the amount of wealth you can create through actual work. The Capitalist system is actually designed to reward investments and punish the worker. Think about it, in America the person who goes to work in an office five days a week pays somewhere around 30% in tax to the government while the guy who lives a life of luxury and doesn’t actually have to go to work only pays 18% tax on his investments!Get rid of what I call the 50/50 fallacy. We have been mistakenly brought up to think that world is a fair place and that hard work is rewarded. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in the West we are subjected to a democratic regime and so we obviously see the world through that prism. That’s just not the case. Smart work is rewarded. Sometimes working smart means working hard, but nobody cares how long you spend doing something, they just want it done well. If you can take a shortcut and get the same result in half of the time, why not?! Remember: One unit of work does not equal one unit of reward.

2. Give Up Guilt

This very much links up with point number 1. There is a whole culture that has grown around the fact that if you are working well, you need to be busy and stressed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Looking busy and being stressed is more often a combination of two factors. The first is a lack of organisation, especially with regards to prioritising what is truly important. The second is to do with the guilt that people feel if they have very little to do. This is often so deeply ingrained into their psyche that they themselves would deny this.

Most people also feel guilty if they are doing something they enjoy when they feel they should be “working”. Part of the above-mentioned culture is the whole “anticipation of the weekend”. Everybody is glad that Friday is coming up and they can relax and wind down. The reason for this?

The reason for this?

They don’t enjoy their work. There is only one solution to this:

There is only one solution to this: Quit.

In a way, it’s quite strange how society goes about giving different rewards to people with different jobs. The work that nobody really wants to do, such as cleaning toilets or being the proverbial office bitch, are paid the least while the jobs that many people would love to do, such as being a famous actor or musician are paid the most.

It goes completely against what we are taught about supply and demand. Of course, that is only one way of looking at it. The reason that the famous actor gets paid tens of millions a year is because there is a huge demand for him or her while the person cleaning toilets often think that they have very little choice in the matter.

Not only are the middle and upper classes rewarded with higher salaries and more interesting jobs, they also receive a huge amount of other perks. Higher pensions, assistants, business travel, hotels and more.

Generally speaking, if you do the things you love doing and you do it well, you will my amply rewarded.

The whole system is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it, to become great and successful at any endeavor, especially in the artistic world, requires a large output of work. If you think of any of the great historical artists they were all prolific. Beethoven wrote 32 incredible piano sonatas, 9 symphonies and dozens upon dozens of other works. Picasso virtually never stopped painting. How else could you produce such a body of work without a true love for what you are doing?

How else could you produce such a body of work without a true love for what you are doing?

Going back to my original point about getting rid of guilt, you should avoid separating your life into “work” and enjoyable activities in your spare time. Everything (at least 80% of the time) should be an enjoyable activity and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it!

3. Free yourself from outside obligations

What exactly do I mean when I say “free yourself from outside obligations”?

Research has shown time and time again that people are happiest when they can see the point of what they are doing and when they have control in how they work. Outside obligations can manifest in many ways:

  • **The most obvious is when you work for someone else. ** They can dictate what you do, when you do it, and also how you do it, unless you work in a really modern and progressive workplace.
  • Moral, social or traditional obligations. Often people feel that they have to act in a certain way to “follow convention”. An old fashioned example is when young couples used to be forced by their parents to marry because the girl was pregnant. This still goes in many parts of the world.
  • Financial obligations. If you have a mortgage or other loans that you haven’t paid off, the bank virtually owns you. The same goes if you live a lifestyle that outside your means.
  • Mental or psychological obligations. This would appear not to belong in the category of outside obligations but often the case is that you’ve been influenced by advertising or other people.

The simplest and easiest way to learnt to free yourself from many obligations is just to learn to say no. When you change your attitude plenty of people will be surprised and you might end up losing some acquaintances which you thought were friends. I wouldn’t worry, after all, if someone is willing to break up a friendship because you refuse some request or favour then it just goes to show how weak the friendship was in the first place.

Obviously, it’s not possible to free yourself from all obligations. Life is too complex a web of interpersonal relationships for that to ever happen. In fact, some obligations can actually be positive. Think of the athletes who feels an obligation to his fans to perform at his very best.

4. Be Creative with your time.

Don’t be afraid to claim back your own time. Try new things. Wake up at 4am for a month, give Polyphasic Sleeping a shot, or simply add a nice long nap in the afternoon. Perhaps create one day a week were you completely focus on yourself without any outside distractions, or perhaps do the opposite and spend one day a week completely focussed on other people by volunteering.

The famous 20% (or less) of time that you are at your high productivity level is probably not when you are stuck in the daily grind of meetings or doing the dishes.

Obviously, you can’t be excessively unconventional or you run the risk of alienating yourself from society. You need to draw the line somewhere.

Again, I can’t give you specifics as I don’t know you and your life but I think a great place to start is to wake up earlier than the average person. Generally speaking, 5 am is a good time as you get to enjoy the sun coming up and the peace and quiet before the rest of the world starts waking up. You may well find that the first couple of hours of your day become your productive 20%.

Write down several scenarios where you manage to reclaim time from the mundane things in life and channel it towards the things that make you happy. Then just test them out and see what works.

5. Identify that 20% that produces the 80%.

I’ve written about this at length earlier on, and I keep stressing this point because it’s the core principle. This is something you should always do because you should be thinking 80/20 all day. In time, it will come naturally.

The first issue that we encounter is actually working out what you are trying to produce! Are you trying to achieve some goal or are just trying to be happy? Most people are generally trying to do both. Although they are two sides of the same coin, let’s look at them separately.

So, as usual, roughly 1/5 of your time gives your the majority of your achievements and also 1/5 of your experiences give you the majority of your happiness. Be aware that while these two segments of time are not the same, they will probably be some kind of overlap.

Tracking Work

I advise you to actually track how much work you do and at what times of the day you do it. This is the easiest way to actually know which fragment of your day is the most productive. Just look back at the work that you are most proud of and remember under what conditions you created it. It’s not rocket science, but it works. Trust me.

For instance, as a an amateur composer, I have found that the majority of my compositional ideas and development come either very early in the morning or quite late at night. Armed with this knowledge I made sure to shift the technical, non-creative part of my musical studies to the middle of the day and to be composing as soon as possible after I wake up and also as late in the day as I can. My creative output shot up, but I think my neighbours now hate me!

C’est la vie.

Tracking Happiness

While I am a big believer that you should have a steady “baseline” of happiness that purely depends on your own outlook of life, it’s true that external things can and do have an effect on the way we feel. Through mental training and a lot of though we can counteract the effect of uncontrollable external influences on our inner happiness. That said, lets take a look at how we can attempt to track which moments in our lives were our happiest.

Remember our experiment earlier on in this article, where I asked you to remember everything you could about the past year? That’s the basis of how to track your happiness. As we tend to remember the significant events in our lives, they tend to come with either strongly positive or negative connotations. All you need to do is look back on the last few years are remember the times when you were the most relaxed and happy. Make a list and work out what is the common denominator. That’s the key. Do the same for the moments when you were the most unhappy.

6. Multiply the 20% that produces the 80%

So now you have a roadmap on how to achieve increased happiness (and productivity). It’s dead simple: Do more of what makes you truly happy. (Warning: This may require major life changes)

There is no way to actually accurately measure happiness but you can be sure that by concentrating on the activities and work that make you happy your happiness will increase. It’s quite self-evident.

Another bonus of working how what makes you happy is that it’s a very good indicator of what you should be doing in life. Love the outdoors? You probably shouldn’t be working in an office. While these are not hugely deep insights, it’s worth taking the time (ha!) to think about them.

It’s also never too late to start again. If you have been stuck in the same routine for many years and you are not happy with your situation you actually have an advantage. When you decide to break this routine and then actually do so, your well-being and productivity will increase by such a large amount that it becomes yet another motivating factor. You see yourself improving and so you continue with your changes.

The obvious flip side of this is that you need to try and do less of the activities that make you unhappy. Obvious stuff, but you might be surprised at how many people never do this in their lives.

7. Eliminate the crap

This really requires the proverbial spring-clean. Stop watching TV, uninstall the computer games, stop watching porn and stop hanging out with people who don’t contribute anything positive to your life. In other words, stop fucking around and get on with what you need to do. There isn’t really much to say on this, you know what activities suck away time and contribute very little to your life.

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” Eric Thomas

Can you create a time revolution in your life? I don’t know, only you know. I can just give you a few ideas but you really need to see what works for you and what doesn’t. There is no cookie-cutter plan that works for everyone. If you feel like you don’t mind living the way your are living right now then don’t attempt anything. Coast along and don’t worry about what others think. (They will be too busy actually achieving their goals to care)

I suggest you don’t try to 80/20 your life unless you are really serious about change. You might end up changing countries, losing friends, dumping your significant other. You may also end up with more free time than you know what to do with at first. Radical life changes are inherently risky and I’m not the one to tell you that it’s going to be all fine. Perhaps it won’t, but at least you can look back when you’re older and smile, knowing that you at least tried to do something amazing.

Let’s now move from time, which is perhaps the most transient and intangible thing, back to the material world, and let’s look at how we can 80/20 our posessions.

I am going to argue against the consumer based society that we currently live in. The short version is this: buying more things does not make you happier. It may cause a temporary spike in happiness because when you buy something your brain releases the pleasure inducing hormone Dopamine. This is exactly the same process that goes on in a drug addict’s brain.

Retail Therapy Doesn’t Work

The advanced Western economies have some of the highest levels of depression in the world. Isn’t that absurd? In the very countries where a large percentage of the world’s wealth is concentrated, people are not happy. Granted, there are huge levels of inequality in most Western countries but everyone enjoys a quality of life that is still unimaginable for the billions of people all over the world who struggle for their day to day existence.

The other side of the coin is not about buying but about collecting. Just the general accumulation of objects that happens in most people’s lives. Even before most of us became adults we already have far more than we actually need to live a well balanced happy life. This accumulation of “stuff” chains to our current lifestyles and often can be one of the factors that stops us making fundamental changes.

What’s the Problem?

But hold on, what’s the actual problem with having a lot of stuff in the first place? We need to address this before we get into discussions about why you should 80/20 your possessions! After all, having identified that buying things does not lead to happiness, what would be wrong with buying a lot of stuff if you already have that true inner happiness?

I guess the problem is that owning stuff requires time and money, and this time and money is often better spent actually living your life.

Remember, applying the 80/20 rule to time is the base on which the whole 80/20 system is built on. How can you hope to achieve anything amazing in your life if you are constantly worrying about all the things you have bought and also what you are going to buy next.

While having 60 pairs of shoes may appear harmless (well, debate that with your bank manager!) it actually shows a deep sense of dissatisfaction with your life. It shows that you have a large disconnection between your level of anticipation in buying a pair of shoes and the reality of actually owning that particular pair of shoes.

The problem of this type of Hedonistic lifestyle is that you need bigger and bigger purchases each time to make you get that “hit”. Eventually you either run out of money or nothing really excites you any more. By giving way to your urges each and every time you have literally fried the part of your brain responsible for the feeling of “reward’ and so nothing will be ever good enough. You can cure yourself of this, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

This process of never being satisfied is called Hedonic Adaptation. In a nutshell, no matter what happens to you you will always go back to your “default” level of happiness. Your inner happiness which has nothing to do with the external world. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just won a large sum of money or lost a leg, after a certain length of time, you will be just as happy as you once were. This insight shoes a glaring deficiency in Western lifestyles. The problem is that we will never be satisfied, no matter how many things we buy, how much sex we have or how many mind altering substances we take.

The real problem with our consumerist society is that it’s trying to fill a bottomless pit, namely our desires. The human capacity for desire is quite astonishing, the sky’s the limit. This is clearly demonstrated by the wealth flaunted by the über rich of today, who are actually no happier than the common person.

There must be a better way of living our lives. Surely we can do more than just chase endless shiny objects. Surely we can have a meaningful life without needing to buy things.Yes, I am suggesting a complete rejection of today’s consumerism and unimpeded hedonism. I am going to suggest that we learn to be happy with the things we already have. Controlling our desires instead of letting them control us.

The problem with desire is that humans do have an natural inbuilt system which prevents us from being satisfied with the status quo. While this was very helpful thousands upon thousands of years ago, it’s actually a hindrance today. Let me explain: when we were still hunter-gatherers, the humans who were least satisfied had a greater chance of improving their lot and thus reproducing. After all, evolution favours the adaptations and mutations which increase the chance of passing on our genes, not the ones that make us happy or fulfilled. So what used to help us survive in the wilderness back in the day, doesn’t help us now that our lifestyles are so far removed from our natural state. In a world that offers us more than we could ever hope to consume in several lifetimes, constantly wanting more is actually a hindrance to our well-being. Hedonic adaptation is great during lean times but we currently do not live in a bad era ( historically speaking). I’ll let the infamous Tyler Durden sum it all up:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.

Also, owning too much stuff makes you less likely to go ahead with major life decisions that involve changing locations. This is quite obvious. You are far less likely to move to the other side of the world if you have the opportunity to do so if you are (quite literally) weighed down with all the stuff you own.

You (Probably) Have Too Much Stuff

Even if you are a frugal person by today’s standards, you have too much “stuff”. Stuff has a tendency to multiply without us even realising and before you know it, you have far too much of it! This often leads to people reaching the conclusion that their house or apartment just isn’t big enough so they pack all their stuff and move. Then they realise that they need a bigger car because when they do short trips around the city they might need some of this stuff. This obviously requires a bigger car… I think you can see where I am going with this. Stuff attracts other stuff. Surely there must be a simpler way to life?

Attempting to 80/20 the things you own is really about embracing minimalism. I’m not talking about shaving your head and living in large empty white-walled rooms. I am talking about a down-to-earth approach to minimalism. The type that will give you a quiet confidence.


The main benefit of become minimalist is to make life simpler. That’s it. It doesn’t really sound earth-shattering incredible. In itself, becoming minimalist will not make you happier, more productive or richer (both in monetary terms and in life experience). What minimalism will do, is give you the time and space in your life to take the correct decisions that lead to amazing achievements. It’s all about the quality of your thinking and decisions, not the quantity of your actions.

It’s very counterintuitive, but by having less, you end up having more. Remember that you can set your own definition of wealth. I will, as usual, modestly, quote myself:

I guess in the end in all boils down to become more minimalist. Enjoying the simple, free things in life. Having the free time to spend with friends and family, being able to exercise and enjoying nature.

It’s also about discovering the distinction between conventional wealth and real wealth. After all, what is the definition of wealth? Let’s look it up and see if sheds any light on how to be content: “Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. ” And there it is. The answer is staring us straight in the face. Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. That’s the key. Valuable resources.

Remember that most material things cost money and money is time and time is the only commodity which cannot be replaced. There is plenty of time to do amazing things in your life, just make sure that you aren’t using it the majority of it chasing materialistic illusions.

YOU can choose what are your valuable resources. Almost everybody would agree that time is a valuable resource. So why spend so much of it working at a job you hate for money you use to buy stuff you don’t need?

How to 80/20 Your Posessions

So now that we have come to the conclusion that we probably own too many objects and that we should get rid of some (perhaps most?!) of them. Enter the good old 80/20 rule. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get rid of 80% of your possessions in one go, unless you are really hardcore. A more realistic initial clearing out goal is one third. Get rid of one third of the things you own. If you think about it, that’s quite a bit. A large burden off your shoulders.

But before we can start clearing our stuff out, we need some kind of criteria to identify the useful 20% from the useless 80%. I will share with you the criteria I have used and in fact still use. Perhaps this will fit you like a glove, but in most cases you will need to adapt it to your own character.

I ask myself the following questions:

Is it Useful/Does It Serve a Practical Purpose?

This is an obvious point. If the object in question has a practical purpose, it’s often worth keeping. For instance, without my laptop I could not update this website thus I decided to keep my laptop! It’s worth noting that your stuff should have a clearly defined purpose. If it’s more like “yeah well, I might find some use for it one day” then consider eliminating it from your life.

Have I Used this item in the last three months?

Obviously use your head for this one. Don’t throw away all your summer clothes just because you haven’t worn them in a while! This is often a good place to start when you are clearing out your life. Look at the things you haven’t used in a while and ask yourself how much difference it would make to your life if you didn’t own those objects. Often the answer is quite clear.

Would I Miss it?

Try and imagine your life without the object. Think ahead six months and try and imagine whether you would truly miss it. I find that I almost always answer this one with a “no”. I guess that’s because I’m not so attached to the things I own so I can adapt quite easily if I were to lose them.

Will I Need it in the Foreseeable Future?

Again this is an obvious one. That’s why we don’t throw away our summer clothes during wintertime! Remember that minimalism is not just about the objects you own or don’t own. It’s also about the actions you take or don’t take. For instance, if you work primarily online but you decide to get rid of your internet connection and laptop and this means if you have to go to an internet cafe each day when you want to work. That’s faux-minimalism. Yes, it appears to be minimalist because you now have less “stuff”, but your lifestyle has taken a huge hit. Obviously there is a fine line here and you need to decided where the line is!

Is it Aesthetically Pleasing?

If for any object I can answer three of these questions with a ‘no’, then the object in question is either being trashed, going to charity or ending up on Ebay.

Well, there are actually a few approaches to 80/20 your possessions. You can go through everything you own in one go and put each item through your chosen criteria. I highly recommend you do this if you are going to be moving home any time soon. It’s a brilliant ‘excuse’ and you may find you can move into a smaller home!

Alternatively you can do it room by room in your house/apartment. This has the advantage that you don’t have to temporarily turn your life upside down and you sort everything out. You can spend one weekend per room.

My advice: start with the big things.

If you really think about it, I bet you can straight away identify various objects that have been hanging round for too long without even looking through anything you own.

A few points to consider.

  • What you need vs what you want. This is a big one. It’s incredible what we think we need to live vs what we actually require. The best strategy here is to be grateful for what you already have and to wish for things you already own. I know it sounds strange, but it works. Try it!
  • What 20% of your possessions do you value the most? I’m not talking about monetary value here but intrinsic value, which will vary person to person. Work out what you value most and the rest you can probably do without.
  • Some objects are genuinely useful. Books, musical instruments, cameras, laptops. Depending on your work and situation getting rid of 80% of the things you own can be unrealistic. Perhaps you are a musician and you have a lot of music in your house. This is often unavoidable.

To finish, let’s have another wise saying from the ever-charismatic Tyler Durden from Fight Club:

The things you own end up owning you.

Related Essays