The 80/20 rule is one of the most inspired legends of the modern age. There are several versions, and I whip it out pretty regularly as a generic aspiration. It comes from the Pareto Principle which states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. One aspirational version goes like this:
You can learn to accomplish 80% of your work with only 20% of the effort.
Like most legends, it’s rooted in truth. This version of the 80/20 rule describes the model a small percentage of companies and individuals employ to great success. I’ve witnessed it many times, and in a few ways, practiced it myself. It is possible, the key being of course that you choose the correct 20%. The results are clear:
- More free time
- More money
- More remarkable accomplishments
- Less stress
I write a lot about the delusion that accomplishing your goals will make you happy, but I will say with confidence that a focused life, one in which your efforts are spent doing the right things well, and skipping most of the rest, links to freedom. In contrast, most of us flail around with a bunch of piddly chores and half-assed efforts at too many scattered goals. Our schedules fill up with random obligations, and freedom remains at large.
Try this on:
Never try to be
too much to too many;
rather, aspire to be something very special
to a few.
Here are two simple ideas to help implement the 80/20 rule successfully.
1. Decide to Don’t Do Most Things
I admit this is very hard for me. I’m genuinely interested in too many things, and I can get involved very quickly. While I suggest you never ignore opportunities, the practice of not taking most of them is key to the 80/20 rule.
Start here. Schedule unscheduled time and rigidly protect that time.
I know a Stanford professor who has mastered free time. A renowned Researcher, he is also an excellent Teacher, Parent, and Entrepreneur. Visiting him is always a pleasure because his home is calm and his weekends are generally unscheduled, and spontaneity is abundant. Much of his time is extremely busy and focussed, but he makes sure to also block out plenty of time when he has no obligations. As a locus of myriad requests and opportunities, making free time a top priority forces him to turn down most of them.
Go ahead and block out periods of unscheduled time on your Day’s Plans. Guard them like you would a baby in an airport.
If you have trouble turning people down, I’ve been studying responses from people who are better at this than I. When asked to join me in what would be totally cool endeavors (in my opinion) I’ve received these responses (but not in this order) from the likes of Amy X Neuburg, Cal Newport, Chris Guillebeau, Charlie Varon, and Corbett Barr, focussed people who know what not to do (much to my chagrin).†
“Yes, I bet I could start in Spring, the year after next.”
“I say ‘no’ to most things unless they become unavoidably compelling.”
“Hey, what a great idea! I love it! I have to do nothing this afternoon instead of that. Good luck.”
“Sounds cool, but I turn into a dick if I get too busy.”
“‘No’ would be such a strong way to put what I’m about to tell you…”
2. With What You Do Do, Learn the Right Things to Do
Focusing on a doing just a few things very well is usually more rewarding than doing many things just okayly.††
Cal Newport is an Author, Researcher, and Blogger I’m watching very closely. (He and I have started a friendly argument about the role of Flow in a passionate life. I’ll write more about that in future articles.) Cal studies people who make remarkable lives by focusing on doing a few things very well, and I offer one of the key behaviors he has observed and suggests to people who want to live remarkable lives themselves.
Make a systematic study of what works.†††
Step 1. Observe, investigate, interview, and copy experts to help you refine your own processes. Set up systems you can test rigorously. Define short term success strictly so your experiments reveal useful information. Your goal is to excel at what you do. Ride the edge of frustration as hard as you can. And when you find what works, do that, and not the other stuff!
Repeat Step 1.
The practice of studying what works is key to the 80/20 rule. People who make a systematic study coupled with rigorous practice quickly become experts. They know how to work efficiently. They know better which opportunities to exploit. If remarkable accomplishments can be quantified as going the full 100% in the right direction, these experts use 20% of the effort and time to accomplish 80% of a task, which is more than enough to decide whether to continue. This means they explore more paths and find dead ends more quickly than other people. This gives them a huge edge when they decide to pursue the final 20%, usually the most difficult part that most people never get to.
Pick One Role, Maybe Two
The Pilot Fire Simple System for Everything is designed so you explore all the roles you play in life and learn how to be your best in each one. I’ll leave you with a suggestion somewhat counter to that.
If you want to lead a truly remarkable life, drop most of your roles, get just good-enough at the roles you absolutely must play, choose the one or two you are most passionate about, and become better at them than anyone else you know.
† A firm believer in the Say Yes rule of collaboration and improvisation, I find saying no is just as powerful.
†† Feel free to widely spread the adverbial form of okay. No credit required.
††† Cal Newport, among many things, writes about reality-based planning.