Why You Should Not Resist 80/20 Principle

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This is part 2 of a 3-part series on achieving more with less in your life using the 80/20 principle.

80/20 principle

Some people have written off the 80/20 rule, because of misunderstandings of the rule itself. Below are examples of what the 80/20 is NOT about:

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  1. 80/20 is NOT about extremism. It is not about maniacally cutting out the 80% which gives you only 20% of your results. It is about adjusting your focus across the various inputs so that you can reap the most optimal outcome from the activity.
  2. 80/20 is NOT a zero sum game. It does not mean that the output will suffer or someone will lose out if I reduce the remaining 80% of my efforts. In fact, the truth is really the direct opposite. The 80/20 is about creating more abundance with what we have. By reducing our investment in less essential things, it allows us to generate more with what we have, which will eventually turn around to benefit everyone else. The abundance builds on itself, thus enabling us to create synergy and outcomes where 1+1=10
  3. 80/20 is NOT about being capitalistic or opportunistic. It is not about squeezing the cow dry of its milk and slaughtering it for leather. It is not about cutting people away or trying to get ahead at the expense of others. It is not solely about getting personal gain. See above about zero sum game.
  4. 80/20 is NOT about specificity. The equation is not necessarily 80/20 all the time; it can be 70/20 (70% of effects due to 20% of causes), 90/10, 60/5, 50/20, etc. Instead of obsessing or fussing over the numbers, the key message to take away is relationships between causes and effects is not 1-1; thus the efforts and investments we make across the causes should be adjusted accordingly
  5. 80/20 is NOT just about financial results. It is so much more than just a business principle, because of its applicability to practically everything in our life – relationships, health, goals, spirituality, etc. If for some reason the word ‘results’ does not sit well with you, feel free to replace it with synonyms such as ‘value’, ‘utility’, ‘happiness’, ‘joy’, ‘benefits’, ‘enjoyment’, etc.
  6. 80/20 is NOT about not putting your best foot forward. We are still dedicating 100% of ourselves – to the things that bring us the most impact. Instead of investing 80% of our time and effort to getting the remaining 20% value of the task, we invest that same 80% energy into 4 other activities (spreading 20% effort into each) which gives us 320% of value (reaping 80% results from each)! This is a 16 times return (320% over 20%) vs if we were to invest them in the original first activity! 80/20 is about putting in our 100% in places that matter, to get an even better outcome.

My initial resistance toward 80/20

I used to write off the 80/20 principle because it was at odds with my perfectionist and idealist persona. My personal belief is we should try to achieve the best in everything we do, and even if we don’t we should die trying anyway. I also felt that the end outcome out of any activity is from the collective sum of all the inputs. If we try to cut away the other parts that ‘do not matter as much’, the net result would suffer in ways we could not anticipate.

However, all those sentiments were from looking at the 80/20 rule in the wrong manner. I was looking at 80/20 using an extremist mindset.

80/20 is not about being incomplete, being lazy or not putting in our best effort. If anything, 80/20 is more aligned with the vision of an idealist. It is about achieving the best possible outcome by investing in areas that matter most.

If at any point the net outcome is worse from applying the 80/20, it is due to a wrong application of the principle (because we wrongly identified something that is important as unimportant), rather than it being a fallacy.

Looking at 80/20 with an example

Let’s imagine you have a coconut plantation with 100 trees. You spend an equal 1-1 effort in growing and caring for all the trees. During the period of harvest, you found 20% of the trees gives you 80% of your harvests.

Using the 80/20 rule, does that mean you should do away with 80% of the trees? No! As mentioned above, 80/20 is not about completely cutting away the 80% that gives you lesser outputs. It is about adjustment of your energy and efforts so you get the most optimal output with your inputs.

So in this case, instead of spending only 20% of your time on the 20% high output trees, you increase to maybe 50%. The increased time allows you to care for them better, watering regularly, buying and top-grade fertilizers, loosening the soil, etc. You spend the minimal effort required to keep the 80% of the trees alive, possibly removing 10% of the trees that are infected by insects so you can focus your resources on the other trees. In time to come, you will find your harvests increasing disproportionately so, compared to if you had maintained the 1-1 time/energy spent with every tree.

The role of judgment in 80/20

Maybe you ask – what if one of the trees from the 10% you removed would have turned out to give you more harvest than any of the rest?

It is entirely possible. However, this does not mean the principle is wrong and you should not apply it. It just means that you could have exercised better judgment. If you are a seasoned coconut tree planter, you would have known that particular tree had potential to produce a great bounty of harvest.

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What the principle establishes there is an imbalance between inputs and outcomes, and we should adjust our investment of energy accordingly to get a better outcome. Like any laws or principles that preceded the 80/20, application by people means perception and judgment will come into play. Some people may be adverse toward 80/20 because they feel everything deserves their equal attention and they are in no place to judge whether one thing is more deserving than the other. This might be especially so as we shift away from measurables like performance and wealth and move into intangibles such as people and relationships. You may argue and say that you never know what you may be cutting out by ‘removing things which do not matter’.

But by investing your energy in causes which are low impact, you are denying the other causes (which you could have been working on) your time and attention. How would you know those things you could have been doing otherwise would not benefit more from your attention? You don’t know unless you try.

Opening yourself to 80/20

If you do not make a conscious choice on the things to invest your energy in, you are making a choice against other things which could evolve into much more valuable outcomes. Rather than being sticking to an equality approach because you are afraid you might be cutting out something important, strive to improve and refine your judgment, so you can better prioritization decisions Since there is always going to be a certain degree of error in our judgment, we can only strive for the most accurate application of the 80/20 principle based on our most educated assessment, rather than perfection. We may never be 100% correct, but the more experiences we encounter in life, the more data points we have to improve and base our judgment upon so that it is the most accurate it can be. And if we keep seeing more positive results and outcomes than before, it means we are moving in the right direction. With practice, we can only get better. 🙂

In the last part of the series, we will discuss a 3-step approach to apply 80/20 to all areas of your life.

This is part-2 of a 3-parter series on achieving more with less in your life using the 80/20 principle.

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