3 Big Problems with the 80/20 Rule
The darling emperor of the productivity pundits has no clothes
Which 20 percent of sources are causing 80 percent of my problems and unhappiness?
Which 20 percent of sources are resulting in 80 percent of my desired outcomes and happiness?
— Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Week
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could answer these questions easily? The 80/20 rule, aka “the Pareto Principle” after its inventor, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, was little known until a management consultant named Joseph Juran popularized it in the 40’s. Juran took it beyond Pareto’s initial observation of the Italian economy and applying it to business, sales, and marketing.
Many productivity and business gurus quoted it, but Tim Ferriss fell in love with it. He centered his hit productivity books and learning systems around it, and pretty soon everything was being painted with Pareto.
I did it too; like many simple principles, it’s seductive to think that in our busy, hectic, chaotic lives, there is a magical 20% of things we can get rid of to reduce our stress by four times as much. And we can get 80% of our productivity done by focusing on only 20% of the effort we’re putting out now!
The rest of the time we can just go hang out on the beach and surf, I guess, like real entrepreneurs do.
Life is not that simple.
Spoiler alert: I’m not writing this laying on a beach in Tahiti.
I, like most others who tried to implement the principles of the 4-hour work week, including Pareto’s, did not actually succeed in “being paid in dollars, living on pesos, and delivering in rupees.
I’m ok with that; I happen to like the life I have instead. I’m also grateful for the book, in spite of its unrealistic promise; there were nuggets of wisdom and an optimism for our ability to change ourselves and our lives that helped me along the way.
But the Pareto Principle never quite sat right with me, both because it never seemed to really work and also because it just seemed too convenient a justification for people who simply wanted to heirarchize and elitify whatever organization they were in.