In the realm of plans, the humble pea plant is punching well above weight. Not only was it essential in Mendel’s discovery of genetics, the unassuming vegetable also brought to life Vilfredo Pareto’s 80-20 rule. We’re guessing neither of them understood how much it would enhance the way we work in the 21st century.

Pareto, an Italian economist and avid gardener, noticed that 80% of all his beans come from only 20% of his pea pods. After comprehensive research, Pareto found that the principle held across many other countries and industries. 

The theory can be applied to almost anything within business. For example, 20% of your customers may be responsible for 80% of revenue or 20% of an advertising budget may drive 80% of conversions. This ratio doesn’t have to be fixed, but the important message is that inputs and outputs in work (and life) are not necessarily evenly correlated.

Your inputs may not contribute equally to your outputs, and some contribute more than others”

The 80-20 rule can, therefore, be used to prioritise work. A supermarket chain, for example, could find that 80% of food wastage was caused by 20% of fridges. The company then can focus on fixing those problem areas first, and weighted their resources to solve them. 

Here are a few ways to apply the rule to your work:

Analyse Your To Do List

Using the Pareto Principle, odds are that the tasks on a To Do list will cluster a little like this:

  • Your most important activities (Top 20%)
  • Your somewhat important activities (middle 60%)
  • Your least important activities (bottom 20%)

Your job is to prioritise. This could be based on time sensitivity, career importance, or project importance, just make sure the most important tasks are getting done first. The less important tasks are moved to the next day, or discarded entirely.

Maximise Your Most Productive Time

Hemingway wrote first thing in the morning, while Obama is a notorious night owl. Either way, these two figures managed to find their optimum time for work and reserved it for their most important tasks. If you’ve noticed that you’re most productive in the morning, for example, allocate that time for your most important, productive tasks, and save the mundane for later in the day.

It’s vital you’re getting the most value from this time too. Employing a daily file management system, like this one, means you’ll spend less time wading through project versions, and more time on the project itself. 

Prototype Right

The 80:20 rule can be crucial for deciding how much time to spend on prototypes and first drafts. Tim Brown of IDEO says in Change By Design that “prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as is necessary to generate useful feedback and drive an idea forward.” Re-evaluating how much time is spent on drafts can rapidly speed up projects – for example, spending hours deciding on shades of blue for an inVision draft is wasted time if it’s not even certain an app is needed. When starting a draft, consider where time needs to be spent, and how that will best drive the outcome required. 

Once you hear of the 80:20 principle, you’ll see it everywhere. Pareto principle and productivity? They come together like peas in a pod.