Oct 14

Quit Worrying About 80% of Your Life


How would it feel if you found out that you were wasting 80% of your time doing things that weren’t getting you any closer to your goals?  What if you learned that you could stop, or at least quit focusing on, 80% of the things you do on a day to day basis and still enjoy the same success you do today – still live the same life you’re living? What new and exciting challenges could you add to your life if 80% of the time you spent managing your money and your eco-footprint were simply gone?

What a crock, right? That’s what I thought, at least at first, because that’s what comes to mind any time I hear anything earth shattering (I don’t necessarily recommend this life perspective, by the way).  But guess what?  It’s true, and it works – at least to some extent.  If you don’t believe me, and I wouldn’t expect you to since this post intro is already playing out like the first 30 seconds of every Sunday morning infomercial you’ve ever seen, just take it from some of the richest and most successful businessmen in the world, greatest leaders of all time, and various instances of math and science.  That’s right, math and science.

The Pareto Principle

Enter the Pareto principle. A long time ago, in a land far, far away (think Italy in the late 1800s) there was a gentleman by the name of Vilfredo Pareto who happened to notice that 80% of the wealth of Italy was owned by only 20% of its people. After further research, he found that the same balance applied across many countries and, cumulatively, the world.  Fast forward to the 1940s and we find a business management consultant by the name of Joseph Juran who, fascinated by Pareto’s findings, decided to apply it to his field, finding that 80% of the success of businesses comes from 20% of their efforts.

Juran found that many of his clients could experience substantial growth and success by reorganizing their priorities to focus more on the 20% of things they do that have the biggest impact on their bottom line.  Microsoft has reported that, when they release new software, they’re able to eliminate crashes 80% of the time by focusing only on the top 20% of the bugs that users report.  Many businesses today have learned that 80% of their income is produced by only 20% of their customers.  This is why they offer lavish incentives to their top clients; they know just how much they depend on them for continued success.

What’s in it for us?

If so many others have been able to find success by applying the Pareto principle to their situation, why the heck can’t we? In my mind, there’s no difference between what we’re doing and what the business world is doing.  We’re all trying to get the most bang for our buck and make the biggest change we can with the time and resources we have.  When I analyze everything I’m doing, its pretty easy to see where I’m making the biggest difference.

I know that by eating less meat, I am helping to make a huge dent in the conservation of the environment by reducing the amount of space needed to raise animals and reducing the number of them that are emitting methane into the air.  I also know that by winterizing my home (something I’ll be posting about soon since it’s starting to get cold) I can save a bunch of money on my energy bills since the furnace doesn’t have to work as hard to keep me warm. But these two things are only a small fraction of all the things I do on a daily basis.

In terms of personal finance, I’ve found that by spending just minutes a week using an online account aggregator (Mint.com), I have considerably more control over my money by being able to visualize where it’s all going on a regular basis.  This has been a huge benefit to me since spending countless hours trying to develop money saving systems for myself before turning to Mint proved relatively ineffective.  For me, the secret was in being able to easily see a snapshot of my finances at any given moment.

What about the left over 80%?

So, now I’ve whittled down my list of “really important and meaningful tasks” that deliver far more value than all the rest of the things I do and I’m going to spend way more time working on them.  But what am I supposed to do with this giant pile of waste that comprises the remaining 80%?

I guess this is the part of the infomercial where, just after becoming entirely sold and actually picking up the phone to order, you realize that there’s no way you can actually  get fit drinking beer and watching infomercials all day with your Mega Ab Buster 4000™  stuck to your gut while you lay on the couch.  But that’s a tad over-dramatic because the Pareto principle actually does work, you just don’t get to entirely throw out the rest of your commitments.

When you start to put this rule into action in your own life, you’ll find that you still have to do a bunch of the things that don’t have a significant impact on your success.  This is a reality of existing.  There will be at least a few things on that list, though) that you’ll notice you were spending way too much time on for how little you were getting out of them (this was a bit of an embarrassing revelation for me).

While implementing the 80/20 rule into your life could certainly eliminate a number of no-benefit tasks you were fixated on, the whole point is to reorganize your priorities. By focusing on the 20% of things that are really effective for you and your goals, you should start to see more success in your progress towards achieving them.  This makes dealing with the remaining  80% of the sometimes necessary busywork in your life a whole lot more bearable.

Final Thoughts

If you ever wondered before why you were working so hard but achieving so little, this might be at least part of the answer.  Hard work and determination are amazing characteristics, but if they’re aimed at the wrong targets, the wheels are just spinning. Put the rubber to the road by nailing down what’s really important. Exclude the rest until life forces you to deal with it.

What are you trying to achieve and what’s the 20% that you need to focus on?  What’s some of the background noise that seems to get in the way when you try to do this and how can you deal with it?


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  1. Sean

    I heard this quote the other day and your post made me think about it:

    “If you worry, you will eventually die. If you don’t worry, you will eventually die. Might as well not worry.”

    Funny how you can apply the 80/20 rule to almost anything!

  2. Michael Thomas


    Exactly. And if you’re going to worry anyway, at least make it about something that’s actually important.

  3. shannon

    What a well-written and thoughtful post. By dealing with the “infomercial” aspect of this kind of thinking, you disarm it, leaving us free to actually think about the merits of the idea. Now to accurately distinguish the 20% from the 80%….

  4. Michael Thomas

    Thanks Shannon. Accurately figuring out what your 20% is gets a lot easier once you let go of the preconceived notions that we all have about what our 20% SHOULD be.

  5. Susan Tiner

    This reminds me of the Stephen Covey story of putting the large rocks in the jar first, retold here:

  6. Michael Thomas


    That lesson on filling the jar goes hand in hand with the 80/20 principle. It’s so easy to get bogged down with the urgent and unimportant. Since the truly important is rarely urgent, it tends to get pushed off and we miss out on growth the growth that we’re seeking.

  7. Helen

    But if the businessman focuses on the top 20% of his customers, of course he’ll get more business there.

    A bit of the tail wagging the dog.

    Nevertheless, this is a good post. Thanks.

  8. Lisa Newton

    Thank you for your submission to the Carnival of Savings. It has been posted . Please remember to go to your post and link to http://www.savingswithsadie.com/2009/12/carnival-of-savings-5th-edition.html

    as agreed to in the Blog Carnival guidelines.

    We thank you for your participation.

  9. Bankruptcy Ben

    True that! Worry is only producting if A) it’s a realistic concern B) you can alter the outcome C)you choose to do something about it!

  10. Australia Loans

    Obviously you can’t stop worrying about the 80% completely but I agree you can significantly cut down on the amount of time spend on it and prioritise your activities properly.

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