I have a degree in economics. Among the many long-forgotten principles and theories that I theoretically learned was the Pareto principle. That´s what is commonly known as the 80-20 rule — the idea that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. The principle was named after Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 20% of the Italian population received 80% of the income in the country. Early management guru Joseph Juran popularized that research and, since then, it has been applied, interpreted and abused for all sorts of purposes. An entire industry has been built around Pareto´s work, with people like Richard Koch turning out book after book. The concept appears in two revered management philosophies – Six Sigma and Total Quality Management.
On a general level, the principle isn´t rocket science. Think about it in your own life. It doesn´t take profound and insightful self-analysis to realize that some of the activities that you do each day don´t add significantly to your bank balance, your future prospects, or your happiness. In a perfect world, we would identify those activities that are the most productive, find other means of getting the other ones done (or don´t do them at all), and focus on expanding and improving the productive activities. We would be remarkably more productive.
Unfortunately, we don´t live in a perfect world. It´s not always that easy and we can´t always get rid of the tasks that we wish we could. I hate doing laundry. Besides, obviously, giving me clean clothes to wear, laundry does nothing to make me happier or to advance my business or personal life. Yet, I can´t ignore it, and I have yet to find a reasonable and cost-efficient means of getting it done for me (my partner glares holes through me every time I suggest that we would both be better off if she did my laundry for me). Laundry has to be done regardless of what an Italian economist has to say, but there are many other things that can be avoided, and avoiding them will make you more productive. More than anything, it´s about the proper mindset.
Here´s an exercise. Find a sheet of paper (or a spreadsheet if you can´t stand the old-school approach), and number it from 1 to 20. Beside each number, list something that you have to do today. You have a to-do list that should be a fairly typical representation of your work day. Now, get out a red marker. Choose any 5 tasks (that´s only 25%, not 80%, but we´re easing into it) and cross them out. Look for tasks that strike you as unproductive, or that make you unhappy or frustrated. Once they are crossed off, you don´t have to do them. Ever. They no longer exist.
There are two things to think about when you try this exercise. First, pay attention to see if the activities that you skip ever get missed. Chances are that they won´t. There will be little or no impact to your life or your productivity by not doing them. So much of what we do accomplish very little, but it´s hard to realize, and accept, that. Second, consciously consider what you are going to do to fill the time that you have freed up by slashing time out your schedule. If you don´t consciously manage the time and fill it with more productive activities, new unproductive tasks will replace the old unproductive ones.