Learn how to prioritise – The 80/20 principle


This time of year is often full of New Year’s resolutions about living a better life in the coming year. Perhaps exercising more, spending more time with family and friends or start with a new hobby. But how to find time for these new things, when the life puzzle is difficult to gather already as it is?

In this situation, you may be guided by the pareto principle, or the 80/20 principle, meaning that 20% of what you do gives you 80% of the value. The principle is named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who in 1906 noted that 80% of all land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

Later, the principle has come to be applied in many other areas and it seems to be true in most contexts, for example most people, use about 20% of their clothes 80% of the time or use their 20 favourite recepies for 80% of their dinners. Note that the important thing about the principle is not the exact proportion, but the lack of symmetry. It might as well be 85/15 or 90/10 – but seldom less less than 80/20.

From this obviously follows the dilemma to identify the 20% that gives the most value. This requires thought, both to apply the principle to your private life and in your role as a manager.

80/20 applied to your private life: Outside the job you should focus on the 20% that gives you the most satisfaction in life. Maybe spending time with children and grandchildren, walking in the nature, sailing, reading novel or engaging in bird watching. If you truthfully look into your heart, you will likely intuitively know what it is that gives you the most joy and energy. If you are unsure, then you might start by writing down a list of everything you do in a week and then ranking.

Then spend your time on the items on the top of the list and deprioritize everything else without any bad conscience.

80/20 applied to your work: At work, the pareto principle means that if you are a manager you should focus on the 20% that can not be done better by any of your team members. If somebody else can do it as well or better than yourself, then you should delegate.

This means you have to be honest and may need to struggle with yourself giving up things that give you joy and satisfaction or where you have your comfort zone. This is often most difficult for those recently promoted from operational activities to a managerial role, not least if the reason for promotion has been operational skills.

You also have to put your ego aside to accept that for many (perhaps most) of the tasks falling within your area of ​​activity there are other employees who are more skilled and capable of performing them. This is another reason for you to focus on those areas where your added value is the greatest.

If you are a recently promoted expert, then your biggest challenge is often to shift focus and allow yourself (or force yourself) to let go of some of the operational work of your new subordinates and fight the impulse to micromanage.

What lies in the 20% that will be your new focus shifts from workplace to workplace and from position to position, but it will also change over time. Not least in the fast-growing startup organization, the effective leadership will require continually new priorities of what to do and what to delegate downwards.

Wishing all my blog readers a happy, productive and creative new year!

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

4 thoughts on “Learn how to prioritise – The 80/20 principle”

  1. I wish you the same! I stop by today to say that there seems to be a common theme of “humility” throughout all your writing here. How important do you consider “humility” as a trait? How does it affect daily living, work/professional life, learning/education etc.?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Katherine, I have been thinking much on your question. Humility was not really on my mind, when I wrote this blog post, but I see what you mean. And I do think you have made a good observation.

    Yes, I think humility is important, and this is a realisation that has slowly grown over the years, and it was nothing that came naturally to me in my youth. I still remember the omnipotent feeling when first coming fresh from Med School many years ago. After six years of hard studies with good grades, I had the delusion that I knew it all (or at least enough to be a good doctor). And I can still remember the initial feeling of frustration, realising that my patients, their symptoms and illnesses did not behave as I was taught from the text books.

    It took some time to change that frustration into a feeling of awe at the complexity of the human body and its diseases, but still within the classical “school medicine”. It took many more years for me to realise that the western medical paradigm, was not the only one, and maybe not even the most important when it comes to understand the whole complexity of body, mind and soul.

    Today, I am much more humble about myself, my knowledge, and my lack of knowledge. But this has also given me so much when it comes to curiosity, awe about the beauty of lfe and nature, and an appreciation of a more “Eastern” way of life, including meditation and self-inquiry.

    So thanks for your question and the thoughts they provoked. 🙂


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