Many of you are familiar, I am sure, with the 80/20 Principle. It's often mentioned in books and audio programs that deal with such topics as productivity and time management. But do you know why it works and how precisely you can apply it to your life?
The 80/20 Principle, when applied to our use of time, advances the following two hypotheses. First, it says that most of any individual significant achievements, most of the value that we add in personal, professional, intellectual, artistic, cultural, or athletic terms, is actually achieved in a minority of our time. There's actually a profound imbalance between what is created and the time taken to create it. Whether the time is measured in days or weeks or months or years or even a lifetime, there are very few things which take very little time, which actually create the most value.
The second hypothesis is that most of an individual's happiness occurs during quite limited periods of time. And if happiness can be accurately measured, a large majority of it would register in a fairly small proportion of the total time. And this would apply during most periods, whether the period measured was a day, a week, a month, a year, or again, a lifetime.
Now, we could rephrase these two ideas more snappily but with spurious precision perhaps by using the 80/20 shorthand. We could say on the first point, 80% of achievement is attained in 20% of the time. On the other hand, 80% of time leads to only 20% of the value that we add. And we can also say that 80% of happiness is experienced in 20% of life. And, indeed, 80% of time only contributes 20% of happiness. Now, remember, these are not truths; these are just hypotheses to be tested against your experience.
But where these hypotheses are actually true, and in the majority of cases that I've tested they have been, they have four rather startling implications. First, most of what we do is of low value. Second, some small fragments of our time are much more valuable than all the rest. Third, if we can do anything about this, we should do something really radical. There's no point in tinkering around the edges or making our use of time just a little bit more efficient. And fourth, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, if we make good use of only 20% of our time, there just cannot be a shortage of it.
So it's worthwhile spending a few minutes or perhaps even hours reflecting on whether the 80/20 Principle operates for you in each of these spheres. It doesn't matter what the exact percentages are, and, in any case, they're virtually impossible to measure properly. The key question is whether there is a major imbalance between the time spent, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, your achievement and happiness.
Does the most productive fifth of your time lead to four-fifths of the valuable results? Are four-fifths of your happiness time concentrated in one-fifth of your life? These are important questions and should not be answered glibly. Contemplate these questions and come up with your own answers.
Time Revolution vs. Time Management
The point, though, is not to manage your time better. If your use of time is unbalanced, a time revolution is required. You don't need to organize yourself a bit better or allocate your time better at the margins; you need to transform how you spend your time. Even more importantly, you probably also need to change the way that you think about time itself.
But what you need should not be confused with time management. You've probably heard about time management. You may even have been on time management programs yourself. This is completely different from what I'm referring to here, which is what I call time revolution. Time revolution's completely different from time management. Time management originated in Denmark as a training device to help busy executives organize their time more effectively, and it's now a $1 billion industry operating throughout the world.
The key characteristic of the time management industry now is not so much the training but the sale of time managers, executive personal organizers, both traditional paper type and electronic ones. It's not a fad, time management, because its users are generally highly appreciative of the systems used and they generally say their productivity has risen by perhaps 15% or 25% as a result. But the problem with time management is that it aims to fit a liter into a pint pot. It's about speeding up. It's specifically aimed at busy people, business people who are pressured by too many demands on their time. The idea is that better planning of each tiny segment of the day will help executives act more effectively.
Time management also advocates the establishment of clear priorities to escape the tyranny of daily events that, although they're very urgent, may not be all that important. Time management implicitly assumes that we know what is and is not a good use of our time. But if the 80/20 Principle holds, this is not a safe assumption. In any case, if we knew what was important, we'd be doing it already.
To illustrate, time management often advises us to categorize our list of to-do activities into A, B, C, or D priorities. But in practice, most people end up classifying 60% to 70% of their activities as an A or a B. So they conclude that what they're really short of is time. This is why they were interested in time management to start with, after all. So they end up with better planning, longer working hours, greater earnestness, and greater frustration. They become addicted to time management, but it doesn't fundamentally change what they do or significantly lower their level of guilt that they're just not doing enough.
In fact the name time management gives the game away. It implies that time can be managed, managed more efficiently, that it's a valuable and scarce resource, and that we must dance to its tune. We must be parsimonious with time; given half a chance it will run away from us. Time lost, the time management evangelists say, can never be regained. We live in an age of business. The long-predicted age of leisure is taking an age to arrive, except of course for the unemployed. We now have the absurd situation that working hours for executives are growing. Sixty hours a week is not unusual. And at the same time, there's a worsening shortage of work to go around. So society is becoming divided into those who have money but no time to enjoy it and those who have time but no money.
The popularity of time coexists with unprecedented anxiety about using time properly and having enough time to do one's job satisfactorily. But the 80/20 Principle actually turns all this conventional wisdom on its head. The implications of 80/20 analysis are quite different, and to those suffering from the conventional view, startlingly liberating.
The Four Points of the 80/ 20 Principle
The 80/20 Principle asserts four points. Number one, our current use of time is just not rational. There's no point, therefore, in seeking marginal improvements in how we spend our time. We need to go back to the drawing board and overturn all our assumptions about time.
Second, there is no shortage of time. In fact, we're positively awash with it. We only make good use of 20% of our time. And for the most talented individuals, it's often tiny fractions of time that make all the difference. The 80/20 Principle says that if we doubled our time on the top activities, the top 20%, we could work a two-day week and achieve 60% more, and today we'd have two lots of 80% in 40% of our time. That's light years away from the frenetic world of time management.
Third, the 80/20 Principle treats time as a friend, not as an enemy. Time that's gone is not time lost. Time will always come around again. That's why there are seven days in a week, 12 months in a year, why the seasons come around again. Insight and value are likely to come from placing ourselves in a comfortable, relaxed, and collaborative position toward time. It's our use of time, not time itself, that is the enemy.
And fourth, and most revolutionary, is the idea that we should act less. Action drives out thought. It's because we have so much time that we squander it. For example, the most productive time on a project is nearly always the last 20%, simply because the work has to be completed before a deadline. Productivity on most projects could be doubled simply by "halfing" the amount of time for their completion. Again, this is not evidence that it's time that is in short supply.
Time, in fact, is a link, the benign link, between the past, the present, and the future. It is not shortage of time that should worry us but the tendency for the majority of time to be spent in frankly low-quality ways. Speeding up or being more efficient with our use of time actually won't help. Indeed, such ways of thinking are more the problem than the solution.
Our 80/20 thinking directs us to a more Eastern view of time. Time shouldn't be seen as a sequence running from left to right as it is in nearly all graphical representations that the culture of business has imposed on us. It's better to view time as a cyclical and synchronizing device, just as the inventors of the clock intended. Time keeps coming round, bringing with it the opportunity to learn, to deepen a few valued relationships, to produce a better product or outcome, to add more value to life, to become better, more useful people.
We do not exist just in the present. We spring from the past, and we have a treasure trove of past associations. And our future, like our past, is already imminent, present, in the here and now.
The effect of thinking about time in this way is it highlights the need to carry with us through our lives the most precious and valued 20% of what we have—our personality, our abilities, our friendships, even our physical assets. And ensure that they're nurtured, developed, extended, and deepened to increase our effectiveness, value, and happiness. This can only be done by having consistent and continuous relationships founded on optimism that the future will be better than the present, because we can take and extend the best 20% from the past and the present to create that better future.
Viewed in this way, the future is not a random movie that we're halfway through, aware of and terrified by time as it whizzes past us. No, rather, the future is a dimension of the present and the past, giving us the opportunity to create something better. And 80/20 thinking insists that this is always possible. All we have to do is to give free rein and better direction to our most productive and positive and creative 20%.
Many people say to me, "Well, this is all very well, this idea that we can be tremendously more effective in our use of time, but you don't understand; I'm not an entrepreneur; I'm not someone who has total control over their time. I'm someone who has a boss, and I have certain meetings that I have to go to. There are certain duties that are expected of me, and, basically, how I spend my time is dictated by all these conventions and cultures and rules and ways of behaving. And so don't talk to me about how I can make tremendously more effective use of my time, because, frankly, I don't have that degree of freedom."
Well, what do I say to that? First, I say that that's true. Actually, most of us don't have as much control over our time as we would want. There are always, even for entrepreneurs, relationships that we have to pursue. There are always obligations that we have to fulfill, and so on and so forth. So it's true that everyone actually does not have 100% control of his or her time. But it's also true that everyone has much more control than he or she thinks.
Some of the most effective managers that I've observed have contrived to get out of low productivity ways of behaving through some quite extraordinary devices. One of them is absence.
If someone is not present in the office, he or she cannot be naturally assumed to go to a meeting. And I've known people who will invent all sorts of reasons—visiting customers is always a very good one—why, if it's going to be a day's worth of meetings where they don't expect anything useful to happen, they're just not there. Another way is to explain to your boss what it is that you're trying to do, and say, "This is going to be of tremendous value. You want it. And yet if I concentrate on doing this, unfortunately this means that I can't attend this particular meeting. Is that okay?" There are all kinds of ways of actually subverting the waste of time that is intrinsic in modern business. And you should take quite a lot of care and attention and be creative in making sure that you don't have to do something.
After all, if you know that it's going to be a waste of your time, or going to have very little value to you, then what you should be doing is using a small amount of time thinking of ways that you can avoid wasting a large amount of time. That's common sense. But again, what you have to do is realize that you've got to get as much control over your time as possible. And you've got to be very confident that you know the things that you can do that are tremendously effective.
To do those things requires getting rid of the other things, the trivial, the less useful uses of your time. So you've got, in a way, to be quite cunning. You're going to work out how it is that you're going to free yourself up from those obligations that actually are of no value to anyone but which otherwise will stop you from being tremendously creative.