Boost your productivity by capitalising on the Pareto rule


“Doing less is not being lazy. Don’t give in to a culture that values personal sacrifice over personal productivity.”

― Timothy Ferriss


Have you ever experienced a situation where you felt immensely productive while at other moments you barely make any progress on a rather similar task? Well, there are multiple reasons for this but its most likely that you experience the Pareto rule in action. The Pareto rule states that 80% of the tasks in a given area can be done using 20% of the amount of time, while the remaining 20% of tasks eat up the other 80% of your time. Hence, the time-productivity ratio is highly skewed – 80/20 is the common denominator, but it can also be 90/10, 95/5, or only 60/40.

If you have already been in academia for a while and have accumulated citations from multiple papers have a close look at them: Chances are high that only a few papers are responsible for the mere of your citations. Now look at your collaborations: Surely you know some who are time-consuming to work with and thwart productivity. Same when you supervise students: how high is the amount of students that stick out regarding efficiency? Most likely it is 20% rather than 80% of them – and a few are always nagging you with questions and are time-consuming to supervise. Pareto rule in action!

While I encountered the basic principle of 80/20 (i.e. 80% of the tasks can be done in 20% of the time), it was not before I read the 4hr workweek by Tim Ferris when I thought about the possible applications in my daily academic routines. To make use of this rule, you first have to identify your least effective 20% (or 10 or 5% in some kinds) units of a particular task (being it projects, papers, collabs, students doesn’t matter) that are real time wasters. Then you have two options: Option 1 is you cut off them off and live happy with this selection while enjoying the time saved for your work-life balance. Option 2 is that you fill up your freed-up time with more of those highly efficient projects (with 80 or so % freed up time you can boost your productivity). That’s easier said than done of course and needs a lot of trial and error to identify your time-eaters to be able to detect them in advance. A good indication is whether a given task you do comes from your agenda or the agenda of others.

In the following, I will give more concrete info, where the Pareto rule applies in academia by focusing on a regular project. However, you can use the general logic to many more areas of academic life.

The first thing is that you evaluate each of your areas regularly; the second thing is that you act accordingly. If that means that you skip from a project that is not running after all, but that eats up an extraordinary amount of your time, do it! Believe me, it’s not easy to learn to say no to somebody or to step back from running work, but you will feel much better afterwards.

Running a project consumes time, especially if you are the PI. Potential time-eaters hide behind any corner, be it preparing and organising project meetings, keep everybody updated with emails, and – of course – writing progress reports and publications. To turn a project not into an overdemanding time-killer, make sure to share responsibilities and communicate clear rules how problems can be approached and solved. Here are my four main observations that helped my to cut on time-wasters:

Make yourself rare. Being available to everybody at any time is the biggest time waster of all. Smartphones and Email programs that automatically check emails every few minutes and that send you notifications of the newest inbox content will keep you busy from other, more valuable, stuff for which you need to focus (writing or coding for instance). The problem with being available 24/7 is that people rush on to you with their problems instead of figuring them out themselves first (everybody is lazy and search for the easiest solution – often it’s outsourcing their problems to you). Most problems are not urgent, and only a few problems mean life and death to the project. Making yourself rare force people to at least try to solve their problems on their own – and most of the time they will succeed. A good solution I found is to offer rare but regular meetings, say once or twice a month to discuss progress and solve problems. In specific project phases (i.e. when applying for a grant) meeting more often is mandatory of course, while at other stages meetings can be even less frequent. However, the Bottomline here is that you are not available 24/7, but only at specific dates each of your partners/collaborators know.

Make sure you deliver. In the connected world we live in it may disturb people when you are not available all the time. So you have to prove that you can be productive on the tasks you are responsible for. If there is a proposal deadline on the horizon or a presentation to be given you need to have a good time management. These are your important 80% of tasks. By fading out the noise from incoming emails, slack messages or open office hours you should already have achieved a lot towards the 80/20 by making blocks of undisrupted time available that is needed to work on such tasks (aka the maker’s schedule).

Share responsibilities. Projects are getting more and more complicated, and it is just impossible to be the expert in all aspects a project covers. As a project leader, you indeed need to know the bigger picture – the vision of the project. However, you don’t necessarily need to know the nitty gritty of all aspects important to reach this vision. What you need is trust. Trust your colleagues or partners that work with you on achieving this vision – and act accordingly. The only way to act here is to share responsibilities. If your partner is an expert in A but you aren’t don’t tell him or her how to do A. Let him or her do their job! Only make sure A fits well into the bigger picture of the project. You need to know what A can or can’t offer, but not how to execute A. That’s the responsibility of your peer, so act by trusting him or her.

Avoid perfectionism. Perfect is the enemy of done. Every aspect can be improved. For this post, I could improve the structure. I could improve the phrasing and the wording – or I could provide translations in many other languages to improve my outreach; to make it the perfect piece. Don’t do it! Perfectionism is the key ingredient of 20/80 – getting done 20% of the task using 80% of your time. Heck, mostly it might be even more skewed: 2/98 maybe? The problem is that most of us want to give their best while not realising that the best is not necessarily needed to succeed with something. Indeed I could sample more – but if I have already a proper sampling will my conclusions change? Indeed I could run more simulations – but is that still goal-oriented? Maybe not (except your goal is to be the best in something but that only gives you medals but not getting the work done or the job you are looking for). I could write a lot more about perfectionism but for now keep in mind that what count is to be efficient and not perfect.

I’m sure there are plenty of other aspects where the Pareto rule applies. Here, I rendered my most important observations from the past few years, where I thought a lot about productivity; not only by means of increasing the amount of time to stay productive but also to have more time for myself (e.g. to write blog posts like this) and improve as a person. Now, I’m looking forward reading how you improved by detecting your 80/20s.

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