Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? It's one of those rules that seems to fit a lot of situations. It simply states that our social behaviors reflect a consistent pattern that show some people are more energetic than others, some are smarter, some are better motivated, and these differences tend to show up with regularity in our actions, our outlooks, and our results. For example, on the job 20 percent of the employees and 20 percent of the company’s operations account for 80 percent of the work and 80 percent of the profits. And, 20 percent of a company's customers generate 80 percent of their business. As individuals we tend to wear 20 percent of the same clothes 80 percent of the time, and we shop in 20 percent of the same stores 80 percent of time. We are so dominated by this 80/20 rule it's as if it were programmed for it.
There is some legitimacy to this observation, and we all could learn something from it. Every good manager, for example, needs to learn how to use it effectively. He or she needs to know which employees and operations produce most of the results, which customers generate most of the income, and, conversely, those that contribute least to the success of the business. We don’t fire the lesser producers; we simply concentrate our own time and energies toward the 20 percent of people and those resources that are responsible for producing most of the revenues and for getting most of the work done. Let the lesser supervisors oversee the 80 percent who don't contribute that much to the success of the company. Salaries, bonuses, and rewards to a large extent also tend to reflect the same ratio.
This rule is not immutable; it can vary from the 80/20 ratio. But the patterns of behavior are predictable enough to help you and me simplify how we expend our time and energies at home and elsewhere. Instead of trying to change the world and every tiny thing that goes wrong, for example, we might want to focus on just those parts of it that really need changing. It’s all a matter of priorities that the 80/20 rule can go a long way toward sorting things out for us.
First, it is generally helpful to understand that your priorities are not necessarily the same as mine. You may want to concentrate on what to plant in your vegetable garden, how many rows of beans you need, etc., while I may want to contemplate the possibility of life on Mars and whether clouds will ever form the exact outline of Pamela Anderson. It's this difference in focus at the individual level where the 80/20 rule can wreak havoc on those of us who are big thinkers. For example, my bank doesn’t care that my account is balanced at least 80 percent of the time. They insist on perfection and they will pounce on me and hit me with a penalty for the slightest error. Another example: If the light in my front yard were to burn out tonight, after months of faithful illumination, the following morning there is at least an 80 percent probability that a voice mail message from my association administrator will be there warning me that one more violation will result in a SWAT team taking up a position at my house. This sort of attention to detail isn't good for my grand thinking or my karma. Why just last week the traffic cop who stopped me was not impressed when I explained to him that I do check my tail lights about twice a year. He gave me a ticket just the same. No, it seems that 80 percent of all those around me spend at least 80 percent of their time seeing to it that I comply with their priorities 100 percent of the time. Their petty priorities are starting to interfere with my Mars musings, and are really beginning to press my wrong buttons.
Does this pattern also seem to fit you and your affairs? And, if so, don’t you think it’s time we did something about it? Here’s another example:
An in-law (who shall remain nameless) once liked to harangue me with the same old story about welfare cheats. She would invariably shift the topic of conversation from whatever I was talking about to her favorite topic: There were a few scoundrels out there who dared to cheat the food stamp system out of $10 or $20 dollars. They were the scourge of the earth, and, as a good citizen it was her duty (and apparently mine also) to expose them to the light of day and bring them to justice.
One day as her voice was building to a crescendo while relating her investigative report to me about these petty thieves, I interrupted her with “Did you hear about the doctors who stole $50 billion from the Medicare system?” She looked at me as if I had just exited from a Mars space craft. “What the blazes are you talking about?” she wanted to know.
I tried to explain to her the difference between the sums of money involved in our two different points of view, and how she could be much more effective to the cause of justice by helping to round up the crooked MDs. She wasn’t interested.
“Why not?" I inquired. The MDs are much bigger fish, and they are sopping up a lot more or society’s money than your two petty thieves. “Why not go for the jugular?”
After further probing, she acknowledged that the MDs were too big and powerful, that nobody wanted to go after them, and besides, how could she trust the source of their evil doing since it came from the government? I reminded her that the government source had identified 3,500 MDs in their investigations, and she only had the word of her neighbor who worked as a janitor at the local welfare office about the two welfare cheats.
“Can you name these welfare cheats?” I asked. She said she could not name them, but she suspected one of them was a young man who had mowed her grass some 25 years earlier, and he had not done a good enough job to warrant the $10 dollars she paid him. Beyond that surmise, she had nothing to go on.
Now, “where am I going with this rambling?” you are probably asking. Good question. 80 percent of the population spends 80 percent of their time cutting the grass, washing the dishes, and watching cartoons on television. That's great. The other 20 percent spends 80 percent of their time pondering questions like "What is the meaning of life?" and "If a chicken and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many chickens would it take to lay 20 eggs in 10 days?" It's a matter of focus and priorities that is probably genetic in origin. These two groups should stay away from each other, at least 80 percent of the time.
Here are a few other points toward which I am leading to help bring peace and tranquility between the two groups. I’m sure they will have an 80 percent chance of working for you just as they have for me:
- You will never know what motivates the other person, whether she lives next door or rules over you at work. Do yourself and her a favor by ignoring her ... about 80 percent of the time. She won’t notice and it won’t make a difference in either of your lives anyhow. (Note: Do not factor your wife into this calculation).
- If you get fired, don’t worry too much about it. The odds are about 80/20 that you will find a new job...in 20 percent less time than you feared. (Note: Your creditors will not likely accept this brilliant line of reasoning).
- No matter what you do, others will disapprove of it and they will misrepresent what you actually do to still others...at least 80 percent of the time. This rule is infallible!
- We all think we are part of the 20 percent that do 80 percent of the work and deserve 80 percent of the rewards. We are probably right...about 20 percent of the time.
- When you face a tough choice, 80 percent of the time your choice will not have the effect you had hoped for at all. Procrastination will therefore work at least 80 percent of the time.
- Consider that there are 100 U.S. senators. 80 of them are deadwood. Don't ignore them. Vote them out of office.
- Consider that there are 50 U.S. governors. 40 of them would never pardon you. Obeying the law at least 80 percent of the time will probably keep you away from their incompetence.
- Consider that you have 2 girl friends. The odds are 100 percent that either one of them would kill you if the other one found out. (This is one of those rare exceptions to the 80/20 rule. Memorize it).
- It’s OK to ask for a raise continually because 80 percent of the time you won’t get it. You will also have to learn to live with disappointment a lot (a leading survival factor in this cruel, imperfect world).
- Make a list of the 10 most important changes you would like to see happen in your life, and rank order them. Then go out and work your tail off to make the two least likely to happen a reality. The other 8 belong in that “bucket of things” that will never come to pass under any circumstances.
There's no need to thank me. It's what I do.