80/20 Principle: 5 Tips for Workplace Effectiveness

80/20 Principle

by Brenton Russell on

“There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals”

Ken Blanchard from ‘Leadership and the One Minute Manager’

I recently discovered the 80/20 Principle (also known as Pareto’s Principle) and since then I have embarked on a workplace revolution to increase my own effectiveness and those around me.  Although my revolution is only young, so far it has been successful!

If you are unfamiliar with the 80/20 Principle it basically states that a minority of causes, inputs or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards. One of my earlier posts goes into more detail if you’re interested.  In the interest of spreading the revolution, here are five of my proven methods for increased workplace effectiveness using the 80/20 Principle:

1.  Ruthlessly Guard Your Most Productive Time

By analysing my typical workday it became obvious that I am most productive  in the mornings.  This is when, if uninterrupted, I will generally produce the most amount of quality work in the most efficient manner.  By ruthlessly protecting this time to work on my most important tasks, I found that this step alone skyrocketed my effectiveness.  Denying others the ability to determine how I use my most productive time allows me to work on the things that produce the greatest effects.  Here’s a few ways of how I do it:

  • Turn off my email during this time. In fact the first time that I now open my email each day is after my high productive period so I don’t allow any inbox ‘crisis’ to distract me from what is important.
  • Don’t answer my desk phone.  I have set my desk phone voice mail message to instruct callers not to leave a message but to call my mobile if their issue is important.  It is amazing how few calls to my desk phone are actually considered important enough by the caller to subsequently call my mobile.
  • Screen all mobile phone calls.  If I don’t recognise the number or if it isn’t one of the Vital Few (see point 2 below) then I let it go to voice mail so I can choose when I listen and/if respond to it.
  • Shut my door or move to another desk space. If you have your own office, shutting your door will generally work.  Where possible I recommend working from a different workspace during this period to avoid those determined to waste your time.
  • Program all unavoidable meetings in the afternoon. While the majority of meetings are ineffective and should be avoided, some are necessary or unavoidable.  Where I can control it, I schedule all meetings during the periods where I am least productive and resourceful.

Take Action! – Analyse your typical working day and identify your most productive and resourceful period.  Now take steps to ruthlessly guard this time and watch your effectiveness boom.

2. Focus On Your ‘Vital Few’ Colleagues

After listing all the people I interact with at work and then rating each person’s value to me within the workplace, it became evident that a small number of colleagues (the ‘Vital Few’) provided far more value to me in terms of support, getting things done, job competency, professional advice, enjoying their company etc.  The majority (the ‘Trivial Many’) wasted my time, were incompetent, used me to sort out their problems and decreased my sense of wellbeing through their life perspective etc.  After this discovery I took deliberate steps to reduce the resources (namely my time) to the Trivial Many which allowed me to focus on the Vital Few.

Take Action! – Write down every person you regularly interact with within your workplace.  Now determine what your ‘value’ criteria is (ie professional advice, work output, companionship etc) and rate each person against this criteria.  Determine who the Vital Few are and allocate more of your time and energy for these people by reducing your efforts towards the Trivial Many.

3. Don’t Write Off The Trivial Many…..Yet!

I have led and managed people for a number of years now and many who I have dismissed as part of the Trivial Many have surprised me later by dramatically increasing the quality of their results. This has taught me that within the Trivial Many are those who are potential Vital Few.  Often these people just need to be managed or related to appropriately.  I subscribe to the ‘Situational Leadership’ model which focuses on adjusting your approach depending on the individuals involved but without compromising your core leadership values (check out Ken Blanchard’s great book Leadership and the One Minute Manager [Amazon Affiliate Link]).  Using this philosophy I have found that I can often match my style towards some of the Trivial Many to help them become part of the Vital Few.

Take Action! – Regardless of whether you formally management people, look back over your Trivial Many list from above and identify those you think have the potential to become part of your Vital Few.  Take it upon yourself to assist these people as often all they need is a bit of guidance and support.

4. Concentrate On Your Core Responsibilities

I took the time to sit down and write a list of all my workplace responsibilities, projects, tasks and responsibilities.  Not surprisingly I found that a large majority of these things provided only a very small amount of value or effect.  So why do we spend a lot of time on these low value tasks?  Often they are easier, more enjoyable or yield quicker (but less relevant) results which help us feel like we are achieving without really creating useful outcomes.  Here’s what I now do to help me concentrate on my core responsibilities:

  • Visibility display my core responsibilities list. After identifying what my core responsibilities are, by keeping them visibily displayed keeps me focussed on what’s important and helps me make good decisions about how to spend my work time.
  • Only work within my core responsibilities. Every time I look to work on a project or task I ask myself,”What core responsibility or role does this fit under?”  If I can’t answer this question then I closely consider whether I should be allocating my resources towards this.  You can take this one step further by using the 7 Habits Weekly Planner by Stephen Covey which helps to ensure that you only work within your key roles.  Here is a website that provides a free electronic version of the 7 Habits Weekly Planner.
  • Delegate, eliminate or ignore. For the tasks that don’t fit into my core responsibilities but still need to be done I delegate, for current tasks that don’t fit and don’t need to be done I eliminate and new tasks that arise that I can’t reconcile against my core responsibilities I ignore.
  • Consider small mis-expectations to be be inevitable. By eliminating a number of tasks that give the appearance of effectiveness, you will inevitably fail to meet all the expectations of others within the workplace.  This is well justifiable as the majority of people who care about the appearance of effectiveness will be part of the Trivial Many and your increased effectiveness make these mis-expectations quickly forgotten and irrelevant.

Take Action! – Take the time to write down an inventory of all your tasks, responsibilities and roles.  Identify your core roles and start to ‘Delegate, Eliminate and Ignore’.  Before you start any task ask yourself, ‘What core role does this fit under?’

5. Spread the Word!

Despite my highly conservative and bureaucratic workplace, my revolution has been far better received than I initially thought.  In fact I have had a number of people discuss with me implementing some of these techniques themselves.  I now take an active interest in discussing the 80/20 Principle with the 20% of colleagues who I think will ‘get it’ and have the ability to start implementing it themselves.  I’m on an extended campaign to slowly change the culture of my organisation for the benefit of everyone’s effectiveness and wellbeing!

Take Action! – Start your own revolution!  Take active steps TODAY to start implementing  some 80/20 Principle-centred techniques to increase your effectiveness but more importantly your wellbeing.

Post a comment NOW on what you intend to do NOW to start your own workplace revolution.

Come back and let me know how effective your methods have been.  I am keen to turn up the heat on my own revolution so any suggestions are highly welcome!

Picture thanks to Greta Eagan

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony August 10, 2010 at 1:44 am

Nice article. I’m doing some of the things you’ve mentioned. I am really running into a problem with too much going on right now. I guess it’s time to apply the 80:20 rule!


Brenton Russell August 21, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Thanks for the comment. It can be tough to ruthlessly apply the 80/20 Principle but the I am finding it to be really working for me!


Steven October 18, 2010 at 4:37 am

It’s all about focusing on the variables that lead to the greatest yield. Fantastic post, you nailed it!


Brenton Russell October 18, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Hi Steven,

Thanks for the comment. So far I am finding that the variable that has one of the most influence is ‘people’. After drastically cutting back my time towards the Trivial Many Colleagues, the time that I am reallocating to the Vital Few Colleagues is creating significantly positive effects.


Jake January 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm


Like your post, still thinking how to practically do it, you can’t just get rid of this “ineffective” 80%. I recently ran into another site on negotiating combined with the 80/20 principle: http://www.8020negotiating.com
Quite a nice site, althought still under construction.


Brenton Russell January 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

Hi Jake,

Often you can get rid of significant elements in your ‘trivial many’ 80% depending on your circumstances. For instance, in my previous job as a higher level manager I had more power to say no to meetings that were conducted by other laterally positioned departments. Once I shifted my paradigm to align with 80/20 principles, I eliminated many valueless meetings by saying ‘no’ where previously I would have automatically attended. This probably meant that I wasn’t meeting the expectations of those who were holding the meetings but if these people were also included in my ‘trivial many’ than I was more than prepared to pay this price for the increased effectiveness I achieved by eliminating these time wasters.

Where you can’t eliminate something in your 80%, the next best thing is to reduce their effects. I did this by reducing the resources that I allocated towards these activities. The main resource that I would reduce was my time. My example of this was email. I had to maintain my attentiveness towards email as part of the corporate culture that I was working in. Some emails were in the ‘vital few’ but most were in the ‘trivial many’. You can read the post to see how I reduced my resources towards maintaining email contact by putting on an auto-responder and ‘batching’ my emails once or twice a day.

Hope these examples help to demonstrate how you often can get rid of the “ineffective” or at the very lease reduce your resources towards them.


Jason | SAF February 17, 2013 at 12:51 am

Thanks Brenten, I’ve made it a point to completely shutdown email, facebook and go so far as keeping my cell phone in another room. When you gotta get those core tasks done – there can be no distractions at all. Great tips here.


Brenton Russell February 17, 2013 at 7:34 am

Hi Jason,
Sounds like some great discipline there! Thanks for stopping by.



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