Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
February 28, 2023 · 8 min read

What is the 80/20 rule in project management? (and how to use it)

What is the 80/20 rule in project management? (and how to use it)

Whether you’re at a scrappy startup, massive enterprise company, or somewhere in the middle, there’s a depressing truth you need to acknowledge: Most of what you do in a day won’t matter.

No, we’re not trying to be pessimists — rather, it’s all a matter of simple math.

Time and time again, across industries and markets, the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto principle) shows that 80% of your success comes from just 20% of your effort.

In other words, the results you get in your life, or on your project, come from just ⅕ of the work you do. This phenomenon has shown up in everything from psychology to economics and business.

The biggest problem? How do you know which 20% actually drives those results?

Jump to a section:

Understanding the 80/20 rule can help you become more efficient, rocket past competition, and avoid unnecessary burnout. In this guide, we’ll explain what the 80/20 rule is, why it’s so important, and how you can use it to turbocharge your performance and the performance of your wider team.

What is the 80/20 rule? Why is it so important?

The Pareto principle shows that, in many circumstances, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. These causes are known as the "vital few."

The phenomenon was originally observed in studies by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto studied the land and wealth distribution across Italy and discovered that 80% of the wealth was controlled by 20% of the people.

The Pare to Principe
Source: Source: miro.medium.com

Over time, the logic underpinning the Pareto principle has appeared in many places, including broader economics, business, law, and technology. Here are a few modern-day examples:

Understanding and applying the Pareto principle to your work and life can help you unlock a range of benefits, such as:

Outsized returns on your efforts

We’ve all heard the saying ‘work smarter, not harder’, and the Pareto principle can help you do this. By identifying the 20% of things that really matter, you can focus on those to unlock positive outcomes faster and stop wasting time on non-value-adding activities.

Avoiding burnout from low-value work

Burnout is a big problem in project management thanks to the high-pressure nature of the work. By applying Pareto principles, and focusing solely on the value-adding work, you can reduce your chances of overwork, stress, and fatigue.

Clarifying your priorities

The Pareto principle is also a great way to bring clarity to your priority setting. If you understand that 20% of your energy will deliver the best results, you can prioritize which tasks to complete when you’re feeling your best.

This will not only help you prioritize better, but help you become less indecisive, overcome mental blocks, and enhance your organizational influence.

Push your product’s strategy forward

Maximizing productivity, improving prioritization, and reducing stress are great building blocks to help you execute your product strategy. Focusing on the right things, that deliver quickly, will help you build a product that adds value to users and keeps them coming back for more.

3 ways to use the 80/20 rule to maximize your team’s results

Finding your “vital few” can sound like a magic bullet. And in many cases, it is. However, applying the 80/20 rule to your business or project isn’t a simple process. It takes a high level of self-awareness, product knowledge, and market foresight to know what work will bring the biggest results.

80% of your success comes from just 20% of your effort.

However, there are some tried-and-tested areas of your business that can benefit from the Pareto principle, including team productivity, problem solving, and product strategy.

Let’s look at each area and discuss how you can start to implement the 80/20 rule today:

1. Improving team productivity

The best way to help your team be more productive is to help them identify the tasks that will add the most value. Focusing on critical tasks ensures the most important work gets done each day, helping you take the biggest step toward your collective goals.

How to apply the 80/20 rule to boost team productivity:

Did you know? Studies show that the average office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day. With such a small window of productivity, it’s even more important to identify and execute the work that’ll bring the most value.

Time management matrix

2. Speeding up problem solving

Even when you’ve listed and prioritized your tasks, sometimes there’s problems that come up that simply need fixing. The Pareto principle can also help you with problem-solving, providing a way to analyze the issues and choose which ones to fix first.

How to apply the 80/20 rule to assist with problem-solving:

Did you know? In a survey of senior executives, 36% of organizations require complex problem-solving skills as a core skill. If you can master Pareto, not only will you boost your chances of success, you’ll be in high demand!

3. Clarifying your product strategy

When developing a new product, you need to build features that users actually want to use. Especially if you have a lot of users, it can be hard to see the wood from the trees and understand the right way to move forward. But like with problem-solving, Pareto is great for helping you set your product strategy.

How to use the 80/20 rule to build your product strategy:

Did you know? Recent statistics on new products showed that only 40% of them survive in the market — and of that 40%, only 60% actually achieve any revenue. This goes to show that getting your strategy right is super important for product success.

How to get the benefits of the 80/20 rule in all aspects of your life

When it comes down to it, the 80/20 rule is just a powerful framework for helping you analyze and prioritize your workload to make sure you’re doing the right things.

But the 80/20 isn’t just useful for work — it can be applied to your personal life, too.

Whether it’s fitness, health, relationships, or learning a new skill, the key to maximizing the power of Pareto is to focus on the 4 C’s: Clarity, Competency, Concentration, and Constraints.

The 4 C’s

Here’s how you can apply this powerful principle to all areas of your life:

Remember: The 80/20 rule is a concept, not a law

As you start to apply the Pareto principle to different aspects of your life and work, it’s important to remember that it’s not set in stone. Instead, it’s a concept you should follow to prioritize work, maximize efficiency, and reduce waste.

Don’t forget that:

Understanding that most of your outputs can come from such a small percentage of your efforts, can be a real game changer.

The bottom line: 80/20 is your way to a better future

For many, the 80/20 rule can be a hard pill to swallow. How can it be that only 20% of your effort delivers 80% of the results?

But, when you understand that most of your outputs can come from such a small percentage of your efforts, it can be a real game changer when it comes to productivity.

This is especially true when delivering projects, as for most project managers, time is at a real premium. Pareto is great for helping you identify critical tasks, solve problems, and prioritize the high-priority deliverables within your project or product.

And, of course, once you’ve finished your Pareto analysis, you need somewhere to manage your most important work. Planio is the perfect tool to track your tasks, prioritize work, and plan sprints.

Try Planio free for 30 days — no strings attached — and see if it’s right for you.