It’s all too easy to confuse the feeling of busyness with being truly effective. If you find you are constantly overburdened at work, you probably tell yourself that’s just the nature of the job. You might even take pride in how exhausted you feel – or feel a bit guilty on days when you don’t.
However, not all effort is equal. The Pareto Principle asserts that 20 per cent of your effort produces 80 per cent of the results. If that’s roughly true, then the trick to staying productive yet relaxed is to identify and focus on the tasks that deliver the highest returns on your effort – while perhaps attempting to get rid of some that don’t.
It was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who, back in 1906, first observed that 80 per cent of Italy’s land was owned by 20 per cent of the people. Since then, his rule of thumb has evolved to refer to all situations where a minority of causes – the ‘vital few’ – are responsible for most of the effects. When 80 per cent of a company’s profits come from 20 per cent of its customers, or when you tend to spend 80 per cent of your social life with 20 per cent of your friends, then that’s the Pareto Principle in action. Likewise, you can probably identify a few high-value tasks in your job: the 20 per cent, or something close to it, that deliver 80 per cent of your accomplishments. (Hint: they almost certainly don’t include email, or long meetings.)
Not everyone’s in a position to just abandon low-value tasks, of course; that will depend on your job. But even if you can’t, there are ways in which you can harness Pareto’s insight. You can schedule high-value tasks for when you have the most energy. And you can use ‘time-blocking’ to make sure that low-value tasks don’t take over your day. Give yourself a constrained period for low-value stuff – the last two hours of the working day, for example – and you will be surprised how much of it gets done.
You probably have a good instinct for which parts of your job are high value versus low value. For one week this month:
At the end of each working day, select a very high-value task – one that would really make a difference if you managed to complete it – and write it somewhere prominent. (The workplace expert Greg McKeown, from whom I’ve borrowed this tip, suggests a Post-It on your computer monitor.) Then do that task first thing the next morning, before anything else – ideally even before checking your email.
Fight the habit of staying late at work, which is when those low-value tasks can really bite. If you don’t already have fixed reasons to leave at a certain time every day, such as picking up children, then create some. Book an exercise class, or make plans to meet friends.
Reduce the time and energy you devote to the 80 per cent of tasks that don’t matter so much, and you’ll find you become more effective – while also getting less stressed.
Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and author of The Antidote (Canongate, £8.99)
Read Dr David Hamilton's Why you should write your goals down on LifeLabs