Time Management & the 80/20 Principle

“It is astonishing what an effort it seems to be for many people to put their brains definitely and systematically to work.” – Thomas A. Edison

Most of us would love to know how to use our time more effectively.  It is a common experience to feel overloaded with tasks and responsibilities, all with an underlying sense that there is not enough time in the day to accomplish it all.  Take a moment to pause and reflect on how you spend your time and prioritize your responsibilities.  Do you feel like your current system of organization and time management is effective?  If you find yourself feeling strained, overloaded, or ineffective in some way, consider making a shift.

According to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, 80% of what we gain comes from 20% of our effort.  Put another way, 80% of our effort produces only 20% of value.  This can translate to a lot of wasted time and effort. Empirical studies have validated this finding over and over again.  Why aren’t most of us listening and changing the way we do things? This principle can be applied to many areas of your life, not just those in which you feel that you are trying to be or should be “productive.”

Everyday examples of the 80/20 principle:

  • About 20% of the newspaper is actually worth your time to read.
  • About 80% of your mail is probably junk mail and not worth your time.
  • About 20% of your e-mail actually requires your immediate attention.
  • About 80% of your housework can wait, while about 20% (if not done) will soon make your home practically inhabitable.

Time Management Strategies

Barry J. Izsak, professional organizer and author of multiple books on productivity, suggests the following strategies for effective time management:

(1) Focus on Your Priorities

It is easy to get sidetracked into “time sucks” that are actually quite unimportant to us in terms of reaching important goals.  Begin to mindfully reflect on your true priorities and make deliberate decisions about what tasks can be delayed until a later time and what truly needs to be accomplished now.  When considering how to most effectively reach your goals, recognize that it is far more advantageous to take one small step in the direction of your goal than to remain passive, inactive, and paralyzed by indecision.  When you are clear on your priorities, it is far easier to have a clear vision of the most effective plan of action.

(2) Be Proactive, not Reactive, with Your Time

You have the time to accomplish all that you truly need to accomplish if you learn how to manage your time more effectively.  This means that you are managing your time rather than allowing your time to manage you.  When you deliberately set specific, realistic, and attainable goals that are in the service of short-term and long-term goals, it is easier to stay on track.  Be conscientious about your time and even allow yourself to be jealous of your time.  This means protecting your time and using it judiciously.

(3) Plan Your Day

If you have no intentions for what you wish to accomplish with your day, don’t be surprised when very little actually gets accomplished.  Depending upon your personal preferences, personality, and set of goals or responsibilities, you can plan your day in a variety of ways.  Some people enjoy using an online calendar or computer software to map out their plan of action for the day, while others might prefer to have a clear list of prioritized tasks that they commit to accomplishing.  However you choose to plan your day, be sure that your plan is realistic, goal-oriented, and flexible.

(4) Schedule Your Tasks

While you are certainly on the right track if you choose to make a “to-do list,” this isn’t enough.  A to-do list isn’t actually a commitment to do anything at all… it is simply a list of tasks.  Take this process a step further by actually scheduling tasks in your planner and committing yourself to accomplishing them.  For example, if you have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon, would you write it down on your to-do list and then “forget” about it? Probably not… the reason for this is because you would have consciously blocked out time in your schedule for the appointment.  Treat your important work activities in the same committed way.

(5) Schedule Appropriate Tasks to the Time & Energy You Have

Begin to utilize your smaller chunks of time in more productive ways to take care of tasks like returning phone calls, opening the mail, or filing papers.  When you deliberately use your small chunks of time in these productive ways that do not require a great deal of mental or emotional energy, you can use your larger blocks of time more effectively.  For example, if you typically experience more interruptions during the morning hours, choose to use this time to take care of tasks that require less effort on your part.  In this way, your progress will not be significantly affected by the interruptions.  Save your important tasks for times when you know you will have a larger block of uninterrupted time… this increases the likelihood of being able to get into a “state of flow.”

(6) Don’t Procrastinate

We have all procrastinated at some point.  This happens for a variety of reasons, but the most common reason we procrastinate is because we simply don’t want to do something.  Other times, we might not know where to begin, so we just avoid starting at all.  The simple fact of life is that there are going to be important tasks that we won’t “like,” yet must complete in order to get what we want in life.  This is the trade-off.  Sometimes getting what you want in the long-term is much more valuable than getting your way in the short-term and enjoying mundane tasks.  Of course, there is great value and much to be said for creating a work life that is purposeful and meaningful, but even with such a life, there will be inevitable tasks that are boring and uninteresting.  Keep your focus on why you are doing what you are doing.  Remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

(7) Don’t Be a Perfectionist

Part of effectively managing your time and getting the most important things accomplished means being mindful of not spending inordinate amounts of time on tasks that do not actually require it.  There is a common tendency among perfectionists to spend a great deal of time on their work because they are not satisfied with a finished product that falls short of their very high personal expectations.  Don’t allow your great personal strength of being a perfectionist to become your personal downfall.  Make deliberate and mindful choices about what tasks are truly worth your time and what tasks you are willing to allow to be “good enough.”  Everything doesn’t have to be “perfect.”  If this is a core value for you, it is worth reflecting upon the meaning of excellence to you and how your own high standards have impacted your life in positive and negative ways.

Izsak (2004) explains that “where you will be in three to five years from now depends on what you are doing today, tomorrow and next week. We make conscious and unconscious decisions about how we spend our time every hour of the day.”  The way that you can most effectively manage your time depends a great deal on your own personality, current patterns of actions, goals, and responsibilities.  The underlying current of effective time management is balance.

If you are currently stuck in a pattern of chaos and feeling unorganized, part of balance for you will mean learning to become more structured and conscientious.  If you find yourself in a pattern of rigidity and inflexibility, reaching balance may mean making more time for self-care and flexibility in your schedule.  As you reflect upon your own patterns, what changes would enable you to use your time and effort most effectively?

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Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Time Spiral by gadl / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on October 28, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Re: “(7) Don’t be a Perfectionist”

    A great way for perfectionists to prevent their “great personal strength of being a perfectionist to become their personal downfall” is to apply their perfectionism to the 80/20 rule. If they are a perfectionist about spending their time on the 20% of the work that yields 80% of the results, then their time management could approach, well, perfection.

    I’m still working on this one myself.

    • Laura on October 28, 2011 at 11:34 am

      James – This sounds like an excellent strategy for taking full advantage of the strengths of having perfectionistic traits! I would love to know more about your experience with how you distinguish and narrow down the work that yields the greatest results. It certainly seems like there is great potential for this strategy to reach… as you said, “perfection.” Thanks for your comment!

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