Pareto – The 80/20 rule

You’ve probably heard of this. 

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who noticed in 1896 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by just 20% of the population. He followed this with studies which showed that the same was true in other countries. 

In 1941 management consultant Joseph M. Juran started applying Pareto’s thinking to quality improvement, suggesting that 80% of a problem comes from 20% of the causes.  

In leadership terms this 80-20 principle suggests that 80% of your impact comes from just 20% of your work. 

This is why getting your priorities straight is so important. 

What is the 20% of your work that makes most of your impact? 

If you can answer this question, you can shift more of your time into activity that really matters. 

What is the 20% of stuff that causes 80% of the problems?

If you can answer this… You know what to avoid. Or get rid of. 

This is a good recipe for making progress. 

Identify the most productive 20% and amplify. Identify the most annoying 20% and cut it back. Repeat. 

Where is your power zone?

In a conversation with a colleague last week, I touched on an idea from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. A brilliant book about what effective leadership really looks and feels like.

Collins talks about identifying your organisation’s “hedgehog concept” – the one thing that your business can be the best in the world at, which is defined by the intersection of three things. Your passions, your expertise and the driver of your economic engine.

I think this idea is really helpful for individuals too, in identifying where you can make the most impact. I just change the words just a little bit.


What are you passionate about? What do you love about your work?

Where does your expertise lie? What can you be REALLY good at?

What does the market want? Where “market” is defined by your role and might be no more complicated than “your employer” or “your organisation”, but could also be real stakeholders or customers. So… What is it about your unique skills, understanding and insight that is truly valuable to your “market”?

For me, the intersection of the answers to these questions is your Power Zone. It is where you can really make a difference, whatever your role.

We can sometimes let ourselves take on things that we’re passionate about and expert in, but that aren’t at the core of what our markets need. This can be good for the soul, but if we do it too much we are missing the chance to make a real tangible difference. And our bosses will wonder why they’re paying us for having our own fun at the expense of their priorities.

We all get drawn into doing things that the market wants and we are expert in, but if we’re not truly passionate about them we will struggle to sustain meaningful effort and eventually grow weary.

This way of thinking is really useful when you’re trying to develop vision and mission statements, for yourself or your team. And for helping set your priorities.

Lots of stuff in the “urgent but not important” quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix is stuff that the market wants that you’re expert in.

If you can make time to pull yourself towards the power zone, by delegating the stuff that you’re less passionate about, you’ll enjoy your work more, and make more of an impact.

Urgent vs Important

How much time do you spend doing things that are truly “important”? As opposed to things that are merely “urgent”?

The activity that will make an impact, the opportunities to lead that come your way, will rarely be urgent. But if you want to do really meaningful work, whatever your level of authority in your organisation, you have to identify things that are important, and make time for them.

One way to think about this is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.


Looking this picture, where have you spent your time in the last month or so?

For most people the answer is something like: Mostly in 1 and 3, hardly ever in 4, and a little bit in 2.

Doing more leadership (and less management) is usually about finding ways to shift your time from box 3 to box 2. Doing less of the “urgent but not important” and more of the “important but not urgent”.

So how do you do this?

Firstly, just start thinking about things in this way. Look at your to-do list through the lens of this matrix. You could download my simple PDF sheet to print and fill in. Or you can make your own. Or just do it in your head.

Secondly, when you have your tasks organised this way, think about applying the following philosophy.


Block out time to do things that are important but not urgent. Free up the time to do this by delegating things that are urgent but not important.

Thirdly, if you don’t have much to put in your important but not urgent box… schedule some time to think about what should be there.

How are YOU going to make an impact?
What are YOUR unique insights on how your organisation can make progress?
What can YOU do to move things in the right direction?

Thinking about these things will never be urgent. But if you want to lead, there is nothing more important.