Let’s dork out on some economic principles. Then let’s revolutionize the way you think about your relationships, your work, and wellbeing.

Economics might seem like an unexpected source of inspiration, but stick with me here. It rocked my world and it might shake yours up too.

Okay, first the sort of dry part. Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who in 1906 discovered an interesting principle that has over time and in many applications being proved consistently true: that 80% of the output or results will come from 20% of the input or action. So what the heck does that mean?

For Pareto, his discoveries included finding that 80% of wealth was controlled by 20% of the population, that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas, and that 80% of a business’s income came from 20% of its customers. Other researchers have found similar applications in business, software, management, and occupational safety. This aggregate of observation became known as the Pareto Principle, or the law of 80/20.

Okay, still with me? Now comes the fun part. After I read about this, I began thinking about other ways this principle could sift through my life, not only in my business—which is the epicenter of it all right now—but also in more personal ways.

First, my business. It is true that 80% of my sales come from 20% of my products. That my creative flow and productivity typically express as long periods of nothing-nothing-nothing and then wham-o! Ideas are flowing, my hands are busy, and the art is birthed. You might find in your workplace that 20% of your staff or co-workers are producing 80% of the results. Or that 20% of the projects do 80% of the magic.

A huge realization for me was that only 20% of that super-duper majorly URGENT to-do list brings 80% of change and growth, meaning a whopping 80% of what feels so pressing everyday can take a hike to the garbage can. Breathe that in.

Next I tackled some more personal things, starting with my closet. I felt really inspired to go a little deeper because if the principle holds true in the wardrobe department, I am getting 80% of my satisfaction from 20% of my clothing. Twenty percent! How much clothing would I have to donate to pare it down to 20%?

At this point in my life I wear the same thing most days. I know what I like and what feels good on me (black, boots, good fitting jeans, shift dresses, flowing fabrics, tank sleeves). I usually go through my closet a few times a year to chuck stuff, but I went through the rack with an especially discerning eye this time.

It was a little intimidating to start, but once I started examining each thing, it became so obvious what I could get rid of. I would hold it up and ask myself: How frickin’ awesome and badass do I feel when I wear this? Each time I wear this, do I have that standing tall, mega confident, sexy, powerful feeling inside? No? Then out it went. Sorta? Out too. The result was a pretty decent pile of shoes, bags, and clothing that was just taking up space. It boiled down to a freeing realization that I could enjoy more with less.

Unexpected benefits

  • My closet is so pretty and easy to use now! I can see everything and move freely without clutter.
  • I was clearly able to see what was missing in my wardrobe. I noticed I didn’t have many dresses or skirts, so next time I went shopping I committed to only buying a dress or skirt—no matter how much the jeans or leather purses tempted me. And selection was easier too, all I had to ask was what side of the 80/20 does this piece fall on?
  • Since I have given myself permission to have fewer items, I’ve been able to save for better clothing and shoes made in alignment with my values. Yay!
  • Two months after the sift, I have yet to miss a single thing I got rid of– in fact, I kinda can’t even remember what I gave away.

Now, there are much deeper things this principle can also apply to. Clearing my closet is one thing, the juicy stuff was thinking about how I relate to myself and others.

So let me ask you some questions to get that ball rolling:
What would it feel like to stop spending time with the 80% of people who only bring you 20% of your joy?
What if you really focused in and nurtured your relationship with those 20% of people who fill you with love, make you laugh until your stomach hurts, and will be by your side even on your dog-days?
What if you stopped spending time with people who sap your energy and drain you from the inside out?

Imagine all the new things you could do with those 20 percenters now that your schedule isn’t clogged with social obligations that don’t really bring you satisfaction.

Next, what would it feel like to take 80% of the things that demand your time off your plate?
In our age we’re all working our butts off and doing our best to balance the demands of work, children, and home; it can be overwhelming and you might be thinking you can’t stop doing any of the things you need to do each day. Point taken. But dig a little deeper.

Think about it. If you were to make a list of every little thing you did in a day, how many of those contribute to the happiness of you and your family? If you were to give up the expectation that you should be able to do it all, what could you just cross off this list? What could you say No to? Get a big black pen and start hacking away at the 80% of stuff that isn’t helping or improving your day.

Lastly and most powerfully, let’s get meta with it.
What would it feel like to stop believing in 80% of your thoughts?
What if you treated 80% of what passed through your head as meaningless mind garbage that is just a normal part of a human brain?
What if instead you really investigated and listened to the gems the 20% of your thoughts are generating?
What would it feel like to totally abandon all attachment to thoughts that make you feel like a dumpster of doubt, shame, guilt, and anger?
What would it be like to tend to the thoughts that help you get focused, grow, learn, love, and empathize?

The point is not to be some sort efficiency machine, stripping away unnecessary things so you can add more stuff and be the best multi-tasker the world has ever seen.

I am personally worn on the recent cultural phenomenon of ‘doing it all’ as a measure of success. I don’t want to do it all. I want to do some of it really well and enjoy the heck out of it the whole time.

The 80/20 principle has been a useful decision making tool for me, a way to examine what’s really in my heart, what I really want to spend my time doing, and it gives me permission to let things go. Let go of relationships that aren’t working, ideas that are not generating results, and stresses that have just become habit.

It has helped me clarify what is at the core of who I am on this planet and let the extraneous stuff get lightly lifted away to reside forever more in the junkyard of things I thought I needed.

What about you? How do you (or can you) apply the 80/20 principle to your own life or business? What can you let go of (to make time for more of doing what you love)?


Photo by: Steve Richey

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  1. Insightful, well-stated, thought-provoking and inspiring in an encouraging and non-patronizing way – can’t wait to implement in my life NOW! Love ya, Kate!

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