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Understanding the Pareto principle (The 80/20 rule)

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshotSarah Laoyan
March 5th, 2024
4 min read
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The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) is a phenomenon that states that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of causes. In this article, we break down how you can use this principle to help prioritize tasks and business efforts.

When you get into the office in the morning, what's the first thing you do? Most people grab their caffeinated beverage of choice, check their email, and prioritize their tasks for the day. But what techniques do you use to identify what needs to get done first?

One common technique is called the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. This technique can help you determine and prioritize your highest-impact tasks, increasing your productivity throughout the day.

What is the Pareto principle?

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. In other words, a small percentage of causes have an outsized effect. This concept is important to understand because it can help you identify which initiatives to prioritize so you can make the most impact.

Where does the Pareto principle come from?

The Pareto principle was developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. He also witnessed this happening with plants in his garden—20% of his plants were bearing 80% of the fruit. This relationship is best mathematically described as a power law distribution between two quantities, in which a change in one quantity results in a relevant change into the other.

This phenomenon also goes by a couple of different names:

  • Pareto principle

  • The 80/20 rule (most common)

  • Law of the vital few

  • Principle of factor sparsity 

The 80/20 rule is not a formal mathematical equation, but more a generalized phenomenon that can be observed in economics, business, time management, and even sports.

General examples of the Pareto principle:

  • 20% of a plant contains 80% of the fruit

  • 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of customers

  • 20% of players result in 80% of points scored

Create a prioritization matrix template

How you can use the 80/20 rule

While the 80/20 rule applies to almost every industry, the Pareto principle is commonly used in business and economics. This is because the 80/20 rule is helpful in determining where you can focus your efforts to maximize your output. 

The basis of the Pareto principle states that 80% of results come from 20% of actions. If you have any kind of work that can be segmented into smaller portions, the Pareto principle can help you identify what part of that work is the most influential.

Here are a few examples of how to use the tool in practice.


You can use the 80/20 rule to prioritize the tasks that you need to get done during the day. 

The idea is that out of your entire task list, completing 20% of those tasks will result in 80% of the impact you can create for that day. So in order to get the most impact done, identify which tasks have the most impact for your team and focus on those for the day.

To do this, list out all of the things that you need to get done that day. Then identify which of those tasks have the highest impact. Do any of your tasks involve collaborating with other teammates? Are there any tasks on your plate that are blocking projects from moving forward? These tasks may be simple in execution, but they can make a large impact to the rest of the team by allowing the process to keep flowing. 

Read: How to be more productive: 13 tips to practice today

Decision making

The Pareto principle can help you to make the best decisions during the problem-solving process. When there are many different causes to one problem, the Pareto principle can help you prioritize solutions. Here are a few steps to how this works:

  1. Identify the problems that your team is experiencing. These are the problems that you're trying to find a solution to within this decision making process.

  2. Identify the causes of these problems. Using a tool like the 5 Whys process, find all of the causes of the problems you're trying to solve.

  3. Categorize your problems into similar groups. If some of the causes of the problems you're trying to solve can fall into similar categories, use this as an opportunity to group them together. This can help you decide if one solution can resolve multiple issues. 

  4. Assign a value to each of these problems based on the impact to the business. The value can be as simple as a number between 1-10, or actual monetary value to indicate the importance.

  5. Develop a plan to focus on the top 20% of the problems that impact the business. The idea is that one solution can resolve multiple problems. Based on the values you assigned to each problem, calculate which ones are in the top 20%. Once you’ve identified the main problem, develop a plan to create a solution that can result in 80% of the results using problem-solving strategies.

Example of how to use the 80/20 rule for decision making: 

Imagine you work at an ecommerce company. You take a look at 100 of your most recent customer service complaints, and notice that the bulk of the complaints come from the fact that customers are receiving damaged products. Your team calculates the amount of refunds given for your damaged products and finds that approximately 80% of refunds given were for damaged products. Your company wants to avoid processing refunds for broken products, so you make this problem a priority solution. 

Your team decides to update packaging to protect your products during shipping, which resolves the issue of customers receiving damaged products.

Create a prioritization matrix template

Quality control

The Pareto analysis and the Pareto chart are key tools used within the Six Sigma quality control methodology. 

In the Six Sigma methodology, using a Pareto chart can help you visualize your data to identify how to prioritize actions. Six Sigma’s main goal is to reduce the amount of variation in a process with the goal of increasing the amount of production. Pareto charts are common in Six Sigma methodology because you can quickly identify what the majority of the variations are in a process. 

Benefits of using the Pareto principle

The biggest advantage of using the Pareto principle is that you can create the maximum amount of impact with the least amount of work. This can allow your team to work more efficiently and stay focused on specific initiatives. 

The 80/20 rule can help your metrics increase in less time, simply by prioritizing initiatives in the right order.

Other benefits of using the Pareto principle:

  • Clear priorities both for you and your team

  • Increased daily productivity

  • Ability to portion your work into manageable segments

  • More focused strategy

Disadvantages of using the 80/20 rule

​​There's a common misinterpretation of the Pareto principle that with 20% of effort, you can achieve 80% of the results. This is not necessarily the case. The 20 and 80% numbers don’t refer to the amount of effort you’re putting in, but the causes and consequences you’re working on. The goal is not to minimize the amount of effort, but to focus your effort on a specific portion of work to create a bigger impact. You still have to put 100% of effort into that 20% of focus to achieve 80% of results.

Another downside of the 80/20 rule is that sometimes team members can get too focused and lose sight on other tasks. If you only focus on the important tasks and put aside the less important tasks, like email and other correspondence, things can get lost. The challenge is finding the right balance of using the 80/20 rule, and getting through the rest of your tasks—even if they don't result in 80% of results. To combat this, you can use techniques like timeboxing or the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. 

Connect tasks to goals with Asana

Finding different ways to help your team achieve productivity is an important part about being a team leader. Using a work management tool like Asana can help organize all your team projects and tasks, share files, leave comments and feedback all in one location, while saving you time. 

Create a prioritization matrix template

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