A Realistic Guide To Using the Pareto Principle for Project Time Management

Uncover the power of Pareto's Principle to pinpoint high-impact tasks and reduce low-value activities for effective project time management.

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The Pareto principle, often referred to as the 80/20 rule, suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts.

First observed by economist Vilfredo Pareto and later popularized by management consultant Dr. Joseph Juran, this concept can be a powerful tool for time management. You can improve how you spend your time at work by focusing on tasks that have the most impact on achieving your project goals.

This article will explore how the Pareto principle can help you prioritize tasks and carve out time for those high-value activities. Let's dive in and discover how to optimize your time and enhance your productivity!

How the Pareto principle solves the prioritization problem

Effectively prioritizing our time at work is crucial, but we often spend hours on less critical activities. On average, managers spend 16 hours in meetings weekly, while workers dedicate 58% of their day to work about work and only 33% to strategic tasks that bring them closer to achieving their goals.

There are several reasons why focusing on vital tasks can be challenging:

1. The mere urgency effect

This phenomenon causes us to choose easier tasks with fewer rewards over more critical work that could contribute to project success. For example, cost estimation for a new project involves research, meetings, and critical thinking. Instead, you might clear your inbox because it's simpler and gives you a sense of accomplishment.

2. Busy work

Busy work is often applauded and rewarded. Research has shown that people perceive effort as valuable, regardless of its impact. As a result, we naturally gravitate towards tasks that make us feel engaged and productive, even if they're not the most important.

3. Multiple priorities

Ideally, teams should have a single priority rather than multiple priorities. Ron Ashkenas, principal at Ashkeans Consulting, says that "if everything is called a priority, then nothing is." At an organizational level, if everything is treated as urgent, it is nearly impossible to remain focused on key projects and activities. With limited hours in a day, not selecting a strategic priority can lead to you and your team spreading yourselves too thin.


Recommended reading

Boost your time management skills by checking out "The Eisenhower Matrix: A Simple Tool for Prioritizing Your Tasks," a great compliment to Pareto's principle for maximizing project efficiency.

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Applying the Pareto principle to your work encourages you to consistently evaluate the importance and impact of each task before investing time and effort into them. This time management approach minimizes busy work and requires you to prioritize high-value activities that bring you closer to project success.

How to identify your 20% at work

Identifying your 20% at work is essential for optimizing your time and achieving your goals.

To start, audit your activities by examining your calendar or to-do list, determining how much time you spend on tasks that contribute to project success, strategic thinking, and meetings.

If you notice you have spent five hours in meetings and just a few minutes working on the cost estimate for your next project,  it's time to reassess your priorities.



“At Float, we have our Principles for Success which are a series of guides to help us achieve our overall goal of more happy customers. Using these principles as a guide helps to focus our attention and energy on work that will help to deliver on these narrower goals.”


<pull-quote-author>Colin Ross, Director of Engineering</pull-quote-author>


How to make time for your 20%

As you narrow your focus, you have to start saying no to less critical activities. But as we know, saying no is not always that simple.

Here are some ways to decline without burning bridges:

  • Provide a constructive reason for refusal, as work psychologist Ian MacRae suggests. Offer alternatives, like needing more notice or resources to complete the task effectively.
  • Explain how taking on new responsibilities or expanding a project's scope would cause delays for other tasks. Float's Alison Prator recommends treating tasks as "swapping objects in and out of a line."
  • Highlight the costs in terms of quality. Ross suggests emphasizing the importance of doing a few tasks well over many tasks poorly. In this case, you could say, "Yes, we could prioritize Project X, but it would mean a tradeoff in the quality of deliverables in Project Y."

If you work in a culture where everything is treated as urgent, Ross recommends a different approach: "Try to understand what is driving these changes and work with your boss to figure out what short-term pain might be getting in the way of achieving longer-term goals. It might then be worth devoting some time and energy to dealing with the short-term pain in order to reap the benefits down the line."

To be intentional about important tasks, schedule time for them using strategies like time blocking to minimize distractions. Cal Newport suggests creating an attention charter in ambiguous situations, a document outlining the reasons and terms for allocating your time and attention.

Lastly, don't neglect your 80% or trivial many, as Dr. Juran calls them. Administrative tasks and emails are still necessary. Consider timeboxing these activities by setting specific blocks of time for meetings or email responses.

How to identify your team's 20%

As a manager, it's important to help your team identify their 20% and protect their time to focus on high-priority tasks. Managers can define what's critical and ensure their team's time is well spent.

Float's Director of Engineering Colin Ross explains the manager's role in handling interruptions: "From my perspective if there is any context switching that has to happen, I want that to happen to me rather than the members of my team. I am not and shouldn't be on the critical path for any project, so interruptions are less painful for me and, indeed, are actually expected. This allows me to insulate the team as far as possible from interruptions while still being able to keep them informed of what might be going on via asynchronous status updates."

Begin by taking stock of where your team is spending their time. Use 1:1 meetings and daily stand-ups as opportunities to inquire about their activities and priorities. A resource management tool like Float can also provide insights into the time spent on various tasks.

Ask the following questions:

  • What tasks consume most of their time?
  • What blockers do they regularly face?
  • What other projects are they working on?

If your team is spending too much time away from work that moves the needle, it might be because they are not sure what their priorities should be.

Next, define their 20%. What tasks should they focus on to meet project goals?

This can be challenging if team members are shared across multiple projects, or you're not their direct manager. However, understanding how they spend their time can help you with project coordination when assigning priorities across various projects.

For instance, an organization's customer success team may primarily focus on acquisition, prioritizing activities like demos, customer training sessions, quotes, and expansion opportunities over expansion and retention tasks.

How to make time for your team's 20%

Making time for your team's 20% is crucial to ensure they focus on high-priority tasks. Follow these steps to create an environment that supports their efforts:

  1. Communicate with stakeholders: Since your team doesn't work in isolation, you need to inform stakeholders about your prioritization decisions. Explain why certain tasks are treated as urgent, and others are de-prioritized.
  2. Present a plan: Elizabeth Grace Saunders, the co-author of the HBR Guide to Work-Life Balance, recommends presenting a plan to your boss highlighting high-value activities. Show how your choices align with the company's goals. “Ask your team to track which projects they’re working on, how long those activities are taking, and how much time it would take to get done the additional activities that they’re not getting to right now.”
  3. Use data to support your argument: If your boss remains unconvinced, back up your decisions with data. Ask your team to track their projects, the time spent on activities, and the time needed to complete additional tasks they're not currently working on.
  4. Default to asynchronous collaboration and communication: Protect your team's time by promoting async collaboration. This approach allows team members to focus on their priorities without constant interruptions.
  5. Empower your team to push back: Encourage them to take some time to think about a request and respond after careful consideration rather than feeling pressured to say yes immediately. It's also a good idea to make requests away from public channels so team members don't feel obligated to agree due to peer pressure.

A real-life example: Prioritizing feature requests

Float’s Senior Product Manager, Alice Winthrop, often gets ideas for new features coming in from customers and team members. She uses several questions to decide what she and her team would work on:

1. Alignment

  • Is the feature or a version of it already on our product roadmap?
  • Does it fit our product vision?
  • Is it part of the core product experience, or is it peripheral?

2. Customer value

  • What value does this feature deliver?
  • Which customer pain points, needs, and desires does it address?
  • Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have feature?

3. Reach of benefit

  • How many customers would this benefit?
  • Is this a feature that we already have many requests for, or is it a one-off customization request?

4. Business value

  • If we built this feature, how would it impact the business?
  • Do we have evidence that adding this feature will increase revenue, retention, or market share?
  • What is the lifetime value of the customer/customer segment requesting the feature?

5. Effort vs. impact

  • What’s the approximate level of effort required to develop this feature versus its potential impact on users and the business? High-impact, low-effort features are easy to prioritize!

6. Risk vs. reward

  • Would this feature involve significant user experience changes, technical complexity, or data migrations?
  • Is the potential upside worth the risk?

7. Urgency of request

  • Is there a reason why we should move quickly on this?
  • Are we likely to miss a big opportunity if we wait too long to act?
  • Is there an urgent business or customer need that this would address?

Prioritize the right tasks

Using the Pareto principle in your time management allows you to concentrate on tasks with the most significant impact, bringing you closer to your project goals.

Remember that the 80/20 rule may not always apply, as the effort-to-results ratio can change depending on the task and context. Being flexible and adjusting your approach when needed is essential.

Focusing on the right tasks will increase your productivity, improve your workflow, and ultimately help you achieve more professional success.



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