A twist on the to-do list - use the 80/20 rule

You've got a to-do list, right? Haven't we all. Chances are you don't get anywhere near through your to-do list. Even worse, every time you cross something off, another two items spring up to take its place. Your to-do list has just turned into a Hydra, and frankly, you don't feel like Hercules today. What to do, what to do? It turns out that there is a mathematical law that might help you - the Pareto Principle (or Juran's Assumption). This says that, for the most part, about 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Anything that isn't just routine work can fall right into this equation. Most people achieve 80% of their results from 20% of their actual effort.

Think about that for a minute. 80% of what you get done comes from 20% of the stuff you actually do.

Back to that to-do list. Unfortunately, most time management techniques tend to give equal priority to the 20% of what you need to do that really matters and the 80% of things that don't. Even if you try to rank in order of priority yourself, are you really taking the potential payoff into account?

How can you use this Pareto Principle to transform your to-do list into something far more useful? It might take a few more minutes, but I find it a really powerful way to meaningfully prioritize what you start out to do each day.

  • When you make a to-do list, prioritize each item by the amount of effort required (rank from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least amount of effort required)
  • Do the same with each item, but now rank by potential positive results (1 to 10, with 10 being the highest impact)
  • Now divide the potential positive results by the amount of effort required to get your 'Priority Ranking'.
  • The items with the lowest new 'priority ranking' go to the top of your new to-do list.

Here's some examples:

  • Task 1 - Write comprehensive report for funding body on conference meeting and presentation (Effort = 9, Result = 3 : Priority ranking is 9/3 = 3
  • Task 2 - Prepare presentation for seminar (Effort = 4, Result = 4 : Priority ranking is 4/4 = 1
  • Task 3 - Call client about making appointment for initial coaching session (Effort = 1, Result = 10 : Priority ranking is 1/10 = 0.1

So, my new priority order is Task 3 first, then Task 2, then Task 1.

This method of priority ranking means that the 20% of your effort that makes the biggest difference gets done first. Do this as new items appear on your to-do list, and you'll soon find their place on your new priority ranked list. Of course, the 80% of stuff you do that falls to the bottom of the list may not really matter - but the impact of doing it (or not doing it) may change. So, it is worth reviewing those tasks that stay on the list every now and again, just to check if anything has changed.

Makes sense? Then go! Let me know how you get on.