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Fundamentals of Less Doing: Doing What Matters (The 80/20 Rule)

By August 16, 2010 Fundamentals 8 Comments

Fundamentals of Less Doing is a series of articles detailing how we think about productivity from a conceptual level. If you are new to Less Doing, the Fundamentals series is a great place to start.


Take a moment to think about your day. Think about what you did. Now, think about what you actually accomplished. Are you satisfied with what you accomplished? More importantly, did the “things you did” contribute significantly to that accomplishment? Did they contribute to your overall goals for your job? For your business? For yourself?

I’m going to guess that for most of you, that the answer to both of those questions is that most of the “things you did” did not contribute toward your goals.

One of my favorite sections of Tim Ferriss‘s 4-Hour Workweek is his description of Pareto’s Law. On page 69 Tim says, “Pareto’s Law can be summarized as follows: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs.” He then goes on to list alternative phrasings:

  • 80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes.
  • 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.
  • 80% of company profits come from 20% of the products and customers.
  • 80% of all stock market gains are realized by 20% of the investors and 20% of an individual portfolio.

The concept is pretty simple–some actions have a greater return than others. Knowing that, you should focus on identifying the items with the highest ratio of work to return.

Is one of your product lines not performing, and you are spending the same amount of time supporting this product line as the ones that do perform? Drop it. Do you have any small clients that drive you crazy? Drop them.

We only have so much time, and if you want to be successful without spending all day working, then you have to learn to work smarter. A huge part of this is focusing on the items that have a large return.

We’re Still Learning

I actually had to remind Ari of this recently when he sent me an “automation challenge” (something he does on a semi-regular basis) asking if I could help him find a solution to automate the combining of PDFs of his monthly bank statements into a single PDF for each account. Currently, he does this manually every month.

I told Ari, that I thought there were solutions that could do this on Mac (he’s a PC guy which is definitely not efficient), but more importantly, why over-engineer a solution? Why did he need to combine these PDFs into a single file? Why not just standardize a naming format for each of them and save them in the directory? If he needs to search all of them, he can just open them all at once. Even better, why not just hook your bank accounts into

You see, Ari and I often find ourselves trying to find ways to automate things that have an alternative simpler solution. Occasionally, we’ll find ourselves wasting hours looking for solutions to things that really do not matter that much. If you ever catch us doing this, please smack us.

If You Only Walk Away with One Thing

Remember that certain actions have a greater impact and better potential outcome than other actions. Use this to filter your to do list as you think about what to do next, and more importantly, use this to create your list, thinking ahead about what can create the greatest impact.


Ari’s response when I told him that he was trying to over-engineer was, “You know what. That’s a damn good point.”




Hi Ari,

I agree and this is surprisingly one of the first things I was taught when I did my Business degree in 1999. It has stayed with me as the principle thing in my business life. I'm glad you are teaching this to others.


From an accounting standpoint, suggesting that spending too much time on a product line that is "not performing" and to simply cut a grave mistake. Managerial accounting comes into play here and things that appear simple are not.

Clay Hebert
Clay Hebert

Combining monthly statements into one .pdf? Hmmm. I believe I have a much better solution. For bank statements, utility bills, even travel rewards, you should check out (and maybe do a review?) of Would love the thoughts of you two productivity gurus. :)Hope you guys are well.

Ari Meisel
Ari Meisel

I find Manilla totally underwhelming. You should use Mint for financial accounts, bills should be managed directly through bill pay on your banks website so they can be paid and managed in one place, and you shouldn't get subscriptions (go paperless). 

Clay Hebert
Clay Hebert

Interesting. I agree for the most part.(Full disclosure, I'm friends with Jameson and my girlfriend Julia is VP of Marketing at Manilla.) You say1) use Mint for financial accounts (completely agree for financial data - not documents)2) bills should be managed directly through bill pay on your banks website so they can be paid and managed in one place (completely agree for actually paying the bill, either via auto-withdrawal / EFT, or bank bill pay. But this still doesn't get you access to the .pdf statements.)3) you shouldn't get subscriptions, go paperless (yes, but then what is the solution for finding & reviewing a .pdf statement from AT&T from 4 months ago or from ConEd statement from 8 months ago. Logging into all those sites separately is a huge PITA. Just like Mint brought all your financial data into one place, Manilla does that with the electronic documents and statements.)


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  2. […] Less Doing embraces this concept. One the preffered definitions of efficiency is the ratio of inputs to output. Does spending four hours on a project produce more money than spending 2 hours on a different project? Do you get more enjoyment from having a stack of paperbacks on your bedside that you never get to read or having 200 books on your kindle that you get to read because they are more accessible? Remember the 80/20 rule?  […]

  3. […] For an entire year while I was training for Ironman France I spent upwards of 20 hours per week in a pool, on a bike, or running around the city. On days when I had to do a bike ride that was longer than 3 hours, I would get up at 4 am, and 10 minutes later hop on the trainer in my office while I watched any and every random documentary I could find on Netflix. It worked because I achieved my goal of a sub 14 hour Ironman but wasn’t particularly pleasant and I felt there had to be a better use of my time. Unfortunately, if you are training for an Ironman, you have to put the time in, if nothing else you need to mentally train yourself for the agony of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running a marathon. For everyone else, I’m here to tell you that you can get away with significantly less training. Keep in mind that when I say optimize, I’m talking about getting the maximum benefit for the least amount of energy and time, remember 80/20? […]