Friday, March 4, 2011

The Pareto (80/20) rule and time management - the fallacy

The Pareto rule (or Pareto principle), also known as the 80/20 rule, is often used when discussing time management. However I do believe there's some flaws when applying the Pareto principle to time management, and I'll try to sort them out here.

The argument within time management often goes (after introducing the 80/20 rule):
"Thus, since 80% of you achievements comes from 20% of your work, you shall strive to focus more on you time and effort on those (current) 20%."
Right? Not!
At least I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong - time management is useful. But we shouldn't apply the Pareto rule here. Instead it all boils down to "do the important stuff first", but you should also be serendipitous.

There's a few potential and actual flaws that can be identified, but first - let's have a closer look at the Pareto principle.

The Pareto principle and power laws
The Pareto principle was named after Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

In a broader scope the Pareto principle is an effect of power law distributions, or more specifically - the 80/20 characteristics is a property of some classes of power law distributions.

Power laws are quite interesting, and well worth a deeper look (which I will spare you for the moment). For our purposes here we will note two things though:
  • Phenomena described by power law distributions are scale-free, ie shows scale invariance. This means that the phenomena will always show a power law distribution, regardless of how you "zoom in" when you look.
  • Power law distributions are an indication of a system in a critical state, or a system which shows self-organized criticality.
If you have looked into eg chaos theory, or read eg The Black Swan or Ubiquity, you will recognize that such systems are not predictable in the terms that we normally are used to with systems that shows a Gaussian random behavior. The changes are not distributed around an "average value". Instead the changes can be very large or very small, without any predictable size.

Now, let's have a look at the time management 80/20 fallacies...

False analogy (?)
The first objection - can you apply the knowledge from Italian land distribution to time management, or is this a false analogy?

To be honest; I'm not sure. I wouldn't be surprised if "how you spend your time" shows a power law distribution.

But I haven't seen any study proving this. Just because we "know that we spend a lot of time (80%?) on things that are not really productive (20%?)" it doesn't mean we have a Pareto distribution.

I would be happy if you can point me at studies that confirms that we do have a power law situation (or disproves...)!

But let's assume that we indeed have a Pareto distribution, and that the 80/20 rule do apply! What would this mean?

We will still have an 80/20 situation...
...even after we have done our "time management homework".

Remember that the Pareto distribution (and power laws in general) means that we have a scale-free behavior. Thus, after having cut of the "non-productive tail" of our efforts, the "productive head" (ie the 20% of our efforts that produces 80% of the value) will still have the 80/20 property!

What now? Should we iterate, and again cut of the tail (pony-tail?) of the head?

Also, how do we know that our initial 80/20 distribution isn't the result of a previous (unconscious) time management activity? Where should we start, and when should we end?

We don't know what will make up the "tail"
Another property of systems showing a Pareto/power law distribution is the unpredictability.

Yes, we should be able to analyze our past schedule, find the patterns and identify which part of our time was the unproductive tail.

However, if we do have a Pareto situation, it is not possible to foresee if any of the past "valuable time" eventually will be worthless, or if any of the potential "time wasters" will turn out to be the next big thing.

And it's all interconnected...
The last thing to note is that you activity that you'll trying to time manage consists of a number of smaller tasks. These tasks are not independent of each other, they all interrelate.

Going back to the theory, we can note that self-organized criticality is a property of some complex systems. "A complex system is a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties (behavior among the possible properties) not obvious from the properties of the individual parts"

Thus it would be impossible in most cases to filter out the less productive activity and foresee how the non-execution of that activity would affect your overall productivity, especially how it would affect your more productive time.

This might sound too theoretical, but it is easy to see the connection to eg the value of collaboration and networking.
  • Perhaps those 15 unproductive minutes you spend with a colleague drinking coffee and chatting will result in that a piece of information you picked up in the chat saved you two hours of work later?
  • Perhaps those 10 minutes you invested in helping a colleague solving a task not relevant for your performance will result in getting help later from that colleague, again saving you hours of work? (Not mentioning that those 10 minutes of your expertise you invested probably saved an hour of your companies overall time that your colleague would have spent on their own trying to find a solution).
The summary, and the common sense of time management
So, I don't think the 80/20 reasoning shall be applied to time management, at least not the way it is most commonly done today.
  • First, please prove to me that we do indeed have a Pareto distribution here.
  • Second, if we do have a Pareto distribution, whats' the implications of that?
But as I said in the beginning - time management is important, of course. But to me it all boils down to:
  • Focus on the important things...
    And define what you mean by important. Most valuable? Most fun? Best investment for the future? Most urgent? Also, define "for whom". For you? For your stakeholder? (And who are they?) For the society?
    Tricky questions perhaps, but to me this are the important time management questions to have in mind.
  • ...and be serendipitous
    Be open for new things, you'll never know when and how they will come in handy.
    Remember that it is often in the intersection of different fields or activities that the really valuable new thoughts and insights emerge.
    And you'll never know what the impact and future value of an activity that seems less valuable today might be tomorrow.

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