Priorities, Pareto, and the 80/20 Principle

Prioritization, Air Force Style

One of the most… um… interesting job I had in the Air Force was as an Executive Officer. An “Exec” is basically a beefed-up secretary, doing everything from answering phones, creating schedules, running large events, and leading Commander’s Initiatives. My boss at the time was a driven, high-tempo colonel with a tradition for chewing out his subordinates… so when he called me into the office one Monday morning to review some new initiatives, I was already on edge.

So he laid out three new projects, HUGE projects, and told me to get started immediately. As I verbally reviewed my tasks with him, I mentioned that these were all large projects that would take a lot of time and resources. So I asked, “Sir, exactly how should I prioritize these initiatives? Which should I focus on?”

His reply: “Make each project your #1 priority”


Even though our world today has more “timesaving devices” than ever before, our schedules are still jam-packed, and we still find that we don’t have time for what we “need” to do. Without setting priorities, getting organized and delegating wherever possible, a leader will have limited effectiveness.

Old "Changed Priorities" sign from the UK

The Pareto Principle

What is also known as the 80/20 rule was first recognized by an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto who saw that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. He (and others) soon recognized the pattern everywhere… 80% of your return usually comes from 20% of your investments. 80% of business usually comes from 20% of your clients. 80% of the world’s wealth is held by 20% of the population. (And this one is probably skewed even more towards 90%/10%)

In leadership, you will find that 80% of your effectiveness comes from 20% of your activities. Part of your responsibility as a developing leader is to slowly eliminate the “80% tasks” to others in your organization (delegate!) and to begin to focus more and more on those tasks that give you and your organization the most benefit. Plus, leaders must learn to say no to accepting more tasks when the task isn’t part of their “20% tasks.”

Take control of your time

Other than focusing on your strengths and delegating tasks that aren’t, here are some other ideas to help re-prioritize:

  • Be organized. Take control of your time, not the other way around. Have a daily schedule or a routine that allows you to work most effectively.
  • Take time for people. Unless you work on an assembly line making widgets, your job is about relationships. Don’t overlook this.
  • Take time for yourself. Find time to relax and do something that fills you back up, mentally and spiritually.
  • Avoid timewasters like Facebook, idle conversation, excessive hobbies (whether that’s video games or golf, don’t let it rule your life) … these things are “time suckers”.

What does your daily schedule look like? Does the amount of time you spend on your daily “stuff” reflect your priorities? What do you spend most of your day doing, and does it contribute to your personal goals?

Photo credit: Flikr/hockadilly