Some thoughts on the 80/20 rule, on productivity.

glass conference table

I briefly conducted a personal 80/20 analysis (Google 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle) by writing down all of my habits and actions and estimating how much time I typically spend on each. I found that I split my time fairly evenly between the following areas:

(1) Seeking the Kingdom, (2) Physical Fitness, (3) Education and Business Activities, (4) Spending time with people, (5) Chores and Errands, (6) Recreation / Procrastination. On the average day, I tend to spend somewhere between 90 minutes and three hours on each of these activities — and I average somewhere between six and eight hours of sleep.

I’ve been accused by some people close to me of being too rigid (to which I mostly reluctantly agree). In my experience, I have found that the areas that I thrive in most are areas that I’ve consistently invested in over a long period of time, and the price of missing the seemingly mundane daily repetitions of action are a little too high.

The weird thing is, I feel like I only stuck things out because I was too crazy or stupid or stubborn to do otherwise. I didn’t see enough noticeable benefits in being awkward at fitness or wisdom right away or even in the first year or two to justify persisting. In fact, I often got much worse at life the more I tried to get better (at first). It just that after several years of habitual action in small increments, I started to feel like some of the areas where I struggled the most in initially became like second nature to me. It’s as if I was never a newbie, and I couldn’t imagine living any other way.

I do try to be flexible, though. Often I’ll dump an entire day’s agenda in favor of spending time with the right person (whether for enjoyment or ministry purposes). I might decide to hit the gym one day less or multi-task (i.e. listen to an educational podcast while driving, cooking, cleaning, or eating). Usually I spend one day a week feeling like a zombie because I basically didn’t sleep the night before — of course, on those days it’s hard to get into a 100% flow of productivity.

I feel like I already mostly focus on the most important 20% of activities for the goals I have in place, but my worry is that I might be spreading myself too thin. Should I consider getting fat and putting off my training in favor of making a sprint for more money? What’s going to happen to these priorities when I’m married and have kids (and the potential of emergencies involving others than myself)?

I also sometimes wonder if I just need to toughen up. In the U.S., an average workday is eight hours long (I’ve had jobs where I work 12-16 hours a day). I tend to really only be mentally sharp for a good 3-4 hour stretch at best everyday before my productivity starts to suffer diminishing returns. The rest of the time, I feel like I’m working at about 70% capacity or am “putting out fires,” so to speak. If my job required physical labor, I could get by with almost no sleep, as long as I had a couple breaks and lunch to nap in my car, but with my main projects in this season (learning to program and developing a commonplace book), I need to be sharp and rested.

The good thing about a season where I don’t have a boss (nor do I have shareholders to give account to) is I can decide to call it a day if my brain isn’t working, rather than play politics. On the reverse, I rarely take days off unless I absolutely have to.

In any case, I feel like my analysis failed because I didn’t decide to cut or change anything. I anticipate seasons where I might be called by God to forget everything else and follow Him; where a business opportunity may prove too enticing and time consuming to worry about staying fit; where a season of tragedy or opportunity would shut down one or several of these areas at the same time.

It’s probably only then that I’ll realize what my true 80/20 activities look like.


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