Practice the 80:20 rule

Put simply 80% of the impact comes from just 20% of the effort. Most of the activities that lead to career advancement come from a few key activities. Most job leads come from a small fraction of your contacts. Most of the impact from any presentation comes from a few key messages. The key in applying the 80:20 rule is to avoid diffusing your energy (‘boil the ocean’): this means focusing on the activities that give you the biggest bang for your effort.

Understand which 80% of results come from which 20% of effort. The key idea is to focus your efforts on that 20% of effort, then be selective about how you use the remaining time

Understand critical skills in the area of focus, and practice them. Many people intuitively understand the areas to stand out, but never develop the relevant skills.

Qualify to stay in the game. Some activities are ‘must have’ even though they don’t make you stand out. Make sure you are not excluded because you don’t deliver on these activities. Examples:

For advancement in professional careers, the focus might not be in great work per se but in developing clients. Knowing this, you would put more effort into understanding client needs, developing relationships, and generating new work. However, to stay in the game, you cannot allow the quality of work to be a black mark against you.

For advancing up the corporate ladder, the 20% might be in developing certain upwards relationships and continually marketing yourself rather than great business achievements. Your program might include identifying the key players, growing the relationships, and getting through your sales message, but you would take care not to under deliver on results.

In school, the key measure of success is academic results not sports or extracurricular activities. One student who understood this was very active in leadership roles in secondary school. However, in the 2 years preceding university, he focused his efforts entirely on his studies. Another student who did not understand this was very active in extracurricular activities. He failed to get into university on his first try. On his second try, he still failed because he had lost momentum and confidence.

In exams, you can ‘spot’ the questions that are very likely to be asked. You might practice repeatedly to get completeness and depth, plus speed and accuracy. You would also prepare reasonably well for other questions in case your spotting is inaccurate.

Caveat: The 80:20 rule does not apply to everything. It normally applies when there is not enough time to do everything. The exceptions are when you need to achieve 100%. Examples: exams, quality control, grammar, proofreading, not offending people.

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