80-20 Your Life

80-20 Your Life

Christopher Murphy · 16 July, 2020

If you haven’t heard of the 80-20 rule, it’s well worth reading up on. Also known as the Pareto Principle, the rule is named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1895, noticed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy belonged to 20% of the country’s population.

The numbers don't have to add up to 100% exactly, rather the rule suggests that approximately 80% of your results will accrue from approximately 20% of your activity.

I try to apply the 80-20 rule to my life and my work, where possible. For example…

80-20 Purpose

With 50 years – half a century! – under my belt, it’s incredibly important to me that I focus my attention on work with purpose.

Until 31 December, 2020, 80% of my time (more or less) has been focused on Belfast School of Art. From 1 January, 2021, the script is flipped and I'm giving 80% of my time to work that really matters to me.

At this point in my life, the work that matters to me is coaching design-focused founders, helping them to accelerate their startups (and their lives).

80-20 Clients

Rather than engaging on an endless quest to acquire new clients for my design consultancy and coaching, I focus instead on ensuring that my core clients (who I call ‘the 20%’) are taken care of and treated kindly.

Acquiring new clients is an expensive process that isn’t always guaranteed to pay off, so I focus on the clients that really matter.

  • By pricing my digital products – courses and workshops, in particular – at higher price points (with scholarships to allow for inclusivity) I attract committed learners (a different ‘20%’) who have skin in the game and will take what we’re teaching seriously.

On this latter point – of having skin in the game – my friend Andrew Wood this morning made an interesting aside that I immediately noted. Whilst discussing pro-bono coaching, we discussed the benefits of charging even a small, heavily reduced fee, to underline a student's commitment to the work. As Wood put it:

No barrier to entry, no barrier to exit.

I have found this to be the case on so many occasions. When the barrier to entry, in terms of cost, is £0 dropout rates are considerably higher.

Considering the 80-20 rule in the context of this discussion, I wondered about adopting a model where ~80% of learners pay the full fee, 20% of learners pay 20% of the fee. I call this a 'low bono' fee.

The 80-20 Rule Elsewhere

The following are references to the 80-20 rule I’ve found on my travels:

James Clear

The following reference is from James Clear’s newsletter, in a note on How to 80:20 Your Work, about using the rule at the service of prioritisation:

  1. Make a list of the 10 things you spend the most time on.
  2. Circle the two that truly drive your results. Do more of those.
  3. Look at the others. Eliminate ruthlessly. Automate or outsource what you can. Press pause on the rest.
  4. Repeat.

Shane Parrish

A variation on the above principle – minus the 80-20, implied – below is courtesy of Farnam Street's @shaneaparrish:

  1. Write your goals on a sheet of paper.
  2. Circle the three most important.
  3. Avoid doing any work on anything that's not circled.


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