The 80-20 Rule: The Key to Producing Better Work in Less Time

This article was originally published on ArchSmarter as "How to Work Smarter with the 80-20 Rule."

“OK, let me see your list.” I was fresh out of architecture school and working on my first project as a designer. It was one week before our design Development Deadline. The project manager asked me to draw up a list of remaining design issues.

“Here are the ten things I have left,” I said as I handed over the list. “It was hard to prioritize them. They’re all really important.” I was fortunate to be working with an experienced project manager who, in addition to being extremely patient with me, saw it as her responsibility to mold and shape green architecture graduates into fully functioning architects. Not an easy task...

“So you’re telling me that designing custom coat hooks is as important as fine-tuning the proportions of the massing?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well... I mean... no. Not when you put it that way...” I stammered.

“And,” she continued, “do you really think the restroom tile pattern will bring as much to the project as finishing the design of the entrance lobby?”

“No, but...”

She held up her hand to save me any further embarrassment. “We have one week left. I want you to pick out the two issues from the list that will bring the most impact to the project. And then work on ONLY those two issues.  Nothing else matters.”

“So no custom coat hooks?” I asked incredulously.

Instead of a sharp rebuke, she chuckled and said “A big part of your job as designer is to identify the parts of the project that are most important to the design. The parts that will make or break the project. And then you need to focus on those areas relentlessly. Everything else is just a distraction. Like your coat hooks.”

“OK, I understand... only the two most important things” I replied and headed back to my desk.

So I quickly got over my wounded pride, rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The project didn’t win any design awards but the client was extremely happy with the results and hired us to do another project soon after.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first introduction to the 80/20 rule.

© Perfect Gui via shutterstock

Work Smarter with the 80/20 Rule

In 1896, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto published a paper that showed 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. Pareto looked at other countries and found that this 80/20 distribution of wealth was extremely consistent.

Fast forward to 1941. A management consultant by the name of Joseph Juran discovered Pareto’s research and applied it to quality issues. Much like Pareto, Juran found that the 80/20 distribution held true. In Juran’s case, he discovered that 80% of quality problems were caused by 20% of the issues. Juran called this phenomenon “the vital few and the trivial many.” It is also known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule states that 80% of your results in any activity will come from just 20% of your effort. Essentially, there are certain actions you do (your 20%) that account for most of your success and happiness (your 80%). While the numbers aren’t always exactly 80/20, what’s important to understand is the lopsided ratio of effort to results.

So how do we apply this to architecture and design?

Take a look at your own work and see if you can identify an 80/20 distribution of results to effort. For example, in a given day, 80% of your work is probably completed in just 20% of the time. Or 80% of your design time is spent on just 20% of the building.

Here are some other suggestions for applying the 80/20 rule:

  • If 80% of your firm’s work comes from 20% of your clients then cultivate those relationships.
  • If 80% of RFIs come from 20% of the building then focus your documentation on those areas.
  • If 80% of your marketing photographs are taken in 20% of the building then apply more design effort to these areas.

The trick with the 80/20 rule is identifying the 20% that really matters and focusing on those areas because they are the ones that drive your results. In my case, it was my project manager who helped me identify the 2 design issues out of the 10 on my list that would bring the most impact to the project.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of our various tasks and lose sight of what really matters. Likewise, it’s easy to treat all the tasks on your list as having equal importance. Don’t fall for the hard work paradox. Instead, take a critical look at what you’re doing and focus relentlessly on those few things that really matter. Do this and you’ll super-charge your productivity.

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About this author
Cite: Michael Kilkelly. "The 80-20 Rule: The Key to Producing Better Work in Less Time" 25 Jul 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

© Max Griboedov via Shutterstock


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