Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The 80/20 Rule: An End to Perfectionism's "Grade Inflation"

I learned an interesting idea this week, in relation to perfectionism: the 80/20 rule, also called the Pareto Principle. Basically, this principle states that 20% of our total effort produces 80% of our end results.

The 80/20 rule applies to many areas of life. For example, 80% of a business's profits come from 20% of its customers, 80% of crimes are committeed by 20% of criminals, and 80% of health care costs come from 20% of patients.

All that is well and good, but I'm more interested in how it applies at the individual level: 20% of the time and energy we spend on any activity produces 80% of the end result. That means the other 80% of the time and energy we put in only adds 20% (max) to the end result. Continuing to work on something trying to get it to 100% perfection is an inefficient use of our resources - namely, the time and energy that could be put to better use on another activity.

For example, let's say I'm cleaning the kitchen. I could spend 1 hour on it (20%) and have it reasonably clean (80%). Or I could try to get it 100% clean, spend 4 more hours on it, and still fall short of my goal (because it's impossible to get anything 100% clean!). Instead, I could use those 4 hours to do laundry, go to the grocery store, get dinner in the oven, and write a blog post - none of which would get done if I put all my time and energy into the kitchen.

Striving for perfection, then, is inherently imperfect, because it is inefficient, and often prevents people from being able to do at least some of the things that are important to them. And that's to say nothing of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that inevitably occur because perfection is just not possible.

100% may be possible on a math test or the SAT's, but it's not possible in real life, and striving for perfection actual prevents us from achieving our full potential, because we're wasting our resources. If we allow 80% to be good enough, we will be happier and more productive. It's time to end the (metaphorical) grade inflation, and return to the days when 80% was a darn good result!

If you have any examples of how the 80/20 rule might apply to your life, please share!


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  3. A nice way to put this!