Don’t “80/20” Your Dream

For true happiness, optimize daily to-dos but not your greatest pursuit

Photo by Ethan on Unsplash

If you use the 80/20 rule on everything, you’ll live an unsatisfying life.

Ironically, Vilfredo Pareto only discovered this seemingly universal principle — that 20% of the input usually account for 80% of the output — because he outright ignored it.

Pareto obsessively tracked the output of his vegetable garden. The man counted peas in spreadsheets — in 1896! He noticed a pattern in the distribution, which he applied to land ownership in Italy. When it held up, he became famous, and today, the principle named after him is everywhere.

Vilfredo Pareto put no less than 100% of his energy into a mundane, meaningless hobby and it led to a scientific breakthrough — his actual work.

Rather than “Settle for doing one fifth of the job,” the lesson here is this: If you don’t give your best somewhere, you’ll never get to the top of anything. Or the bottom, in Pareto’s case.

If you only do 20% of the work, you’ll only get 20% of the satisfaction, regardless of the outcome. Humans aren’t designed to half-ass every day. Some days, sure, but not every day. We max out at 100%, no less.

If you never try your hardest, you’ll never know what you’re really capable of. Sure, you get the comfort of “I failed because I didn’t try,” but that only lasts so long before it decomposes into regret.

The 80/20 principle is fantastic for everything you don’t really care about.

If you walk ten minutes away from the airport before calling an Uber, you’ll save 20% on the fare. Exercising for ten minutes a day is better than nothing.

But if your finances or your health are everything to you, you don’t want to take the easy way out. You want to go all-in and go all the way.

If you want to write a bestseller, 20% won’t cut it. If you want to be rich by 40, 20% won’t cut it. If you want to be an exemplary dad, 20% won’t cut it.

Tim Ferriss wrote about the pareto principle in The 4-Hour Workweek — but he wrote about automating a company he didn’t care about. With the book, however, he left nothing to chance. He engineered every aspect of it, and that’s why it became such a hit.

When you find your unique path to greatness, walk on it. Walk all the way.

You don’t always have to exert yourself. Yes, giving 100% in an irrelevant area can help you move forward in an important one. But if you don’t go all-in somewhere, some of the time, you’ll never feel what the 80/20 rule promises but fails to deliver: “Today, I did my very best — and that was enough.”

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