How to work less and be appreciated for it

Productivity declines sharply when people work more than 50 hours a week, according to a study conducted by Stanford University. Past 55 hours a week, productivity drops so much that there’s no point in working any longer. To work effectively, it is important to maximize the quantity and quality of work done in those first 50 hours – to get the biggest “bang for your buck”. This article describes in detail the concept of working smarter, not harder using the Pareto Principle.


Figure 1: Initial 20% Efforts yield 80% Results

Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist initially coined the term “Pareto principle” when he observed that 80% of the income in Italy was going to 20% of the Italian population. He also observed that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas.

This led Pareto to develop the ‘Pareto principle’ which is the observation that most things in life are NOT distributed evenly*.

Effort Reward Graph

Figure 2: Result vs. Effort

This principle has applications beyond distributions of material things (like wealth and pea pods) – it also applies to more abstract concepts like effort and results. Most people believe that the quality of any result is directly proportional to the effort put in to achieve said result (the red line in Figure 2). However, in reality roughly 80% of results come from the first 20% of the effort while the remaining 20% of results come from the remaining 80% effort (the blue line in Figure 2).


Figure 3: Additional 80% Efforts yield remaining 20% Results

Take a look around, and you’ll observe this uneven distribution everywhere. Some examples would be:

  • A regular weekly family dinner is the 20% of family events that reinforces 80% of family bonds
  • A person wearing 20% of the clothes they own 80% of the time
  • Choosing a favorite food 80% percent of the time

Luckily, being aware of this distribution can help you use this to your advantage and multiply your productivity 😉

The key consideration throughout this article will be:

“Decide which tasks require a 100% result, and be brave enough to leave the rest at 80%”

Effort Reward Table

Table 1: Effort Reward Matrix


Tasks that fit in the top left quadrant are those that require maximal effort and yield maximal results. Generally, these tasks must be done ‘perfectly’ and will add value to your work. Carefully decide which tasks truly belong in this category.

Do it immediately

Tasks that fit in the top right quadrant are those that require minimal effort and yield maximal results. Generally, these tasks won’t consume a lot of your time and will add a lot of value to your work. Make it your life’s mission to get these done, and your productivity will skyrocket.


Tasks that fit in the bottom right quadrant are those that require less effort and yield lower results. Generally, these tasks will keep you occupied but won’t add much value to your work. De-prioritize these tasks.


Tasks that fit in the bottom left quadrant are those that require a lot of effort but don’t yield proportionally high results. Generally, these tasks will consume a lot of your time and won’t add much value to your work. Eliminate these tasks.

Tell me more…

Step 1. Qualify tasks to determine priority

Before working on any tasks, take a few moments to prioritize them. Write down the tasks and assign them values for effort and expected result on a 10-point scale (1 – low to 10 – high). Consider the following example:

Table 2

Table 2: List of tasks

Assess the priority of the task by dividing the effort by the expected result. The lower the priority value of any given task, the higher the importance. Priority values less than one, mean that the expected result is much higher than the effort required. By focusing on these tasks, the added value will be much greater in comparison with other tasks.

Table 3 Table 3: List of prioritized tasks

Step 2. Choose where you spend your efforts wisely

Focusing on the outcome is important. To work smart, focus on the result you are trying to achieve. Work backwards from the larger goal to smaller actionable tasks. Then, figure out which tasks will have the greatest impact towards achieving that result.

Results can be categorized into 3 main categories:

  1. Personal – results that are reflect well on you
  2. Team – results that reflect well on your team
  3. Company – results that reflect well on your company

Work towards completing tasks that will simultaneously have a positive impact in all three categories. This will create a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. To facilitate these results, ask questions like:

  • How is this going to help the company/team/me?
  • What can I do/contribute that will have the greatest impact on the results?
Step 3. Profit

The Take-Away Message: Results do not necessarily reflect effort.

Knowing that results are not always proportional to effort sets you apart. This knowledge allows you to take the first step towards working smarter (not harder) and getting more tasks done! Start consciously deciding which tasks require a 100% result and which tasks will be fine at 80%. Soon you will be getting more done in less time, and you will have to explain to everyone how you’re not a wizard. Let me know in the comments below how the application of the Pareto principle has affected your life.


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2 Comments, RSS

  1. Justin Hunt July 18, 2016 @ 14:39

    Cool article! Could you write about the difference between efficiency and effectiveness? People often use these two terms interchangeably so it would be good to read about how these two terms should be used properly. Thanks!

    • Azfan Jaffeer July 18, 2016 @ 20:16

      Thanks for the comment Justin. You’re right, people generally do use the terms interchangeably. I’m on the case!

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