The Pareto Principle
If you want to know how to grow personal resilience and achieve more at work, you need to know about the ‘Pareto principle’ AKA the 80/20 rule.
It’s more of an observation that a rule actually.
The observation is this: a lot of things in life and in nature don’t get distributed evenly. It applies to wealth, to power, to rainfall… and to work.
In many situations, 80% of the effects (or outputs) come from just 20% of the causes (or inputs). In other words, some of the things you do at work will be contributing more to your success and achievement than others. Each hour of work is not created equal in terms of the results they get.
Have you ever thought about when you are most productive at work?
In the sea of all the stuff that has to get done, how can we know what’s an important use of our time?
What Matters Matters
The answer lies in the bigger picture. Ask yourself:
- What are your own professional goals?
- Where do you want to be in five years?
- What are the goals of your organisation?
- What’s the five year plan there?
- And, crucially, why do the organisational goals matter to you? (They ought to somehow, otherwise it might be worth considering a job change!)
Where your personal objectives and your organisation’s objectives align; that is where you’ll find what’s important.
Knowing what’s important is important, because then you know what’s not important.
Here’s a question: If something is not important, does it need to be perfect and detailed and in depth?
Arguably not. It simply needs to be good enough. You need to spend just enough time on it to ‘get it over the net’ and then turn your attention right back to the important stuff.
Being resilient, energy-filled and able to get more done at work comes down to a question of focus.
When used correctly, focus is magic.
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” Bruce Lee
To achieve the level of focus that you need to spend more time on what’s important, (i.e. what gets the most valuable results) there are two basic ingredients required:
- Minimal distractions.
And if we are going to really understand how to grow personal resilience and achieve more at work, we need to know how to generate both of those ingredients, in abundance.
Let’s start with energy…
Stop and Achieve More
Working yourself into an ever lower energy-state will only ensure you achieve less at work, not more. And it will certainly wear away your resilience.
When your energy is very low, you actually accomplish more by resting than you do pushing yourself up the hill with ever decreasing reserves. By resting you are equipping yourself to do a better job of things once you get going again.
Promoting your resilience by having enough rest and relaxation and, importantly, enough fun scheduled in, is an absolute must if you are serious about achieving more at work.
There’s no better time to take action than now. Go and look at the coming two weeks in your calendar – is there much time set aside for some proper fun and r&r in there? If there isn’t, you must do something about that, however small.
He’s a Lumberjack and he’s ok.
Ok. Now for a little story about lumberjacks. Stay with me! I promise it has relevance.
So two lumberjacks have a job to do: they need to clear a big stretch of woodland in two days. On the first day, lumberjack number one rolls up his sleeves and gets straight down to it with his axe, using all of his brute force to fell tree after tree after tree.
Meanwhile lumberjack number two has got hold of a piece of flint and he’s just sitting there, on a tree stump, sharpening his axe the whole day long. ‘What a slacker,’ thinks lumberjack number one when, completely knackered at the end of the day, he notices where he has felled fifty trees, lumberjack number two has felled zero.
Onwards to day two. Lumberjack number one who’s worn out by his initial exertions manages to fell only thirty trees, with great effort and difficulty. Lumberjack number two, however, absolutely slays it. He chops down two hundred trees, barely breaking a sweat.
Why have I told you this story? Because another thing that’s really energising is doing stuff you are well equipped to do and stuff you’re good at.
Before beginning a piece of work, ask yourself:
- What resources and skills would help me get this task done?
- What are the elements of the task that I have a natural aptitude for?
Where is your axe at its sharpest, so to speak?
We all have a different set of inborn strengths, and when we’re working from them it barely feels like work at all. You can always spot when something is a strength when you just can’t understand why other people don’t find it as easy as you do.
To invoke the Paretto principle in a slightly different way, it’s often one or two small elements of an overall task that will drain most of your energy away. These are often the elements that demand that you work against your natural strengths.
So for example, if one of your natural strengths is that you’re a decisive, swift, action-oriented person, the chances are that you find it more difficult to get your head into the real fine detail of a situation. And yet it may be that detail is what a certain element of a task requires.
So what do you do? Spend a difficult 90 minutes trying to granulate some data, or ask the person your know who loves to granulate data – because it’s one of their strengths – if they could help you out with that part? It will probably take them ten minutes, they’ll enjoy doing it, and they’ll do a better job of it than you.
Sounds like a good idea.
When you’re thinking about how to extract energy from strengths, think in terms of not just your own strengths but the strengths of those around you, because you never know when they might come in handy.
Pity the Busy Fool
All the energy in the world isn’t going to help us if it’s not well-directed though. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of being a ‘busy fool’, rushing around splashing your energy all over the place but still getting very little important stuff done.
To truly up our focus we also have to understand what’s interrupting our attention, so we can know how to minimise those distractions.
Taken separately, little things like fielding questions from a colleague, or checking if there’s anything new in your inbox don’t appear to matter much, or compromise your success. But they do.
Over time, death by one thousand tiny interruptions really takes its toll if you are serious about becoming more resilient and achieving more at work.
If you are working at a task but your mind keeps wanting to wander, it’s likely that you haven’t been building in enough hard borders between work and rest.
So many of us stay at our laptops or on our phones during break time, or stay sitting in the same position in the same place, and although technically we are not still working. Doing this makes the work/rest border fuzzy and diminishes the restorative power of the break.
Have more breaks and be stricter with what you do with them because the fact is that working with extreme focus in a shorter burst of time will always achieve more than slogging away at something in a half arsed manner for days on end.
Have a hard border between work and rest.
Experiment with single tasking with the help of a timer – set yourself sixty minutes solely to finish off a report for example, and nothing else. If the phone rings don’t answer it. If someone needs to ask you something they have to come back later.
Be strict with that 60 minutes and then when the bell rings, be strict with yourself and stop. If it’s not finished, schedule in the next sixty minutes and then let it go. Get up. Leave the room. Rest.
Not Now Bernard
When we are out talking to people about the challenges they have around time management, the number one thing that comes up in conversation again and again is being interrupted by other people. Whether it’s a chatty colleague, or someone who needs a quick answer or bit of advice about a work task, a lot of us struggle with saying words to the effect of: “No, not now. I’m busy.”
Whether that’s because some of us are high in personality trait agreeableness and don’t want to offend others or to have them perceive us as unhelpful is another article altogether.
There’s really only one way to overcome this inability to say no. And it begins by admitting that it is not actually an inability, it is an unwillingness. And a great remedy for this unwillingness would be to revisit the bigger picture and remind yourself of why your time is valuable and why it is counting on you for protection from frequent interruptions.
Saying (with a smile), “I’m busy right now but I’ll be free at 3 if you still need me,” isn’t rude. It’s powerful. At least it isn’t any ruder than assuming it is okay to interrupt someone anytime when they are clearly working.
Also, nine times out of ten, if made to wait, the interruptor will go ahead and figure out the answer by themselves and didn’t really need to interrupt you in the first place.
Lab rat hell
We interrupt ourselves more than even the most annoying interruptor does by checking our inbox in the same way we would scratch an itch.
It’s an addictive compulsion that’s wired into our neural circuitry by a process that goes by the catchy name of random interval reinforcement schedule conditioning. According to behavioural psychology, this is the most powerful way that a habit is formed.
For example if you had situations where:
- Every time a lab rate pressed a lever he would get food
- Every other time the rat pressed the lever he would get food
- Sometimes when he pressed the lever he would get food and it would be totally random and unpredictable
It would be the third situation that would elicit the most compulsive lever pressing activity from the rat. A random interval reinforcement schedule. And this is what emails do to us.
We never know when there will be something interesting or important waiting for us in the inbox so we can not resist going back to check it again and again and again.
A similar argument could be made about the addictive quality that some people seem to experience in shall we say, ‘volatile’ romantic relationships. You never know when it will be awful and you never know when it will be nice so you can’t resist going back for more to keep on checking.
Anyhow, knowledge is power and you can use this scientific insight to get yourself out of lab rat email hell. Schedule in email checking time two or three times a day for example and then:
- Deactivate notifications
- Make it harder – don’t keep your login info stored on the device
- Log out of your account
In fact, why not do that right now? Because it’s only through micro-actions, by making these small practical changes, one at a time, that lead us to building more resilience and achieving more at work.
Make the change. Go on!
Thank you for reading, may personal resilience be yours. We all want to achieve more at work, it’s just a case of actioning small changes like these.
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