How can it be this hard? I made it through college. I should be able to handle this.

This was what I was thinking to myself as I boarded the train on my way home. This was my first job out of college. I had traveled half-way across the world to live and work in Tokyo, and found a position as an international admissions counselor. But the dream wasn’t turning out how I had imagined it.

The team I worked with was efficient and had been doing it much longer than me. They had experience. I was struggling to finish my work each day.

In addition to counseling students, my inbox was constantly filling up with various department emails. Then there were the meetings, often several a week. Each meeting could go on for hours, discussing things that weren’t related to my job.

I wasn’t well organized and I was losing confidence. One day I found myself thinking, If this kept up, would I lose my job? If I lost my job, what would happen to my working visa?

My manager was always trying to help everyone and was someone I looked up to. One day, we were discussing a new book he was reading, The 4 Hour Work Week. He highly recommended it. I remember thinking it sounded like a scam, but decided to go ahead and get it. I’m glad I did. This is where I first discovered the idea of 80/20.

Introduce the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule, also called Pareto’s principle, was discovered by an Italian Economist, Pereto Vilfredo, in 1906 who noticed that 20% of people owned 80% of the wealth. As it turns out, the rule he discovered applies to a lot more than just wealth.

I read a lot of time management books, but this was the first concept that focused on working smarter, rather than harder and longer. After learning this concept, I immediately put it to work. If you can find the important 20%, then you can remove 80% of the work and dramatically increase your results.

Create a List of Responsibilities

Over the next few days, I began listing all of the things I did at work. The goal is to figure out which ones were getting results and which weren’t. (The below list is not completely accurate as I don’t remember the exact list I made).

  1. Calling students
  2. Replying to department emails
  3. Department meetings
  4. Meeting with students
  5. Communicating with accepted students
  6. Communicating with the marketing team
  7. Emailing students
  8. Filing documents
  9. Creating relationships with teachers and schools
  10. Attending conferences and staying up to date on industry news
  11. Visiting schools for recruiting

Clarifying Goals

Now that I had a basic list, I needed to make sure I knew exactly what my performance was being judged on. Setting the wrong objective could make me choose the wrong activities. For example, creating strong ties with other departments or building relationships with other schools would have a very different set of important activities than recruiting students.

After speaking with my manager, I clarified that my job was being judged on the number of students who applied and were accepted to the school.

Prioritizing

Now that I had a clear goal, I could evaluate the activities I performed and figure out which were important, which weren’t, and which could be dropped.

The important tasks are the first tasks I would do every day. As long as those got done, I would see results. Everything else could be postponed or ignored.

I reorganized my list as follows:

Critical Tasks

These tasks were critical in achieving my goal. Performing these tasks well meant I would recruit lots of students. I needed to do more of these tasks and do them well.

  1. Calling students
  2. Emailing students

Average Tasks

These tasks were not critical but couldn’t be completely ignored. In my case, creating relationships with teachers was important to later visit those schools. I would batch and minimize these tasks to do them more efficiently.

  1. Creating relationships with teachers and schools
  2. Visiting schools for recruiting
  3. Meeting with students
  4. Filing documents

Not Important

These tasks had little to no impact on my performance. Communicating with accepted students was done by different departments once they were accepted, though I always followed up with a congrats. Department meetings and emails had zero impact. I would ignore/stop doing these tasks as much as possible.

  1. Communicating with accepted students
  2. Replying to department emails
  3. Department meetings
  4. Communicating with the marketing team
  5. Attending conferences and staying up to date on industry news

80/20 within 80/20

Now that I knew which tasks to focus on, I needed to figure out what skills and methods would be the most effective to achieve the results I wanted.

Once again, the 80/20 rule can be applied here. I realized there were two things that helped me recruit students more than anything else. Building relationships with students and getting them excited about Japan. Staying in constant contact was a close third.

If I did these three things, I could save time and recruit more students.

Results

Within a short time, I was one of the top recruiters in the department and I generally finished the majority of my work before lunch. I stopped doing most of the tasks that were on the bottom of my list. As it turns out, no one really cared because I was doing the thing that mattered really well.

Missing a meeting about recruiting students is generally less important to management than actually recruiting students.

I spent my saved time continuing to learn and improve my skills and efficiency.

Getting Started

The 80/20 rule can be applied in a lot of different areas including, school, work, learning skills, and even relationships. It isn’t always 80/20, sometimes it may be 70/30, 90/10, or 99/1.

Compare

If you are unsure where to start, compare the best people in the field to the worst. What do the best people do that the worst people don’t. Put those things at the top of your list. Also look at what the worst people do that the best don’t.

Ask for Help and Clarification

Make sure you are clear on your goals. If you don’t know what’s important to your boss, your teacher, or your customers, ask. You will save you a lot of time and effort. Even better, try to gain there support. This will also help when you decide to eliminate tasks.

Keep Searching for Improvements

Work to keep improving the things that make a difference and eliminating or delegating the things that don’t. A move from 70/30 to 80/20 can make a huge improvement in results and time.

Books on 80/20