When the 80/20 rule argues for perfectionism

This post is about the 80/20 rule, and how it sometimes stands for the opposite of what most people think, how it tells when and why it’s important to be a perfectionist.

I assert that the 80/20 rule argues for perfectionism in my case, as I write a fictional short story about single-celled organisms. What? Yep, that’s what I’m working on.

I also assert the 80/20 rule argues the same for most works of art.

My first story in 19 years, and my uphill quest to perfect it

In August, I began writing my first short story in 19 years. It was a story I’d first thought of at least 20 years ago, but the idea of writing it had always intimidated me. Why? Partly because it was about a bunch of single-celled organisms, and partly for other reasons. Nevertheless, I’d joined a writers’ group, and with their encouragement, I was ready to take on the challenge.

It wasn’t easy. To start off with, I had to spend a week and a half doing research, including reading two or three scientific papers. Then, when I got to writing, I had to bend my brain to imagine how certain improbable events in evolutionary history might have happened, since that’s what the story was about. Nevertheless, I did it.

But the biggest curve ball came when I started writing what I thought would be the final third of my story. It turned out to be so much more involved than I expected that it ballooned to four times the intended length; instead of becoming my story’s final third, it became its final two-thirds.

Yet in spite of all this, I completed a first draft of my story by the end of September, which was when the writers’ group wrapped up.

Cause for celebration, right? Yes! But with a major qualification.

I’m now in another writers’ group, and it would feel great to say I’m done with my aforementioned story, so that I can move on and prove my ability to write new stories.

But the thing is, I’m not done with it. I’ve revised the first half of the story multiple times, so that the first half is at or near publishable quality. But the latter half is much rougher.

Should I give in to the temptation to call my story good enough, and move on?

Enter the 80/20 principle.

The 80/20 principle, à la Richard Koch

Like many people, I first became aware of the 80/20 principle due to the book by that name by Richard Koch. The book came out in 1997. I didn’t read it at the time, but its title stuck with me, and at some point later I read about the principle somewhere.

Koch’s book says, “The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.” The observation was supposedly first made in 1906 by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, and hence it is sometimes known as the “Pareto principle.”

Koch proceeds to give a few examples:

  • “80 percent of what you achieve in your job comes from 20 percent of the time spent.”
  • “Twenty percent of products usually account for about 80 percent of dollar sales value; so do 20 percent of customers.”
  • And so on.

It’s a fine observation as far as it goes. I do wonder about the numbers. Some have noted that there seem to be cases that call for more of a 95/5 rule. Other cases seem to have a far more even distribution. Nevertheless, the contention of Koch and Pareto is that 80/20 is the norm. Fine.

The real question is, how useful is the idea? I watched the top YouTube video on the subject, in which Koch says:

Was the value that Bill Gates put into the world a function of the hours that he put in? . . . What [people like Gates did] was spend time creatively on a few essentials, and little or no time on the mass of trivia that engulfs all of us most of the time. . . . Save yourself for the one or two things each week that are really important in terms of getting results. Spend time deciding what those things are.

Is that useful? Maybe. There’s something to be said for deliberately doing more with less. But for myself, I feel that, without examples that are specific to a given field of endeavor, it’s kind of a sterile idea. I guess it depends on whether the sheer mathematics of the 80/20 rule inspires you to spend your time wisely. It doesn’t really inspire me, and as I picked up Koch’s book to write this blog post, I found that it didn’t contain what I was looking for.

A less charitable reviewer of Koch said, “95% of the points of this book come from 5% of its words.”

The 80/20 principle, à la Alan Lakein

The reason I wanted to write about the 80/20 principle was not because of any of the ideas mentioned above, but for a take on this principle that I didn’t find anywhere in Richard Koch. Nor did I find it anywhere on the web, no matter how hard I searched.

How did I find it? In a state of exasperation, I told my wife what I was searching for, and amazingly, she found it. Not because she’s better at searching the web for me (although she does say she’s better at that), but because she’d read the same book as me and remembered it better. Amazing!

Here’s the passage that I’d been trying to find. Note that it makes two contrasting points about two different kinds of scenarios.

Point 1:

The 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of the value is often gained during the first 20 percent of your work time on a certain task. Being a perfectionist may mean that you’re working much too hard to get only minimum value.

But Point 2:

Perfectionism is worth approaching when 80 percent of the value comes from the last 20 percent of the effort. For example: the construction of a dam, bringing home the family’s favorite groceries, unstopping a plugged-up sink, remembering your wedding anniversary every year.

These two passages come from How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein, first published in 1973.

I found Lakein’s distinction quite useful, whereas I found that Koch’s book didn’t really help me.


What does the 80/20 principle say? It depends on what you’re applying it to.

If you’re working on something where 80% of the value is going to come from the first 20% of the effort, then okay, stop at 20% and go with the result that’s 80% likely to be good enough. Perfectionism doesn’t always get you a pat on the back, and it may get you criticized for wasting time.

But for some things, including most fine art, I assert that 80% the value comes from the last 20%. And that’s when you shouldn’t settle for less. (So says even Alan Lakein, who likes to cut corners on following the news by skimming headlines as he walks past the newsstand!)

Are there exceptions in the realm of fine art? Probably. I can imagine a watercolor painter going through a period of completing many paintings per day, either as an student to work the muscles of his technique, or as a practiced artisan completing a lot of work for a show. You never know if the work you slave over is the work people will respond to.

But for my short story, I feel strongly that it will benefit from my not settling for less. And I think I’ll feel that way even more strongly in a couple of weeks, when I expect to be done polishing it up and ready to send it out to magazines for publication. When it comes to this story, I won’t settle for less.

Here’s to you and the most important work in your life. Here’s to you not settling for less.