Ask Anthony: When Hard Work and No Strategy Create a False Sense of Accomplishment

I look at my to-do list at the end of the day and see a lot of tasks crossed off, and it makes me feel good. I feel accomplished, like it’s been a good day.

That was before I discovered and started living by the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, both at home and work.

If you are not familiar with it, the Pareto Principle is the observation that most things in life are not distributed evenly. For example, approximately 80 percent of your firm’s revenue probably comes from 20 percent of your clients, or you probably wear 20 percent of your clothes 80 percent of the time. These numbers are not always exact, but usually close. Essentially, the principle helps us realize that the majority of results come from a minority of inputs.

Why is this important in terms of your work productivity, and your career overall? Well, because it also means that 80 percent of the success you achieve at work comes from only 20 percent of your tasks. Therefore, listing all of your tasks in one document or writing them down on an index card, without prioritizing them, completely ignores this principle, and could be detrimental to the results you attain.

So if you list 10 tasks on a notepad that you want to complete today, and you complete 80 percent of them, you might feel really accomplished. But you may have failed to tackle the 20 percent that really matter.

How to Avoid False Productivity

In reading about the Pareto Principle in one of Richard Koch’s books, I found a tool he cited called the More with Less Chart, and I have used it ever since to prioritize my to-do lists.

You can see the chart below and how it is cut up into four quadrants: low reward/low effort, low reward/high effort, high reward/low effort, and high reward/high effort. This may remind you of Steven Covey’s time management chart classifying items as urgent, not urgent, important, not important – and though there are some similarities, they are not the same.

Since I found this chart, my productivity has skyrocketed. Why? Because I am now focusing on the right tasks.

Every weekend, I go through my task management system and set my tasks for the upcoming week, but then I place my tasks into the More with Less Chart. To do this, I use a Word document that I created on my own with a box cut up into four quadrants. I then focus my most productive times, usually early in the morning, on my high-reward tasks. And in the afternoons, or on Fridays, I dive into the low-reward tasks.

In fact, writing this article is listed in a high-reward quadrant for me, which is why I am writing it during my high-productivity time.

This action of prioritizing my tasks by effort and reward has made all of the difference.

Don’t just work hard, work on the right things, the 20 percent of actions that really matter. And you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Management Institute (previously known as the Engineering Career Coach), which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast and he is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills here.

Anthony has also recently started the Engineering Management Accelerator to help engineers become more effective managers:

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