The Pareto Principle for Writers

The Pareto Principle is the 80/20 Rule. It’s an economic concept stating roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. Put otherwise, 20 percent of input accounts for 80 percent of output.

The name comes from its conception maker, Vilfredo Pareto, who was a nineteenth-century Italian polymath. Story goes that one day old Vilfredo was out working in his garden and observed that about 80 percent of his peas came from around 20 percent of his pea plants. That got him thinking, and he applied his 80/20 observation to economics.

Pareto discovered that 80 percent Italy’s wealth was held by 20 percent of the Italian population. Note this was in 1900, so adjusting for today’s imbalance via the mega-lopy of Gates, Musk, Bezos & Zuckerberg ‘et al’, the real ratio might be more like 90/10 or 95/5. You get my drift.

I’ll partially quote from the Pareto holy grail authority which is a 273-page academic paper titled The Pareto Principle — The Secret to Achieving More With Less by Richard Koch. You can download it for free here.

The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or efforts usually leads to a majority of results, outputs, or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 percent of what you achieve in your work comes from 20 percent of the time spent. Thus, for all practical purposes, four-fifths of the effort—the dominant part of it—is largely irrelevant. This is contrary to what people normally expect.

So, the 80/20 Principle states there’s an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and efforts and rewards. A good benchmark for this imbalance is provided by the 80/20 relationship: a typical pattern shows that 80 percent of outputs result from 20 percent of inputs, that 80 percent of consequences flow from 20 percent of causes, and that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of efforts.

In business, many examples of the 80/20 Principle have been validated. 20 percent of products account for 80 percent of dollars per sale. So do 20 percent of customers.

In society, 20 percent of criminals account for 80 percent of crimes. 20 percent of drivers account for 80 percent of accidents. 20 percent of students attain 80 percent of the educational qualifications available.

In the home, 20 percent of carpets receive 80 percent of wear. 20 percent of your clothes, you’ll wear 80 percent of the time. And if you have a burglar alarm, 80 percent of false alarms will be set off by 20 percent of the possible causes.

Another example of the 80/20 rule is the internal combustion engine in your car. 80 percent of the fossil fuel energy input is wasted with only 20 percent of output energy being delivered to the drive wheels.

So, what about applying the Pareto Principle to writers?

For writers, the Pareto Principle is a time management and production output tool. It’s not meant to be precise… as it in can’t be 60/40 or 75/25, only 80/20… it’s not that bracketed… not that prescriptive… not that anal. But it’s a good rule of thumb to know about avoiding time distractions and focussing on the important, yet small percentage, of tasks that give the highest return in creating value.

It comes down to managing what available time you have to effectively produce and promote a product. That might be a blog post like this, a novel manuscript, a screenplay, or whatever you have on the go. Your WIP.

Here’s a link to another piece on the Pareto Principle from Simply Psychology that gives direct examples of how to manage time, minimize distractions, and complete tasks. I like this quote:

When used correctly, the Pareto Principle helps prioritize tasks, optimize resources, and improve overall efficiency. It provides a useful framework for understanding complex systems and identifying key areas for improvement.

When not used correctly, the Pareto Principle can lead to an excessive focus on short-term gains over long-term planning and stability.

The 96 Minute Rule

A great point from Simply Psychology that puts time consumption in context is the 96-minute rule. 20 percent of an 8-hour workday is 96 minutes. According to the Pareto Principle, 80 percent of your daily work accomplishments come from 96 minutes of your time. As a writer, what high-value tasks do you most accomplish in those 96 minutes that push forward your long-term goals?









To wrap, the Pareto Principle’s 80/20 rule isn’t a magic formula. It’s a hypothesis to be aware of and use as a tool to get where you want to go in your writing world just a little more efficiently. And maybe it’ll free up time to have fun in the rest of your life.

Kill Zoners — Do you consciously apply the 80/20 rule in your workday? What’s your experience with it? Any direct tips on making it work? And does anyone have other production aids and/or time management suggestions? Please comment.

23 thoughts on “The Pareto Principle for Writers

  1. A helpful look at the Pareto Principle, Garry.

    I’ve known about it for some time, but mainly have used it as a reminder to prioritize what matters most, not as a guiding principle. I really like the 96% “rule” as you laid it out. Drafting fiction is the highest value effort for me, followed by outlining/editing.

    What’s helped me as a production aid or for time management?
    Timed writing almost always delivers. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. 50 minutes seems about the limit. Having a bounded period to work, knowing that it’s limited, and that there will be a break after, really helps me focus. I haven’t been consistent in using it, but when I do, it works wonders. There are plenty of apps, but recently, on my new writing-only computer, which stays disconnected from the internet, I use a simple timer that was included with the OS.

    Deadlines, either self-imposed or external, also keep me moving forward.

    The bigger challenge is balancing writing effort with marketing/publishing effort. The latter can easily take over. I think the Pareto Principle can help balance the two.

    • Good morning, Dale. I always enjoy your thoughtful comments. Yeah, it’s the balance that’s hard. I guess it comes down to finding out what works best as an individual and doubling down on that – as well as the ability to say “No” to a lot of stuff. Enjoy your day!

  2. Wowza, Garry! That’s a lot of math/numbers for a word girl . . . my brother the research scientist would love this concept, I’m sure.

    However, it’s a useful tool. It tells me that 20% of my work day will produce better results if I prioritize that 20%. Now, my work day is usually 4-5 hours, not 8; I just tried to figure out how many minutes that is, using a calculator, and couldn’t. See how I am? I guess I could just take half of 96, but what if I work 5 hours?

    I think I’m overthinking this, as usual. I just need to keep in mind that the 20% must be comprised of stuff I HAVE to get done, and then revise the 20% list as needed.

    Have a great 20%, TKZers!

    • Hi Deb! I read/heard somewhere that the best productivity advice is just do the important stuff first and then get at the rest if there’s any time left. Makes sense to me. I have to admit that I don’t Pareto much at all.

  3. Garry, Pareto also works in sales. 20% (or less) of salespeople make 80% of sales.

    Although I haven’t measured time usage in marketing, it feels like 80% of my efforts are a waste of time while 20% yields results.

    Thanks for a different slant on work/productivity habits.

    • If you ever figure out that 20% of book marketing efforts that really pay off, Deb, please let me know. I can sure tell you what belongs in the 80-bracket 🙂

  4. My guess; 20% of your effort yields 80% of your progress, and 20% of your effort takes 80% of your energy, but they’re not the same 20%. Find where the low productivity energy-suckers are, and get rid of them without mercy. Find the activities, like coming here, that give you energy, and do more of those.

  5. Another fascinating post, Garry. I love it. I hadn’t thought of applying the pareto principle to my writing, but it might be fun to try.

    For me, time management comes down to a pretty simple rule: Major on the majors and minor on the minors. In other words, prioritize the important tasks and don’t spend a lot of time doing things that don’t add value like surfing the web or checking social media posts. If only I would adhere to my own rules!

    However, some things (like reading widely) might not have an immediate effect on my WIP, but could be a benefit to my writing overall. I’m not sure how to fit that into the equation.

    • Thanks, Kay. I hope it’s some value to folks. This post is somewhat of an example of the 80/20 rule (maybe or maybe not). It took about 20% of the time to draft it and the other 80 in research, editing, and formatting. I actually read the 273-page academic paper, and I found it quite interesting.

  6. D
    Deb and I must be sista’s from another motha! Numbers are Greek to me. I took this test below once to identify if I was a words person or a numbers person. People who get the correct answer are numbers people. I never get the correct answer–even when I know I’m supposed to be looking for the f’s.


    There are six…I usually get 3 or 4 of them…and what does this have to do with your post?

    Nothing, I guess..The only part of the 20-80 rule I follow is on social media–80% is about anything my readers will be interested in and 20% about the book I’m promoting.

    • You’re right, Patricia. There are 6. I had to go through it about 6 times to find them all – it was the “ofs” that messed me up. Word person here. for sure.

      • WORD!

        So now we know that those small words in our writing, like “said, of, was” etc. really are invisible. I didn’t see those, either.

  7. I tend to avoid percentages because English major, but I use the Iceberg Principal in my writing. A vast majority of an iceberg is underwater so we only see a tiny amount on the surface. Our writing should be like this. A vast amount of our research, world building, and character development aren’t on the page, but we have that information in our head, and it keeps what the reader does see afloat and making sense. I use the same process in my teaching and my seminars.

    • Great analogy, Marilynn. If memory serves me, icebergs are about 90% submerged and 10% exposed. My own experience is that’s somewhat the same with novel writing. Enjoy your day!

  8. I’ve always used it (although loosely, not with any statistical calculations) for social media marketing 80% of your posts should be social, engagement, humor, information, and 20% book marketing.

  9. Fascinating subject, Garry. I’ve never heard the 80/20 rule applied to anything but social media. I should split my workday to allow for the business side, but lately, all I wanna do is write. Weather-wise, it’s the worst summer on record. Diving into my fictional world allows me to escape. Hence why I’m so late to leave a comment today. 😉

  10. Hmm, Gary… Hmm. I’ve known about 80/20 but hadn’t heard about 96 minutes. But what do you know… that’s about how much time it takes me to write a scene. (I never write by word count; only by scenes; a scene a day) And looking back at my current WIP, 96 minutes fits pretty well. So now I’ll feel less guilty when I only spend 96 minutes writing. So thanks for that!

    • You, of all people, are welcome, Harald. Since day one, when I debuted on TKZ, I’ve anticipated and appreciated common sense comments like yours. The 96 minute thing makes sense, and trying to get the best of those minutes requires concentration which is hard to find. Fun stuff!

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