Can 80/20 be a good system? Part 1

So now we’ve identified a solid, motivational intention that puts us in the driver’s seat. We’ve set some good goals and we have seen that having a good system can help us sustain good habits that help us make progress towards our intention.

But, how can we connect the dots from the goal to the system. Typically, our experience shows us that after we set a goal, there is the initial euphoria with an avalanche of ideas and activity followed by a lull as many of them lose steam when we cannot convert them into a system or a habit and struggle to find time and the gains are marginal. Finally, a few habits stick or we give up saying, “if only I had more time or money or …”

Like many of you, I stumbled through this experience too until I chanced on a simpler way of looking at building a system – the 80/20 way. In this three part post, I’ll first go over what 80/20 is with some examples to build an initial intuition – wake up your inner curious scientist. Then I’ll go over how to apply it conceptually so you can begin to connect the dots and finally, I’ll build on it with an example so you can apply to your own goals.

What is 80/20?

Let’s start with a short history lesson. 80/20 is also called Pareto Principle which simply states that 80% of the outcomes result from 20% of causes. It was developed by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), an economist, who actually stumbled upon it in his garden. He found that 20% of his pea plants generated 80% of the healthy pea pods. He decided to test this intuition elsewhere and found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. And on and on…

That concept made its way into the world of business and is used by many successful companies today.

Can I observe this too?

Absolutely, yes. Many things in life are not evenly distributed.

20% of customers generate 80% of profits,

20% of bugs cause 80% of software crashes,

20% of patients account for 80% of health care spending.

Take a moment to observe your own surroundings and daily routines. Hint: What’s in your closet and what do you frequently wear, How often do you reach for the same mug from your collection of coffee mugs, or the same pan from you war chest of pans.. how you spend your income, what you spend time on at work, running paths, running distances etc. 80/20 happens to be hidden every where.

How does this connect to developing a system?

Let’s go back to Pareto’s “aha!”. You can suppose that if Vilfredo had applied most of his attention initially to just those 20% pea plants, he could meaningfully improve the overall health of his pea pods. That would not only dramatically cut his time and effort but also help him focus his learning to develop a system using the vital few 20%. Then he could (choose to) apply it to the remaining 80%, the important many.

Thus, this simple rule of thumb, can help us focus our effort and time to develop a system that works for a few things that are meaningful. Focusing on fewer, smaller but important habits and patiently building them up, helps us build confidence and stay motivated. Over time, we can build on these mini-habits or practices to increase their scale and influence.

80/20 works really well while managing constraints but first, make sure that it is an actual constraint. Of course, when it comes to our intentions and goals, generally our biggest constraint is time. We only have so many hours in a day, in a week, in a month …. But just like you shouldn’t be slave to your goal, don’t be a slave to an arbitrary time constraint. It’s your time so own it and use it to develop your system and use 80/20 to sharpen your focus on what matters most to achieve your goal.

That’s the power of 80/20 – it gives the power of achieving your goal back to you.

So, what’s next?

Stay tuned for part 2 where we will go over how to connect the dots between a goal and a system. Let me know what you think? Have you tried this before? What was your experience with it? It will help me sharpen my understanding of this approach.

Subscribe, like and comment to stay in touch. I’ll be sharing thought provoking articles, examples and worksheets with subscribers to help you apply this concept to your own goals, teams, products and businesses!

The value of good systems – for self and team (and business)

Intentions and goals supply the fuel to do something great. On the other hand, systems and habits help us solidify this change and get more efficient over time.

If you want to observe something really cool about yourself, pay attention to a habit you have or a system you’ve created. Can be a good or bad one, doesn’t matter and you will find no judgment here. It could be something like reaching for your phone as soon as you wake up every day or keeping an organized desk. Notice how you appear to effortlessly go through this habit or system – almost like a super power, you move through it without thought sometimes. Observe how you don’t particularly perform a good habit any more efficiently than another good or bad one even though the perceived emotional satisfaction should be different. Take note of the little shifts in how you have adapted your life to make it easier to sustain that habit or system. For example, your phone charging by your bed or a filing system by your desk. Check out how your habits may seldom be unaffected by the size of the ultimate reward but more by the anticipation of it.

Thus, systems or processes or habits help us stick with it and perhaps even “unstick” with it. So, what are some ideas to build a good system for a, let’s say, good intention.

1. Understand thyself– Observe your habits and in them, your thoughts. Our habits are triggered by cues that are generally not so apparent. So, bring out your inner scientist to first understand your strongest habits or systems. Couple of ideas to share:

A. Stuart Danker aka Your Friendly Malaysian Writer wrote a really nice post about observing your thinking mind with practical advice on how (link below). If you’re a runner, use your daily/weekly running habit to observe your thoughts at different stages of the run.

B. In his book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg points out 5 things to observe to identify your habit trigger – Location, Time, Emotional state, Who is around you, What did you just do before.

2. Simplify and reward – Reducing friction in taking action to form a habit goes a long way to make it easy to stick. Vice versa, increase friction if you’re trying to get out of a habit. For e.g. if you want to get into the habit of reading, why not keep the book by your bed and your phone in a different place. Build in a rewards mechanism – can be tangible or intangible. Experiment with what works for you. Ultimately, the anticipation of a carrot (or in some cases, a stick) can help make habits stick. A nice illustration can be found in a Children’s story, The Berenstain Bears forget their manners.

3. Build upon a habit/system – Do you already have some strong habits? Latch your new habit on to this one. Your existing habit could thus end up becoming a cue for the new one creating a positive, reinforcing loop. This is a nice way to get the scale.

4. Start small and practice – Habits or systems are hard to install overnight. So go easy on yourself. Start small – maybe shoot for only 5% of your goal when you start, adding 1% every day with a reward at the end. The key is to build consistency over time so the activity becomes almost like an unconscious reaction. Watch the video below by Destin Sandlin from Smarter Every Day. He develops a real super power – you have no idea how hard this is till you try it.

One thing to point out is that the ideas, I’m sharing here are not limited to us as individuals. These can also help teams and businesses build new habits, focus on what’s important, find metrics that matter etc. In other words, build a system that elevates achieving goals from being just focused on achieving the goal to building a system to reliably and consistently achieve goals. This is a great way to make progress on intentions or a business vision.

What was most helpful for you in this post? Please let me know in the comments. Hit like or subscribe for more!

Making strategic personal choices – think different

When you hear the phrase “strategic choices”, it’s natural to think it’s related to a business and not a personal situation. However, you and I make strategic personal choices too! For example: “Should I get that degree or stick with my current job”. Sometimes it’s a variant of this question where the latter choice is a new, exciting job. What a tough choice! Have you encountered such a choice or are you facing a similar choice?

First, off, let’s understand that strategic choices are worthy of our attention and focus because of the impact they can have on our longer-term future. At the same time, it’s important to not be paralyzed by a strategic choice though I know this is easier said than done. Finally, let’s be grateful when we are faced with choice because many others don’t get such choices. Ready to begin? There are three steps and one follow up:

An open mind

Look at the whole problem with an open mind. Too often, we are constrained by our own experience, our emotional state at that moment or the experience of others (our context) believing that this is an either-or choice, and it may as well not be. So, step out of the thinking mind, dispel judgment for a minute and ask yourself –

What if I could do both of these things?

A positive lens without attachment

Next, let your creativity begin to flow as you write down all the benefits specifically, how each choice will serve your broader intentions. Even if they make you a better person or make the world better by 1%, don’t disregard it. This is you achieving the full potential of both choices and checking if they are truly worthy by asking?

How much will I regret it if I don’t get these things?

A growth mindset to question why

Now, you can explore the constraints that prevent from achieving this full potential. This approach helps us to lead with our motivation instead of “yes, but”. It sets a high bar for a constraint to overcome and make it worth your while to ask?

Why do I have these constraints?

There is an old trick called 5 Whys from the Lean approach that can helpful here to understand the true cause of these constraints. Again, don’t overthink, but do think so you can then figure out 2 things.

1. Can I unravel them i.e., is it a limitation within my control?

2. If I truly can’t break the constraint, what can I do to bring over some of the positives from one choice in to other so I can make the most of making one choice?

Great work! Now, take a break. What you’re doing now is giving yourself the space to try to look at the problem from a different emotional context. There is plenty of evidence that our emotional and physical states have a huge impact on our judgment (You can read all about in Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book “Noise”). So, go meditate, go for a swim or a run, spend time with a loved one etc. Then, take another look at your mind doodle seeking any new patterns. It’s amazing how a re-think in a different emotional state can open up new possibilities and answers.

The follow up and finale

Terrific work! We’re ready to test and learn. Now, you can reach out to a few people who you believe will listen to you and offer you their objective analysis. Walk them through your thinking – your full potential, what you believe are the reasons behind your constraints but don’t share your solution yet. The primary benefit of doing this is that people tend to be better at objective assessments when they are not involved in the outcome and often bring a positive mindset to reinforce a positive future. Thus, you get, for free (!), an extra set of brains to ponder your problem with you. Did someone say wisdom of the crowd?

Thoughts? You might apply a similar approach to your products and business too. Do you have similar questions about your career or a similar strategic choice about your business. Feel free to reach out to me. Send me a comment, hit like and subscribe to stay in touch!