Last post I wrote about optimization, and stepping back carefully select what you’re optimizing for.
As a follow up, today I want to bring up a related question: is it possible to “over-optimize”?
And is it perhaps possible to achieve more by doing less?
To tackle that, let’s discuss something you may or may not have heard of before: the Pareto Principle (or the 80/20 rule).
The Pareto Principle is a helpful, broadly applicable rule of thumb that is simply as follows:
“80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes”
Or, to roughly paraphrase, about 80% of your results often come from 20% of your effort.
(Sometimes, in real life, the actual percentages may very. At times, 90% of your results may come from 10% of your effort. Or 98% of your results might come from 2% of your effort! Anyway.)
The 80/20 principle has many applications.
The 20th-century economist who penned the idea, Vilfredo Pareto, first noticed what we now refer to as a “Pareto Distribution” in his garden, where 80% of his peas came from 20% of his pea pods. He also noted that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
(*In case you were wondering, today in the United States, the top 20% of Americans own 86% of the country’s wealth.)
But in my opinion, the principle is most useful in regard to high-leverage points and diminishing returns.
Let’s talk first about “high-leverage points” –
This is a simple concept. Basically, some things just get better results than others. If you focus more on the 20% of things that get 80% of the results (the “high-leverage points”), you’ll be well on your way to succeeding.
For example, if your goal is to lose weight, high-leverage points would be A) eating as MUCH “fibrous carbs” (plants) as you can, and B) CUTTING out refined (sugary, processed, bready) foods entirely.
Boom. That’s gonna get most of your results, right there.
A NON high-leverage point, by comparison, would be trying to pick the “perfect workout” to “burn the most calories” and trying to exercise your weight off, while still eating the same poor diet.
So, some things work better for weight loss than others.
In any goal, really, some things just work better than others. Always take the time to step back and try to figure out if you’re hitting the few key things – the few “high-leverage” points – and focus on those.
Those 20% of key activities might yield you at least 80% of the results.
But let’s also discuss “diminishing returns.”
Because this is where I think the 80/20 rule gets really interesting.
Say you’re in college, and you’re tasked with writing an essay.
In many classes, just by putting your name on a paper and turning it in, you’ll likely get a 50% score – an “F.”
But think about it – for the minuscule amount of work you put in, you just went from earning 0, to earning 50%, half of the available points.
That’s an ENORMOUS improvement with virtually ZERO effort.
If you continue putting in just a bit more effort, you may be able to fairly easily bring your score up to a solid C. A tad more effort still, you might actually be happy with your grade. On the other hand, going from a 98% to a 99% is going to require a SIGNIFICANT amount of effort and time, for a vanishingly small improvement in actual points earned.
In the bigger picture – looking at your entire GPA – and even broader than that, looking at your entire work-life balance – the extra few percentage points on that one paper might be pretty meaningless.
So yeah, it often makes sense to think about the minimum amount of work you can get away with, and deliberately try to work less hard.
I feel I have to acknowledge what you’re probably thinking: “Isn’t the concept of coldly calculating how to do as little work as possible immoral? Shouldn’t you always work hard and give everything 100%?“
Yeah, this concept might bother the Protestant-Work-Ethic* side of a few readers.
(*Which is understandable. After all, the United States was founded by Protestants – at this point, we all have the idea that “hard work” and “morality” are synonyms, religiously socialized into our blood.)
But let’s consider it: As somewhat of a type-A, perfectionist person by nature, I can tell you that I’ve spent the vast majority of my life focusing on that extra one or two percent. I have a long history of always trying to bring that A to an A+, figuratively (and literally) speaking, giving 100% to EVERYTHING.
And I can tell you from firsthand experience that the extra slight improvement you might get from the hours of extra stress is often not worth it. Sometimes it is….but often it’s not. Because, as I like to say (and am often made fun of for saying so frequently!), every action has an opportunity cost. And sometimes, the opportunity cost from putting in extra effort is something important – like time with your family.
Further, that extra effort – usually in the form of worrying, agonizing, and anticipating – is frequently detrimental to actually doing a good job.
(In other words, just “trying harder” doesn’t always make you do better, and sometimes actually makes you do worse.)
So for us perfectionists out there, who really want that A+, and really want to put in a hundred percent on everything, experiment with this: try cutting back your effort a bit. See how it goes. You may be “over-optimizing” and getting diminishing returns from extra stress.
Cool, we good? End of story?
For most of us, maybe. But for the really compulsive over-achievers out there, the advice to “gear-down” and “cut back on effort” is going to be difficult to swallow.
So here’s ONE LAST little tip, for you guys:
(Still keeping in mind the Pareto principle…just sort of in reverse):
The vast majority of the STRESS you relieve may come from removing just a small amount of extra effort.
So if you REALLY FEEL feel you MUST get 100% on a paper – or put 100% effort into something – try just putting in 98%.
You’ll get a huge amount of extra calm, for just removing 2% of your “effort.”
This tactic often works for me personally when I’m struggling not to worry too much about doing something well – I’ll start by negotiating myself down, saying “hey, this doesn’t need to be perfect, just go two percent easier on yourself.” That 2% will give me a lot of relief.
(And sometimes I can even get myself to go a full 20% easier on myself, for a full 80% of relief!)
So in summary: yes, select what you want to optimize for, and sure, put in the effort and hard work.
But keep in mind that in any endeavor, there are going to be certain high-leverage points that are more critical than others, and eventually, extra “work” is going to yield diminishing returns and just stress you out.
You don’t need to kill yourself by putting in “maximum effort” and going 100% with everything.
Focus on the key high leverage points, and instead of going for 100, try going for 80 or 90 (or at the very least, 98).
See what happens – you may be pleasantly surprised.