How to Use the 80/20 Rule to Get More Writing Done

I recently came across the 80/20 rule (AKA Pareto Principle) while reading Kate Northrup’s book Do Less (Northrup first read about this principle in Tim Ferris’s book The Four-Hour Work Week.)

The 80/20 rule states that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your actions.

The great thing about the 80/20 rule is that you can apply it to (just about) any area of your life: finance, health, fitness, relationships, etc.

For example:

80 percent of your business revenue comes from 20 percent of your products/customers.

80 percent of in-depth, meaningful connection occurs with 20 percent of the people you encounter.

80 percent of your wellbeing comes from 20 percent of your daily practices (eating well, exercising).

You get the idea.

The 80/20 rule is liberating because it highlights how little we actually have to do in order to reach our results.

Conversely, it also highlights how much time and energy we waste doing activities that DO NOT MOVE THE NEEDLE … and that’s a little depressing, but needles usually are.

So, how does this apply to writing?

Let’s be honest, most of our days are made up of minutiae. Think: domestic responsibilities, errands, social commitments, email, to-do lists, social media etc.

If you were to take inventory of your average day from the moment you woke up, to the moment you fell asleep, you’d likely realised that the majority of your day is filled with (somewhat) trivial tasks and that a slither of your day is spent on activities that really move the needle on your creative projects.

Note:  Just because a task is trivial doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. We have to grocery shop, we have to pay bills, we have to reply to our bosses email.

My point: we need to be aware of the trivial “busy” work we perform as writers, and we need to evaluate whether these activities are serving our creative practice in any meaningful way.  

Many a famous novelist have said they only write for one-four hours a day (Steven King, Steven Pressfield, Octavia Butler, Barbara Kingsolver, and Karen Russell).

The remainder of their day may be spent on business activities, personal errands, or tasks that relate to writing such as research, revising, or editing.

These lighter tasks absolutely contribute to the creation of the manuscript, but they don’t move the needle, or add words to the page, in the same way that a writing session does.

There are so many little tasks (outlines/research/critiques) and invisible activities (thinking about the work) that go into writing a book.

But the ONE activities that ACTUALLY transforms a book from an idea to a product is writing. 

I know, revolutionary, right?

So, how do you figure out which 20 percent of your activities are creating 80 percent of your writing results?

In Do Less, Northrup recommends that you grab a piece of paper and draw a line down the centre. On the left-hand side of the page, write down all of the tasks you perform related to writing (or whatever area of your life you are evaluating). On the right-hand side, write down all of your biggest wins to date.

Note: You may not feel like you have any big wins … yet. If that’s the case, I urge you to be generous and gentle with yourself.

Maybe your big win could be that one really great writing session you had last year.  Great could mean you exceeded your daily word count goal, or maybe you just felt really good about how the writing went.

A win could be starting a blog.

A win could be having a great idea for a novel.

You get the idea.

Now, draw a line from your biggest wins to the activity/ies that directly contributed to that win.

Voila! You now know which activities lead to your desired results.

The idea here is that you do MORE of the valuable activities and LESS of the not-so-valuable activities.

Here’s an amended version of my 80/20 list*:

80:20 rules

As you can see, writing, reading and research are the three tasks that directly contributed to my biggest wins. (Note: solitude/contemplation/reflection was another big one on my original list).

While I enjoy attending events like book launches, festivals, and conferences, these activities contribute to my wins in a smaller way.

The take-away? I need to spend more time on writing, research and reading and less time on email, social media etc. Shocking, I know. I couldn’t believe it either.

Yeah, yeah, we all have to reply to emails and check our social media account because otherwise cities will collapse and children will starve … but what I’m driving at here is that maybe you can reduce the amount of time you do these activities and increase the amount of time you spend reading or going on productive meditations.

(Also, there are creative ways to handle time sucking tasks like email and social media. Perhaps you could dedicate one hour twice a week to replying to emails [depending on your job] or maybe you could spend one hour every Sunday [like I do!] preparing and scheduling your social media posts. This shit ain’t rocket surgery science.)

Our time is a nonrenewable resource.

Best you avoid wasting it on unfulfilling, irritating, and meaningless tasks.

We’re all busy and we’re all tired and we’re all just trying to do our best.

Instead of filling our days with “busy” work, let’s instead strive for work that produces more results in less time, so that you have more time for the things that really matter.

If you have a crack at the above exercise, feel free to share your findings in the comments below. I’d love to hear what activities have lead to YOUR biggest wins.

*amended because the original version was VERY difficult to read!