The 80/20 Rule on How Important Tasks Really Are in the Overwhelmed Workplace

Mar 29, 2012

We all get requests to do additional “work” many times a day. Most of those action requests are embedded in the e-mails we get all day long. Beyond the time just reading an e-mail, many e-mails can lead to substantial things we have to do—and doing them can add hours of work to our workday. Because of that, we are all getting the feeling that we’ve got way too much to do, that we cannot get our core work done.

Well, there is an 80/20 rule on all these requests that are coming in. The rule goes like this: 80% of action requests we get by e-mail will decline in importance over time if left undone. Only 20% will get more urgent if not done quickly. If we use this rule appropriately, we can start to solve our feeling of overwhelm and scattered work focus, and accomplish a lot more of our core work.

Why is this rule so true? It’s true because in this fast changing business world, nearly all business priorities change rapidly. It’s true—the priorities of your boss, your clients, your firm, your colleagues, and even your own priorities, all change very rapidly as time goes by. So something that seemed very important on Monday may be much less important by Friday, as new priorities have moved in.

What are the implications of this rule? The number one take away from this rule is this: never work lower priority, short-term needs at the expense of high priority ones. If you spend most of your day on lower priority, short-term needs, then you’re missing opportunities to get your important work done. And you are wasting your time on work that, given the test of time, you really should have passed on.

But because of the way our attention span and communications trend, most of us DO favor the lower priority, short-term needs. Why is that? They are easy to do and feel like quick-wins. And we are afraid if we don’t do them immediately we will lose track of them. And since they usually end up right in front of us, we just do them.

E-mail is a perfect example of this. The way e-mail inbox is configured, it always puts the latest e-mail at the top of our list—even if it is very low priority. And if we want to be diligent, that’s where we start, at the top. Some of us feel like we have to get to every e-mail that comes into the inbox or else we’re not being proactive—not being responsive. Due to our desire to be helpful, and our training to be responsible, (and often due to an undisciplined attention span), we do spend time attending to nearly everything that crosses our plate.

However, working e-mail diligently is absolutely the worst way to spend your time. 80% of those e-mail action requests will probably expire or decrease greatly in importance over the days and weeks ahead and so if you didn’t spend your time working on them there would be less impact anyway.

And this is not just an e-mail issue. Note that our attention span works the same across all modes of incoming requests and information. The latest phone call, pop-up alert, instant message, text message, or conversation—those are what we allow to dictate what we work on, and that leads to our important work never getting done.

However, this is not just a matter of committing to your important work and dropping everything else—ignoring all or most e-mail for example. We cannot just drop everything else.  The trouble is, you are never sure which of those requests really is in the 20% until some time has passed and you see the priority go up. Many things could mushroom later if not tracked, and that could lead to a career limiting issue.

The Solution

The solution is to use the MYN system or the One Minute To-Do List (1MTD) system. In that system you triage mail as it comes in (read or scan it quickly to gauge importance), but you do not work it immediately (unless really quick). Instead you convert e-mail action requests to tasks, record all other requests, and then work them off your prioritized list in priority order. Once these are on your prioritized list, the low priority items get pushed down and you focus first on high priority items.

But the key is that MYN and 1MTD also provides a structured way to periodically track the lower priority ones too, to make sure you don’t drop any emerging priorities that are in those deferred actions. You see, MYN and 1MTD give you a simple way to store low priority requests out of sight, but with a scheduled review to revisit them regularly. In MYN it’s called Defer-to-Review. By using Defer-to-Review to properly place lower priority actions out of your main action view, but still reviewing them appropriately, you can both focus on high-value core tasks and not let any issues drop through the cracks. In today’s work world where we get tens of new action requests each day, any of which could bite you over time, this is the only way to stay focused, be productive, but not lose track of the hundreds of other to-dos, any one of which could still be important.

And that’s the main point. Given how much is coming at us these days, we all now know that we will never get it all done. Many things will have to drop off the bottom. MYN/1MTD is a system that segments everything coming at you, almost automatically, so that you will focus first on that 20 percent of requests that really make sense to do and still keep track of the rest. That’s what the MYN and 1MTD system does for you.


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6 Responses to The 80/20 Rule on How Important Tasks Really Are in the Overwhelmed Workplace

  1. Sam says:

    So Michael, I received notice of this article via email. Is this a 20% email or an 80% email?

  2. There is one in every crowd says:

    He he he.

  3. Michael Linenberger says:

    Sam, a perfect question to demonstrate how MYN works.
    See the text above where is says:
    “The trouble is, you are never sure which of those requests really is in the 20% until some time has passed and you see the priority go up. Many things could mushroom later if not tracked”
    So if you are really not sure if the action is important, convert it to a task put it on your Op Now tasks list and give it some time. After a while as you trim your OpNow list (20 max) you’ll either move it down to over the horizon and eventually delete it, or one day it may become critical and you’ll put it in the Critical Now section and do it! Or, if e-mail is not a task, just a “read it”, then per the other article in today’s newsletter, mark the e-mail as a “read later” and move it to the Processed Mail folder, and read it when you have more time.
    The MYN decision steps are pretty simple!

  4. Andrew says:

    Hi Michael,
    I really enjoy your material and I do apply it! Your update mails reminds us of how to be disciplined on the method. It really helps. Thank you for sharing.

    In Lak’esh,
    Andrew (Japan)

  5. Frank Hagan says:

    Michael, have you discovered a way to implement your MYN system with a task list that is shared with Outlook from an Office 365 Sharepoint Task List? I love the ability to drag and drop an email to the Tasks icon in the navigation pane in Outlook, and have it automagically create a task. But alas, I haven’t found a way to drag and drop an email to any of the “Other Tasks” lists that appear as subfolders of the Tasks folder (such as the Sharepoint shared task list mentioned previously).

    • Michael Linenberger says:

      Don’t know about sharepoint, but for other task folders, as you drag the email, try hovering the mouse over the main tasks icon. In a few seconds you should see the list of all tasks folders appear at the top of the Navigation pane, and you can then drop your email in the one you want. Alternately, try opening the Folder List view in the Navigation pane before you drag the email. Look up Folder List in the Outlook book index.

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