Focus On Your Top 20%

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What if you focused your life only on the activities, purchases, decisions, and behaviors that brought you the most happiness and satisfaction?

If you poured all of your actions and behaviors into a sieve and allowed the least vital stuff to fall through the holes, you’d have about 20% remaining. This is a real observable phenomena known as Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 Rule.

This rule suggests that 20% of anything is always responsible for 80% of the results. You can apply the 80/20 Rule to almost anything, from the science of management to the physical world.

Now, if you apply this principle to every aspect of your own life and focus with intensity on that 20%, imagine how pristine and amazing your life could be. You can manipulate the 80/20 Rule so that for you, it’s the 20/80 Rule — or even the 10/90 Rule. When you focus on the best 20%, 80 or 90 percent of the time, you are living your best life.

Is that possible? Absolutely. But you have to plan for it and arrange your life to support it.

Think about these questions:

  • How much space in your home do you really use?
  • How many of your material possessions do you rarely or never use or notice?
  • How much of your wardrobe do you never wear?
  • How much of your time do you spend taking care of things you don’t really enjoy?
  • How much money do you spend on things that you could do without?
  • How much of your effort at work is really productive?
  • How much time with your family is quality time?
  • How much of your “free” time is spent doing things you enjoy or that are uplifting?
  • How much time do you spend on trivial tasks, errands, and driving?

This exercise has forced me to embrace two facts:

1. I acknowledge that I can’t have, be, or do everything in life, and I no longer want to attempt that. It’s a waste of my time.

2. Over the years I’ve realized what’s most important to me, and I want to spend my time and energy on those things.

If this intrigues you, the place to start is with that ideal 20% in all areas of your life. Some of your existing top 20% might or might not be part of your ideal. The goal is to define the ideal and then shift out of most of the 80% of trivial pursuits and create the 20% to match your ideal.

Lifestyle

Start by defining the kind of lifestyle that would make you happiest. You’ll need to figure out how to pay for this lifestyle, so you must first define it. You may discover that by paring it down to the most essential 20%, you will have more time and money to work with. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I like the most about my current lifestyle?
  • What is missing from my lifestyle?
  • How do I want to spend my leisure time?
  • What are my top 4-5 activities and/or possessions from this list?

Home

Take a good look at the home you are in. If it’s possible that your home is causing you more stress, expense, and energy than it is giving you pleasure,then perhaps it’s time to make a change.

Sometimes we hang on to our homes for sentimental reasons or because a move feels overwhelming. But it’s possible to hire someone to handle it all for you and still come out ahead financially, especially if you move to a smaller home.

  • What is the least amount of living space that would feel comfortable for you?
  • If the move were handled by someone else, how would it feel to move to a smaller or less labor-intensive living space?
  • If you want to stay in your current home, how could you simplify upkeep and/or minimize expenses?

Stuff

Look around you. There are so many things in your home that you don’t use or need. They seemed imperative at the time of purchase, but now they are just taking up space. It is hard to have unfettered happiness when you are surrounded by useless objects. They suck energy from you, consuming your attention and causing indecision and distraction.

  • Create a staging area in your house. Then tackle one room a week.
  • Ask yourself, “Which belongings create stress in my life?” Eliminate ruthlessly.
  • In your staging room, make piles for give-away, toss, and sell.

You can easily sell things on Craigslist, as well as using their “free” category for giving things away. Freecycle is another great resource for giving stuff away. If you need to get rid of clutter or large items, contact 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

There are probably people all around you who would love your stuff. Let them have it!

Money

You might be surprised when you design your life around your top 20% of activities and possessions, you may not need as much money as you do now. We fritter away money on useless purchases and activities all the time. Once you’ve set aside a budget for the most essential expenses (food, shelter, utilities, gas, an emergency fund, and maybe a few others), create a lifestyle savings account to fund your top 20%.

Maybe you’re saving for travel, tango lessons, a bicycle, a guitar. Make saving for those things a priority. If you contribute $50 a week, you’ll have $2600 in a year. If you sell things, put the money in your lifestyle account.

If you start to purchase something, stop yourself and ask if the money would be better used toward your lifestyle account. Think hard about large expenses — a second home, another car, a pool, or any luxury item. Do you really want something else you have to maintain and fund? Will you grow tired of it in short order?

If you are currently spending beyond your means, you are digging yourself into a deep hole of unhappiness. Success has far more to do with living the life you want, not with having things. I highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness if you need help with managing your money and getting out of debt.

Work

So many of us believe we are “stuck” in our jobs, but nothing could be further from the truth. The recession has created unwitting entrepreneurs who are now blessing their “bad luck” at losing their jobs. Now they have freedom, flexibility and enough money to fund what’s really important.

It’s a matter of changing your perspective about what’s keeping you tethered to your job or preventing you from negotiating a different arrangement with your employer. If you are more productive working from home, and you can demonstrate that to your boss, then you can set yourself free from the grind of traffic, disruptions, office politics, and the 9 to 5 schedule.

The internet has provided a way to make a great income, even working part-time. Even if you have no savings to fall back on and you are living paycheck to paycheck, there are ways to transition from this entrapment into more freedom and flexibility and often more income.

One of the best resources for busting free from the old work paradigm, becoming an entrepreneur, and creating a lifestyle by design is The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss. It is truly a life-changing book.

Much of our unhappiness in life stems from feeling out of control. When we feel trapped by our circumstances, our stuff, or our work, we lose our ability to thrive. Set yourself free from the trivial in your life, and focus on the most productive, positive, and energizing 20%. That is the sweet meat of a happy and flourishing life.

The Habit Course, with Leo Babauta, Barrie Davenport, and Katie Tallo, coming May 23. Registration begins May 16.

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Comments

  1. This is truly awesome!

    I have been on a mission of this sort for over a decade now and can attest to a lot of what you’re saying Barrie. It’s a journey that starts with a question, which is what you started this article with.
    Once we know the answer to what brings us happiness and fulfillment, the rest follows.

    Wishing everyone more happiness and satisfaction. This article can be a road map.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Manal,
      Thank you so much for that reinforcement. It is a journey that lasts forever, because you have to keep asking the questions as you continue to change. I’m so glad you are on the journey. :)

  2. I like this concept. I am really going to make an effort in the next few days to see where my time and energy are going.
    Thanks! :)

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Amy,
      Be sure to pay attention to where your most productive and joyful time and energy are going. You want more of that and less of the other!

  3. Hi Barrie,

    The 80/20 rule is really useful for living a better life. So much of our problems arise because we divide our focus and attention over so many things. In the end, if the things we focus are do not have any useful results, it is merely a waste of our precious time and effort.

    As you rightly point out, we cannot be or do everything in life. If we try to do everything, we end up doing nothing. During an online battle against my friend yesterday where we fought in medieval Japan, I chose to specialize my troops. I did not bother to put archers in my army and used these slots for cavalry and spearmen. By specializing, on troops with superior close combat power and speed, I could strike my friend fast and hard, which I did, leading to my victory. The main reason he lost was because he included too many different types of troops instead of focusing on his top 20%. By trying to have many troop types, he diluted his power which led to his defeat.

    This battle has reminded me how important it is to look closely at the choices we make. Are we really using what is necessary? Will we have the chance to use it? Does it really matter? Only by focusing on the things that really matter can we hope to achieve success.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Irving you always have something powerful to share. That is a great story. Perhaps you missed your calling as a military commander! I guess your friend learned the hard way about the power of the top 20%. :)

      • Haha Barrie,

        I am better as an armchair general than a soldier in the army. Although I love strategy and tactics, I dislike being in a real war and battle; too much needless suffering. In any case, I did serve in the army for 2 1/2 years. Conscription is compulsory here in Singapore so I know what it is really like. Now if everyone could just take out their aggression in computer games, maybe the world might be a better place. :D

  4. The 80/20 principal is a very important tool to measure your efficiency and make sure you are working on the right things.

    A tool I learned to identify the 20% is to right down everything you do in each area on seperate lists, Finance, Health, Family, Home.

    On each list you pick the one activity that if you only where allowed to do one acitivity would make the biggest difference.
    That activity is moved to a seperate list.
    Do the exercise again until you have 3 activities.

    These 3 activities (for each area) are what you should be focusing all your time and effort on.

    It has really helped me focus my acitivites on the most important ones.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Daniel,
      That’s a great idea — thank you for sharing it with us. Yes, I think that exercise really forces you to make the best choices for how to spend your time and energy. And then it wouldn’t hurt to prioritize those top choices. Sometimes we can let work consume our time and forget about the other important things in life.

  5. Barrie,
    This is exactly why I sold my house in November. I realized I was spending money keeping up a big house and not enjoying my life. The house and having too many possessions were a barrier preventing me from following my dreams and living a lifestyle I truly enjoyed.

    I now live in a very small space and have 99% of the possessions I kept after ridding myself of the excess in storage. Can you believe I don’t miss anything – except maybe a few articles of clothing and some shoes I wish I’d kept with me? It is so liberating to be free of all that stuff

  6. Gillian says:

    This came at the most appropriate time – it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know or didn’t think but when you see it there in black and white – wow – it has a much bigger impact !!
    I shall print this and take all the actions I knew I had to take but have been dragging my feet over (and not even for good reasons !!) – like is it so hard to find people to give nice but no longer used clothes to etc etc ????!!

    • To make sure these nice clothes and things go to the ‘right person’ has been my way of avoiding doing the deed of letting go. The thrift store can handle ‘em, or have a clothes swap…
      ok, ok, here I go…

  7. This is great advice. I believe that is why so many of us are living a life devoid of our dreams. The post really puts your Intention for your life into action. Love it!

  8. Justin | Mazzastick says:

    It’s so true that our lives are over-filled with things that do not resonate with us. Life would be a true blessing if we only did things that are in alignment with who we really are.

  9. Fabulous post with really good advice. I really do think that we get to a point when our ‘stuff’ owns us, not the other way around.
    Another suggestion: when we’re feeling completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, it can help to hire a professional clutter cleaner. I did this a few years ago when I was working long hours, had low energy and my home had sunk beneath the ‘stuff’. The wonderful Beverly (link here for British readers: http://www.cluttergone.co.uk/index.html) came into my home for two days and together we cleaned, boxed, dumped, freecycled and trashed. She gave me the impetus to get going and the end result was such peace of mind.

  10. Excellent post Barrie! You are so right, and this concept can be life-changing in different ways to different people. I wish I could share this with everyone out there that feels ‘stuck’ in their life and circumstances. I think finding the strength to make the right changes in your life is the hardest part.

  11. wow, lots of thinking that invested in this post. thank you for sharing this interesting and useful ideas!

  12. So the first thing to do if you want to maintain focus is to practice maintaining focus. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about time management is the idea to focus on one thing at a time for an extended period of time.

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