Parkinson and Pareto

I get a lot of work done late at night. Sometimes very late at night.

It’s not that I don’t start early … I do. It’s partly that — for me at least — starting early has almost nothing to do with finishing early. Starting early most often means that the task simply takes longer, that I ruminate on it more … that I drag my feet.

I recognize the flaw and the problem. It’s taught me a valuable lesson about starting and finishing things.

That lesson can be expressed a few ways.

For one, I am never going to “feel like it.” It’s best to just get started so I can get finished.

For another, “later” keeps getting later … and later. If I tell myself I’ll start later, that’s a losing proposition.

For a third, tomorrow never comes.

To put a couple of names to it, my habits are a classic example of Parkinson’s Law, and I think the way out is by acknowledging the Pareto Principle.

Parkinson’s Law

Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) was a British naval historian who wrote nearly 60 books. In 1955, he published an essay in The Economist (one of the all-time great magazines) titled “Parkinson’s Law,” which he defined as follows:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Quite obviously, the man was a genius. Such a keen observer of human nature has rarely been seen.

I bet you know exactly what he was saying. If you have an hour to reorganize an endcap (or write a web column), then it takes an hour, even though a reasonable schedule might allow for half that.

And if you wait until “the last minute,” you somehow get it done in sixty seconds.

This is not exactly about procrastination, though I’m certain I suffer from that, too. This is about getting a project or task to a reasonable level of “finished” and kicking it out the door so we can move on to the next task.

And that brings me to the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto Principle

Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) never met Cyril Northcote Parkinson, but together they combine to define my problem. Pareto was an Italian economist, and his “principle” states that roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. It’s often called the 80/20 rule, and a classic business example would be that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of clients.

I don’t know if that particular example applies to your business, but I bet you can find instances where it does. Maybe 80 percent of your personnel problems come from 20 percent of your employees or 80 percent of your soft bait sales come from 20 percent of the brands you carry.

For me, I’m learning that 80 percent of my time is spent on 20 percent of my job. Some of that is simply unavoidable, but some can be managed better … a lot better. And thinking about it this way is a step in the right direction.

You’ve got to properly identity the problem before you can go looking for the cure.

I bring this up because I think it helps to put these things in perspective, to understand what others have observed and to apply it to my life and my work.

Parkinson and Pareto were not magazine editors nor outdoor writers. As far as I know, they never managed a retail fishing shop or headed up a tackle manufacturing business. But I think they have something of value to say about how all of us live and work … even decades after they’re gone.