You might be familiar with the Pareto Principle, named after Vilfredo Pareto and which basically says, “Eighty percent of your results will come from just 20% of your effort.”

In other words, about four out of five things that you do — or four out of five hours you spend — in any field of endeavor will be somewhat ineffective in moving you toward your goals. It’s a rule-of-thumb, to be sure, and it doesn’t hold precisely true in every circumstance, but there are enough real examples around you that it’s hard to deny it’s general veracity.

After the holidays, you might spend an hour or two picking up toys and decorations and sweeping away Christmas tree needles. When you’re done with that, it looks like a different place. Then you move on to dusting, sweeping, mopping, cleaning toilets. You might spend another five or six hours, and, while everything smells better and gleams a little more, the wholesale differences are nil. Someone who walked in after your initial push would have a hard time spotting any difference after you killed yourself for another several hours.

Same thing happens when you build a new flower garden. The first big push includes digging up the plot, laying a weed barrier, planting the new flowers, and dumping in some mulch. Not easy work, by any means, but it probably won’t take you more than a few hours. Then, you spend the rest of the summer plucking weeds, watering plants, trimming the edges, and doing all of the minutiae that may or may not make a difference to the garden’s overall appearance.

Both of these illustrate Pareto to some degree.

Writing is More than Writing

Now, you may be thinking that writing is about writing, so Pareto doesn’t really apply. After all, you can’t write just 20% of the words you could write and still have a viable story or blog posting, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. And even if you can’t apply Pareto to your writing itself — a debatable notion — you should realize that there is a lot more involved with being a writer in the electronic age than just getting words onto the page.

Consider these various activities in which an author may engage over the course of a week:

  • Writing a chapter for his novel
  • Writing one or more blog posts
  • Writing one or more short stories
  • Editing a chapter, blog post, or short story
  • Posting to Facebook
  • Tweeting about writing or his book
  • Drafting a message to his email list
  • Creating a book cover
  • Searching for royalty-free images for a blog post
  • Answering email from readers or potential clients
  • Brainstorming article or story ideas
  • Building a new blog
  • Re-designing his blog
  • Networking with other authors or readers

This is far from a complete tally, but it gives you the flavor of the types of things you probably do in your “job” as a writer. If you haven’t encountered these tasks yet, then you surely will before long.

Pareto in Writing

With this list in mind, and any additions that you can think of, it’s probably a bit easier to see how Pareto might figure into your plans as a writer.

For instance, what’s going to move you closer to your goal of finishing your first novel — writing another chapter or posting to your author website?

It’s the new chapter, of course, and the score is not even close.

But flip it around — if your primary goal is to build an authority blog, will you be better off putting together a new post or spending an hour or more crafting social media posts?

That’s a bit tougher to call because it depends, in part, on where you are in building your blog. In most cases, though, I’d guess that writing a blog post will do more for you than any level of “social” involvement.

Focus on Your Goals

In fact, if you were to generalize the Pareto Principle for writers, anything that involves actual content creation is probably worth consideration for inclusion in your big-bang, 20% tasks. Anything that takes you away from writing for any appreciable length of time probably belongs in the big 80% bottom tier of activities. They may be fun or interesting but don’t do you a whole lot of good.

Again, the exact percentages will vary, and the composition of your 20% will depend on your goals at any given time. You need to constantly evaluate what you’re doing and the returns you’re getting for your efforts. Just remember that any time you spend on activities that don’t have an appreciable payoff is time lost — time that you could have spent actually moving you toward your goals.

Pareto rules, in other words. Disregard him at your peril.

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