The 80-20 Rule


The 80-20 Rule

I'm currently in the middle of moving in to a new apartment. One of the rooms is still Boxland; the others are starting to come together. I worked feverishly for the first week to get things organized. But as I neared the finish line, approaching Okay but not Great levels of tidiness, I lost motivation. The boxes sat around in Boxland for another week.

"It's because of the 80-20 rule," my friend explained.

"What's that?" I asked.

He explained: the 80-20 rule was one of the rules of thumb about life, like Murphy's law. The 80-20 rule stated that the last 20% of any task was as difficult as the first 80%. It was relatively easy to get many projects 80% done - you know, mostly done by most people's standards - but it took tremendous effort to get that last 20% done.

The moment he explained this, a light went off in my brain, and I started seeing evidence of the 80-20 rule everywhere in my life. Clean the kitchen? I'd do everything except the one last pasta pot, which was hard to maneuver. Go grocery shopping? I'd get everything on the list except that last hard-to-find thing. Design a website, draw a picture, organize a room, get myself dolled up for an evening out? Just about everything started to look like my natural impulse was to get about 80% of it done - and then more often than not, I'd let the last 20% go. I bet you do something similar.

This is less true for perfectionists, I should add; perfectionists will slave and labor to get that last 20%, but the rest of us tend to give up when we're almost at perfection.

Write a great story? Heck ya, this applied. And it applies to you and your stories too.

The funny thing is that this is a useful strategy for getting things done in many aspects of our lives. Often, Good Enough is fine for a task that doesn't have great importance to you. Unless cleaning the house is your meaning in life, I think getting it mostly clean works just fine for most days. But it doesn't work for something you want to be truly excellent. When it comes to our writing, we sweat through a first draft, and then worry and labor over a second. We've done good hard work and the story is strong. But it's not yet quite as strong as it could be. We need to invest that last bit of energy to get that last 20%. We need to put it aside for a little and acknowledge that even though the work is hard, we need to do it.

Do you feel like the 80-20 rule holds in aspects of your life? And why do you think that last bit of work is so much harder than the first giant chunk? It might be because we avoid the hard things while we're working; when we encounter a difficult part of our writing, or a part we don't understand, we swerve around it, working on the other, easier things that need our attention. But if we get to the end, we're still left with those questions and problems, the really hard stuff, and now the hard stuff is concentrated. Now we can't avoid it any longer because there's nothing else to do to make the story better.

So how do you fight the 80-20 blues? Do you think Good Enough is good enough? Or do you scrabble and fight for that last 20%? I try to think of my grandfather, a very patient, methodical, and exacting man. He taught me childhood rhymes like "If a job is once begun, never rest until it's done", and "Be a job big or small, do it well or not at all." I, a quintessential non-perfectionist, have to chant these to myself sometimes when I want a chore to be done, or I'm tempted to settle for mostly done. But I should be chanting it to myself with my art, as well. Art takes work; if I'm skipping the work, I can't expect to have art come out of my effort.