Why the 80/20 principle is a lie

The 80/20 principle is a lie. It works, it’s effective, and, when you feel overworked, it can give you a much-needed break. What doing 20% of the work to get 80% of the results can’t do, however, is provide meaning, satisfaction, and extraordinary outcomes.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Work one day a week and be done with it. Enjoy your spare time. Idle. Go sailing. Lie on the beach. The lie is a good cue because an 80/20 life comes with many hidden problems.

The first is that most of the time, that one day a week ends up being absolutely miserable because it’s a job or business where every day is miserable — and that’s why you want to automate it in the first place.

What are you gonna do with that $5,000/month glow-light dropshipping store? Get an even cheaper supplier from Alibaba? Sell more ads to half-assed TikTok compilation Youtube channels? Buy a new theme for your Shopify storefront?

If I built a business based solely on geographical arbitrage, where every component is the result of a never-ending race for cheaper, I wouldn’t want to work on it either. It’s soul-crushing. Plus, there’s always good old Jiminy Cricket, asking why you’re selling people more useless crap they don’t need. You can’t have enough margaritas to drown that kind of sorrow.

The second problem is that “80/20-ing it” will never give you the feeling that you did your best and, therefore, enough.

Vilfredo Pareto, the man who discovered the principle, worked tirelessly on improving and tracking his vegetable garden. That’s how he stumbled upon this universal input-output dynamic. Can you see the irony? He gave 150% in his passion project, and that’s how he made a scientific breakthrough. Not by quitting after counting 20% of his peas.

If you don’t give your best in something, you’ll never get to the top of anything. Therefore, once you find it, the only way to walk your path to greatness is to walk it all the way.

This is not just the only possible path to extraordinary results in anything, it is also the sole option of deriving a deep, lasting sense of satisfaction from your work — and humans are born to work. Not all the time and not until they collapse, but much of the time and with great effort indeed.

If you don’t give 100% on a somewhat regular basis, you’ll always feel like unfulfilled potential, and you’ll never shake the nagging desire to know what you’re really capable of. On every day you do, however, you’ll go to bed with the world’s most reassuring feeling: “Today I did my very best — and that was enough.”

The third problem of an 80/20 life is that you’ll never experience the joy of expertise-induced amnesia.

Translated from psychology speak, expertise-induced amnesia means once you’ve reached a level of proficiency where you perform automatically and unconsciously, your mind will wander to the point of making it hard to describe how you did what you did — or even recollect how it happened.

In Bounce, Matthew Syed explains what this looks like for Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time: Federer’s motor programs are so deeply ingrained, if you were to ask him how he is able to play an immaculately timed forehand, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. He might talk about what he was thinking at the time or the strategic importance of the shot, but he wouldn’t be able to provide any insight into the mechanics of the movements that made the stroke possible. Why? Because he has practiced for so long, the movement has been encoded in implicit rather than explicit memory.

Studies suggest our perception and movements are linked so inextricably, a top athlete’s main asset isn’t their body, it’s their mind — the software matters more than the hardware.

Federer’s movements on the court are so close to being reflexes that his body “just functions” during a match. As a result, he is free to contemplate where to place the next serve but will find it difficult to describe what he was doing.

Similarly, when Sidney Crosby shot an overtime goal for Olympic hockey gold for Canada in 2010, he could barely recall any specifics right after the move. In an on-ice interview, he said: “I don’t really remember, I just shot it — I think from around here. That’s all I really remember.”

Expertise-induced amnesia is similar to flow. A professional writer might type for four hours straight but have a hard time remembering how certain words fell onto the page. Since their brain uses different parts to execute than an amateur’s, they can “just do stuff” and create a seemingly magical result.

The beauty of this is not just that your mind is free to wander for a large portion of the time you work or that you never have to worry about step-by-step details, it’s that the overall experience feels effortless. Flow is a blissful state to be in, so if we spend big chunks of our life in flow, we’ll feel happy and content overall. All of this is lost on the 80/20 optimizer.

If you just min-max everything, you’ll never get to that level of expert proficiency, and you’ll never experience either flow or expertise-induced amnesia — work will always feel like work.

There’s nothing wrong with cruising for a while when you need a break. Life is full of small, necessary but annoying tasks you can optimize. When it comes to your life’s work, however, don’t look for a shortcut to retirement. Don’t 80/20 what’s most important to you.

By definition, few people will ever be world-class in what they do, but where you end up is not the point — the point is to start trying as you mean it.

When you try hard to be good at what you do, you’ll never pick a pursuit that feels meaningless. You’ll give your best each day, which leads to satisfaction and inner peace. Most importantly, once you do develop even moderate levels of expertise, you’ll truly understand what it means that “time flies when you’re having fun.”

The 80/20 principle’s biggest trap is that it looks like a shortcut to happiness when it can never provide a deep sense of fulfillment.

Similarly, the hard work needed to become world-class deters us from ever trying. This, too, is a trap — because all of the happiness you’d expect from being the best actually lies on the way.

Like world-class, happy isn’t something we are — it is something we become.

This article originally appeared in Medium.