By: Lawrence Watkins
Pareto and Parkinson: Old Laws for a New Year
The 2009 year is underway it it’s shaping up to be a great one. I’ve talked to many of my friends and I’ve heard THOUSANDS (Ok. I’m exaggerating) of New Year’s resolutions. Everything from losing 20 pounds, to being in bed by a certain time, to making straight A’s on their transcripts, to finding satisfying careers, to not eating meat, to etc… What is more surprising than this, is that a couple of people that I talked to have more than 10 resolutions. You may be wondering, “Lawrence, what are your New Year’s resolutions?” Is it to lose weight? (I have gained more than a couple of pounds since undergrad) Nope. Is it to make all A’s in school? Not this time.
My resolution is something much simpler, yet it is one of the most powerful forces known to human productivity. It is to implement Pareto’s Law and Parkinson’s Law into all facets of my life. Surely I need more goals than this to have a successful year, right? No, because of this ONE goal, I will have a MORE successful 2009 compared to any other year in my life!
Pareto’s Law states that a minority of causes, inputs, or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will swell up in perceived importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. The Law’s are inverses of each other and when taken together, can drastically make you happier and more productive. This is a good time to give thanks to my friend Tim Ferris, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek.” I don’t actually know Tim, but I feel a Bromance going on between us since I’ve read his book 7 times. No other business book has influenced me as much as 4HWW and this is where I first learned of Pareto and Parkinson.
Pareto’s Law and my Life
Vilfredo Pareto was a controversial economist who lived from 1848 to 1943. He was an engineer by training and started his career managing coal mines. He later took a position at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and explored the income distribution of 19th century England. He found that 80 percent of the wealth in England was controlled by 20% of the population. When Pareto started to explore this phenomenon more, he noticed that this pattern of imbalance was repeated consistently whenever he looked at data referring to different time periods and different countries.
The critical thing is not to look at the specific 80/20 relationship, but to focus on the main concept. There is an inherent level of imbalance between inputs and outputs. I experienced this phenomena many times throughout my time as head honcho of Great Black Speakers Bureau, a company dedicated to spreading African American thought to the masses. I remember the early days in January of 2007 when I was working to elevate the company off of the ground. I would put in 10-12 hour days/6 days per week personally building the website, making sales calls, emailing potential clients, getting contracts signed, mailing thank you cards, and pretty much anything else you could think of for a starting entrepreneur. Even though the company was growing at an extremely fast rate, I was always exhausted at the end of the day.
Then a life changing event happened in my life. The Lord blessed me with a scholarship to earn my MBA at Cornell University. After a couple of weeks of pure elation, reality started to sink in that I REALLY won’t be able to run my company and go to school at the same time. By this time, we had grown by about 900% since we started the company the year before. The problem is that much of this growth was directly related to my personal inputs. How on earth was Great Black Speakers going to grow, or even maintain, if I wasn’t there to run it? True, I wrote a good B.S. answer to this question in my business school applications, but now I HAD to come up with real solutions.
I now had to do some soul searching and heavy prioritizing. There was NO WAY that I would leave my baby GBS to dwindle and die. Over the course of two days, I turned off all communication with the world and I spent hours of laying out and analyzing every facet of GBS with a single question in mind that I learned from Mr. Ferris. What inputs in GBS generated the majority of the outputs? After the analysis, I wasn’t very happy with myself and I noticed major ineffectiveness in my process. I then made an vital decision to revive my company; I would go through a business liposuction process and cut off the fat that would cause GBS to die in the transition.
The first thing that I did was to start searching for a new director of GBS. I was looking for a highly organized person who was excellent at selling. I found both of these traits and more in my friend Diana, who I’ve known for many years since my childhood in Louisville, KY. In fact, Diana is an improvement over me in both of these areas. The next thing that I did was to look at the mundane, but essential tasks that consumed most of my time. Some of these tasks included makings cold calls, working on the website, writing thank you letters, filling out contracts. One by one, I started outsourcing these tasks to other companies that specialize in one or more of these areas. It was actually much less expensive than I thought it was going to be. In my next article, I will talk more about outsourcing your life.
The results have been outstanding in the 8 months since I started this process. I have increased my personal income by 250%, while decreasing my GBS workload from 55 – 70 hours per week down to 8 - 10 hours/week. Furthermore, most of the gains have happened AFTER I started business school. From this situation, I learned a couple of lessons:
1. You don’t have to work like crazy to generate sufficient income for yourself.
2. If you surround yourself with the right people and implement the right process, you can accomplish a lot with very little.
As stated earlier, Parkinson’s Law states that a task will swell in importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. There are two major truisms that I’ve learned that accompany this law:
1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.
The definition of true productivity is simple: Productivity is doing activities that get you closer to your goals. Unproductivity is doing activities that keep you stagnant or take you further away from your goals.
Many people suffer from a common form of laziness: it is called busyness, which is also a disease. This disease is so prevalent that it has brainwashed people to believe that business = busyness. A paradigm shift occurred in my life for me to know that this isn’t true. Working 9 – 5 is an archaic way of doing business. It’s funny how ALL jobs in America take the exact same amount of time to complete. It’s funny because it isn’t true.
Time compression is an important fundamental to manipulate Parkinson’s Law. The law isn’t inherently a good or bad thing, it is just what it is. Parkinson’s Law is similar to fire. Fire can be good when you are cooking, but it would be a terrible thing if your house burns up in flames. Time compression to complete tasks is harnessing the Parkinson’s Law power to help productivity. What I do is think about an aggressive timeline for a task and then I cut that time by a ½ or 1/3. THAT is my deadline. By doing this, I am forced to focus on the bare essentials ( 20% inputs) of a task and avoid the minutiae that often clutters projects. Time compression has been one of the hardest concepts to implement into my life and one in which I fail to implement often. But when I do, the results of my improvements are amazing.
Taking these two concepts together gives you one simple rule: Focus on the essentials of a task and work like crazy to get those tasks done as quick as possible. However, just because this rule is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. People often interchange the words difficult and complex. These two words are NOT synonyms of each other. I struggle every day to avoid the laziness of business, and I often fail. I fail less when I ask one simple question: Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important? If I am, I immediately take self corrective measures to put me back on track.
I would like return to my opening statement on why this is my ONLY New Year’s resolution. The reason is that it would be contradictory for me to have 13 New Year’s resolutions and try to implement Pareto and Parkinson at the same time in my life. If I set my resolution as implementing The Law’s, other goals will follow as all encompassing improvements. I’m not against setting many goals for oneself; the exact opposite is true as I have many different personal and business goals. However, the point of The Law’s is to simplify and streamline life as much as possible, which is what I want to do for 2009. As Bruce Le once wrote, “One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not the daily increase, but the daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” So with that, Happy and Fulfilled New Year’s!!!!
Lawrence Watkins is the founder of The Great Black Speakers Bureau and an MBA student at Cornell University. For more information, please visit www.GreatBlackSpeakers.com