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80/20 is the new Half-Ass

The Pareto Principle is making you lazy.

Let me be more precise: The Pareto distribution is a useful model of power law effects in real life. But people are using it poorly, primarily as an excuse to be lazy.

This thought was triggered by Shaan Puri's newsletter featuring Steph Smith this week (both of whom I greatly respect, this is a jumping off point, not a dunk):

You hear 80/20 rules a lot in premium mediocre circles. If you want to signal that you are smarter than the average 80/20 bear, you might refer to the "high order bit" instead. Same shit, different status signal.

The spirit of the idea is sound. It's great for 280 character tweets and 5 minute soundbites. But idk if it's good for people who finish things. At best, I don't think it's sufficient for execution. At worst, it's just intellectually dishonest.

Look at reactions like this:

"Love this [80/20] framing! Great way to remove the fluff and get to the core".

I'm sorry but the remaining 80% is not "the fluff":

  • People forget that the devil is in the details. The first 20% everyone knows to say on Twitter. The remaining 80% is the ugly, nasty, hacky, unglamorous shit nobody talks about unless you've got time to sweat the details (unless you've already moved on to the next 80/20?).
    • The more popular the 80/20 meme becomes, the less competition you will have as someone who knows how to take things to the finish line.
  • People forget that causal attribution is subject to narrative fallacy. Ask a successful person what their 80/20 was and they'll confidently tell you in hindsight. The truth is at the time they had 4 other bets also going on that just didn't work out.
  • People forget that distributions aren't always Pareto. When you assert that "an 80/20" exists, you are asserting useful dimensionality reduction. Sometimes complex, or even linear, things just do not have an "80/20".

I'm reminded of that classic movie Click, where Adam Sandler finds a magic remote that lets him "80/20 his life":

Don't spend your life spraying 20% effort all over the place, hoping for 80% results, only to look back and wonder why you never hit 100% on anything.

Edit: The always excellent David Golden wrote a wonderful response to this piece highlighting the cases where 80/20 is actually very justified, and I agree!

This topic is loosely related to Epistemology, which I've written about briefly.

Top comments (5)

raddevus profile image

I'm pretty sure 80/20 Rule has become a platitude (as it was used in the example you provided at the beginning of your article).
From Wikipedia:
"A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating clichΓ©, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease.[1] The statement may be true, but its meaning has been lost due to its excessive use."
No worries. No one believes in 80/20 Rule anyways -- except where it is true.
For example...
80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. πŸ˜†πŸ˜†

fatmonky profile image

To your point on narrative fallacy of causal attribution, it reminded me of this essay:
β€œ Because biographies of famous scientists tend to edit out their mistakes, we underestimate the degree of risk they were willing to take. And because anything a famous scientist did that wasn't a mistake has probably now become the conventional wisdom, those choices don't seem risky either.”

swyx profile image

great quote!

fatmonky profile image

re parachute rigger, people forget that Chernobyl was caused by the edge case (the graphite control rod tips of the Soviet design could, in a small no of cases, lead to a runaway reaction, as happened). So the 80/20 rule cannot be used for situations and contexts where there is risk of ruin for the entire system.

mellen profile image
Matt Ellen

What's the 80/20 on this article? At least 20% of the article is the string 80/20, so I'm guessing it's in favour of the heuristic. πŸ˜‹