The New 95/5 Principle

You’ve probably heard of something called the 80/20 rule. It was authored by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who found that in his country 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. Later on, business managers began using the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto principle) to increase their productivity. At a rough estimate, 20% of the company’s employees created 80% of the company’s useful work. If you apply the 80/20 rule to your life, you’ll find that a similar dynamic exists in almost everything you do:  Twenty percent of your interpersonal activities create 80% of your sense of connection; you wear 20% of your clothing 80% of the time; and 20% of the energy you expend creates 80% of your positive experiences.
Pareto wrote up his observations in 1906. Since then, change in our culture has gained enormous amounts of speed and power. The other day, a fellow coach remarked to me that by her estimation, the 80/20 rule has become more like the 95/5 principle. If you choose your activities carefully, just 5% of your time can be used to create 95% of your good experiences.

For example, watching this YouTube video catalyzed 95% of my laughter yesterday. About 5% of what I’ve written in my life generated about 95% of the positive feedback. They say the first five minutes of an interpersonal interaction establishes the emotional tone of a meeting that could last 95 more minutes. 
The fact that so little effort can create such great effects these days doesn’t mean that we should just expend less effort. It means that almost all our effort should go to discerning which 5% of all possible activities will have the greatest positive impact. I’ve heard many people claim that in this time of job insecurity, we must all work much harder at anything we do. At a recent conference, an organizer told me I should advise audience members to work frantically at any job they could get, just hoping that something would turn out to be a viable way of supporting themselves. This is the only time I’ve ever thrown away my cue cards in front of the person who wrote them. The “work hard, work very, very hard” philosophy has never been more useless. What I actually recommended at that conference was that audience members spend most of their time learning to relax and to sense a way forward that would create positive outcomes without exhausting them. 

I’m telling you the same thing now. Especially if you are worried about some area of your life. Take some time to get still. Consider the situation without alarm and try something author Penney Pierce calls “feeling into the situation.” Try to sense where the situation “wants” you to act. Zero in on those areas, remaining very relaxed, and see if you can find more clarity about precisely the action that will be most positive and powerful. Remember that a five minute conversation with your spouse, child, or friend can create 95% of your impact on them each day. Remember that one viral video can spread wildly with little effort—if its energy really speaks to viewers. Forget the boring statistics you learned in economics class; the way to reach people at this point in history is to abandon boring models and tune into whatever is visceral, hilarious, authentic, and imbued with the energy of joy.
At the moment, I am gathering my energy to promote a book that’s coming out on December 27th. I know from experience that I will feel morally obligated to take advantage of any marketing opportunity, including being interviewed by a home radio enthusiast who works out of his garage, speaks only Latvian, and thinks that I am actually Martha Stewart. Moreover, my publishers will enthusiastically encourage me to do even more. My challenge to you this month is also my challenge to myself. I’m hoping we can quietly “feel into” any opportunity or responsibility we feel pulled to accomplish. If we can feel that a certain effort will have great impact, we should throw ourselves into the task, but we must also remember that 95% of a random effort is generally wasted and that letting go of our anxiety-based overwork is the only way to be sure of identifying those key opportunities.
I like to imagine a world where 95% of the people spend 95% of their energy choosing the top 5% of activities available to them. But if the 95/5 principle works, we don’t need such a huge psychological revolution. If just 5% of the people begin maximizing their positive influence this way, we can create 95% of the change we wish to see in the world. Start with your own life, as always, and see whether focusing 95% of your energy on 5% of your options doesn’t make your whole existence happier, easier, and more abundant. Watch your enhanced energy lifting and calming everyone and everything you do. Then spend 5% of your Internet time letting us know how it went.

14 replies
  1. Marguerite
    Marguerite says:

    Personally I am always thrilled when you do those home radio type interviews. First, it’s thrilling to listen to a professional deal with crazy people. Second, it’s wonderful to go on iTunes, type in “Martha Beck” and get hours of recordings of varying degrees of quality with you covering all kinds of different topics. Keep talking to everyone, it’s fascinating! 🙂

  2. Meagan F.
    Meagan F. says:

    Fantastic post Martha! I’m going to take on this challenge myself as well. What are the things that will bring me the most joy? How can I nurture myself and my passions while not burning myself out? All great questions, I’ll be sure to keep you posted : )

  3. Brianna
    Brianna says:

    Hi Martha,
    what you just wrote is really helpful. I just finished reading your book about leaving the Mormons. I am possibly in the process of doing the same thing and starting to experience another way of knowing God. Your experiences of God, being the Light are similar to mine. All of this feels connected. When I say possibly leaving, its because I am only at the beginning of moving away from it. I only was baptized just over 3 years ago. Strangely felt it was the absolute greatest thing I ever found. Thought it was what I had been looking for my whole life. I think some of the qualities valued and practiced are. Those qualities are me for sure. But…like you sort of said in the book the greatest happiness truly is freedom. And I could feel this was chipped away being in the church. Something about having restrictions imposed just feels wrong. Most of what is restricted I don’t do anyways, but it needs to come from me, not an institution. Well…I am going to try your above advice. I have been beginning to pray similar to you, where I sit and “be” with God and listen. Thanks for your courage to write your story and to help people as you do. Love Brianna

    • AJ
      AJ says:

      I know this is an old post, but what you said about church, speaks to me and is something I have not found the words for. Thank you Brianna!

  4. Liz Ferguson
    Liz Ferguson says:

    Thank you Martha. I have always sense this concept but was never able to really verbalize it. It’s along the same lines as work smarter not harder. I have shared the 95/5 principle widely and have receive positive feedback. Maybe people just needed to hear someone validate their need to relax and spend their energy in a more positive way

  5. Nevaina
    Nevaina says:

    Crisis can bring clarity to how much wasted energy we expend. I recently experienced a stroke and now 95% of my energy is going toward healing, relaxing, strengthening, living well and growing spiritually. All the other things I was doing before the stroke were a greater balance of my focus until now…this 5% of new priority takes up 95% of my time and has contributed to medically miraculous recovery. By God’s grace I shall recover all and keep this clarity of focus, energy, and priority after I do. thanks for the confirmation and reminder.

  6. ileana Grams-Moog
    ileana Grams-Moog says:

    Thanks, Martha! I am thinking about which 5% of my activities generate the most satisfaction for me–seem obvious now you’ve said it, but it made a light come on for me, as recently I’ve been feeling a bit lost in all the stuff that’s asking to be done.

  7. Anda Elisa Cumings
    Anda Elisa Cumings says:

    As I am Latvian, I always get a kick out of re-reading this one.

    Martha–I am reading a number of your books simultaneously, and I also just finished Karen Armstrong’s Spiral Staircase. I am very drawn to the fact that both she and you are capable of experiencing elevated states of being. I have to stop writing at this moment, however, as it is time to practice dropping into Wordlessness and get on this spiritual
    bandwagon…I look forward to meeting you in Oneness.


  8. Eddie
    Eddie says:

    My wife’s side of family spends, when watching tv programs, 95% of the time talking and commenting and only 5% of the time actually watching the show.

  9. Julia
    Julia says:

    It's good for me to hear your perspective on the work harder mantra. More important for me to hear the 95/5 rule. My living the work harder ruling has caused exhaustion and disconnection. It feel like self abuse. I'm moving myself from a convention life to a creative life. Look forward to pondering and working with the 95/5 rule. Here is an excerpt from blog aka creative life experience about what I learned about insecurity as I sensed my way thru the experience.

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