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The 80/20 Principle and The Good Life

I received this article from the great folks at Nightingale Conant. I though you would find this of great interest and hopefully of value.


Now you might have heard the story about the businessman on vacation. He was staring at the calm blue sea thinking about lunch. A small boat laden with large yellow fin tuna docked near the pretty Mexican village. A lone fishermen jumped ashore.

“That’s a great catch,” said the tourist. “How long did it take you?” “Mmm. Not so long,” said the Mexican. “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” “Well, that’s enough to keep my family provided for.” “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” “Well, I sleep late, I fish a little, I play with my children, then I have lunch, take a siesta with Maria, my wife; we stroll into the village every evening. We sip wine, we play the guitar, and I play cards with my amigos. It’s a full and rich life, señor.”

“Well, I think I can help you,” the visitor said, wrinkling his nose a little bit. “You see, I’m a Harvard MBA, and this is the advice that you’d receive at business school. You’ve got to spend more time fishing, buy yourself a bigger boat, make more money, and then perhaps several boats until you’ve got a fleet. Don’t sell your catch to a middleman; sell directly to the processor. Eventually perhaps opening your own cannery. Then you control the product, control the production, and control the distribution. You could then leave this small little town, move to Mexico City, then to L.A. and perhaps eventually to New York to run your own expanding firm.”

“But señor,” said the Mexican, “how long would this take?” “Oh, 15, 20 years.” “But what then, señor?” “Well, that’s the best part, the businessmen laughed. When the time is right, you could float on the stock market and make millions of dollars.” “Mmm. Millions you say. And what then, señor?” “Well, then you could retire and go home. Move to a pretty village by the sea. Sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evening, sip wine, and play guitar and cards with your friends.”

Well, what is the good life? Three centuries before Christ, Greek philosophers debated what made up the good life. I think perhaps the most convincing view came from Epicurus, who took his own advice and lived very happily. “I don’t know how I could imagine the good life,” he said, “if I take away the pleasure of taste, if I take away sexual pleasure, the pleasure of hearing, or the sweet emotions caused by seeing beautiful forms.”

Epicurus said there were only four things we needed for happiness. Number one, food, shelter, and clothes. Number two, friends. Number three, freedom. And number four, thought. To live one’s entire life in happiness,” he said, “the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. A handful of true friends.”

So he took a house outside of Athens and moved in there with seven friends. “Never eat alone,” he advised. “Eating with friends is much better.” Epicurus’ circle valued freedom. To avoid unpleasant work, they formed what we would call a commune. They grew their cabbages, onions, and artichokes, and relished their independence. They exchanged ideas, and several of them wrote books.

Life was simple; it was far from lavish, but it was fully satisfying. “Luxurious food and drink,” Epicurus said, “do not produce freedom from harm or a healthy condition. We must regard wealth beyond what is natural as no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.” Epicurus and his friends actually believed in more with less.

Contrast this with the modern “more with more” compulsion. A recent survey of our own subscribers asked how much more money they’d need to be free of worrying about money. Now it turned out that those with incomes more than $100,000 thought they needed far more money than those with incomes less than $40,000. The high earners were five times more likely to say they needed at least another $90,000 annual income. Now this should tell us that once we adopt a more with more philosophy we can never, ever win. We can never, ever be satisfied.

I don’t think it’s innate greed that propels us toward wanting more with more. I think it’s deep in the structure of modern life and its compelling, insidious options. Modern life insists that success is a matter of more money. That more money requires more work. That there’s only a fast track and a slow track, and that the fast track requires us to lay out huge effort for huge rewards. So we work more than we want, we buy more than we can value, and we cut ourselves off from the simple joys of romantic love, family, friends, and abundant time.

But what if it really is possible to get more with less? Then we can experience the marvelous parts of modern life. The challenge of exciting work, the discovery of our talents, material aplenty, while also relishing control of our own time and rich, personal relationships. We square the circle by focusing on our 80/20 activities, those high-value activities, those of high value to other people and to ourselves. And by cutting out the trivial ones. We simplify, we purify, we intensify, and we relax all at the same time. Since the pursuit of more with less runs counter to modern life, we must make a deliberate decision to step off the treadmill of more with more.

Now why does this seem so difficult? Perhaps there are three reasons. One is that our desires are infinite and contradictory. We’re restless, we’re ambitious, and we’re conditioned to think that more is better.

The second thing is that we tend to compare ourselves with other people. As some friends become richer, we don’t want to fall behind. If the neighbors have a new car, I want one, too, even though I’m perfectly happy with the old model. If I make enough money to buy a yacht, I’ll notice that the owner at the next berth has just bought a bigger one with more powerful radar.

And I think the third reason is that many of us believe that ambition, effort, and striving are good in themselves. That we must develop our abilities; that we must reach for the stars. And we feel guilty if we’re not competing and not struggling to go further.

But to leave this treadmill of more with more with a light heart, consider a couple of things. First is that the vast majority of our desires don’t lead to more than fleeting happiness. To be happy, we need to focus our demands; we need to boil them down to the few that are most important to us and that result in our happiness. When other desires come along, we exclude them, not because they’re the work of the devil, but because we know they won’t make us happy. We simplify.

Comparing our belongings with the neighbors’ is as old as history. I’m sure Adam and Eve compared their fig leaves and Moses’s 10th commandment, you’ll remember, forbade hankering after the neighbor’s house, wife, houseboy, au pair, or ox, but the consumer society raises the temptation, I think, to an art form. The advertising and marketing industry has addicted us to joyless comparison and acquisition of goods, and, in fact, our economy revolves around the pointless, never-ending race for more.

But if we must compare ourselves with our neighbors, is it sensible to compare our relative wealth or our relative happiness? You know, Moses’s job would have been a great deal easier if he’d said, “Now, come on friends, covet anything you like, but realize it’s been scientifically proved by psychologists that possessions don’t lead to happiness.” Now, would you rather have lots of houses, slaves, and cattle, or would you rather be happy? I think each of us should ask ourselves, Do we have too few possessions or too many? Would your long-term happiness be greater by adding complexity or by simplifying?

One test is do you use all your possessions? For one answer, look in your closets. Have you simplified your wardrobe to the point where it contains only clothes you wear frequently? Or is it stuffed with the 80% of clothes you wear less than 20% of the time?

On the third point, stretching and cultivating ourselves is good. We become happier, more individual, and also more used to other people.

So I’m not against achievement and setting ourselves goals and all those other excellent things. But striving to the point that we’re stressed out, that we’re time poor, that we become snappy and we become unhappy is just plain stupid. We do more good when we’re relaxed and focused. We add most of the happiness for those we love when we ourselves are happy. And we’re happiest when we simplify our lives down to the essentials that work best for us. The happiness point is the degree of effort and striving that makes us and everyone else happiest in the long run.

Where are you in relation to the happiness point? Would you be happier or more developed with more striving or with less? Only you can answer that. To jump off the treadmill requires a clean break. Decisive action to reject the complexity of modern life, crafting instead our own simple good life, confident that we can create more with less.

Resolving to seek more with less is difficult because we have to shake off all the erroneous assumptions of modern life. But having made the commitment to more with less, the process of finding it is not that hard. And why is that? It’s because it’s a process of subtraction. We don’t need to do more; we need to do less. We don’t have to reach the unknown; we can simplify our life back down to the best and most fulfilling parts of a life we already have. We don’t try to get more; we give up grasping, we let go, relax. We simplify. And our natural happiness inside is released. We don’t strive for more effective habits; no, we drop habits that don’t work for us. We stop spending time on anything that doesn’t bring us happiness and fulfillment, that isn’t necessary for our living or for the happiness of the people we care about.

We don’t have to say yes when people ask us to do things. We just ask ourselves, Is this something that I really want to do that is part of the life I want? And if a task doesn’t connect in some way with our purpose, we say no. We do less. We simplify. We enjoy more.

We take items off our list. Less work, less shopping, we clear the closet clutter. We give things away that we don’t need. We recycle them. We give up feeling angry or depressed. We close off an old grudge. We forgive our enemies, and, what I find harder, our friends. We stop comparing ourselves. We’d be content with being happy, and we’d be happy with what we have. We stop striving after things that make us restless and unhappy.

We edit our lives. We cut out unsatisfying meetings, travel, or relationships that are not going anywhere; stop. As I suggested, we give up our snake pits, those areas of life where we cope badly. Modern life may advocate expensive, difficult training to cope with difficulties. A shrink, a guru, a motivational expert who will train us to deal better with stress and our bad behavior. To me, this is just like learning about snakes to deal with them better. Why bother. Rather, we avoid our snakes as far as we can.

More with less means getting rid of all the stressful and unrewarding parts of our lives. There is always a way if we are determined.

Here are some ideas to simplify your life. A simple life means less of the following: less of work you don’t like and are not good at, things done for duty, routine, activities with a low return on your energy, time spent waiting, seeing people you don’t like, going places you don’t like, phone calls, travel and commuting, driving, exercise you don’t like, crisis, taking the rough with the smooth, information overload, spending, habits you don’t much enjoy, and big things that make little difference.

And it means more of the following: doing work you like and are good at, fun and recreation, surprises, activities with a high return on your energy, events you enjoy, seeing good friends, places you like, time to think, peace and quiet, walking and cycling, exercise that you do like, thinking to avoid crisis, taking the smooth with the smooth, information on your special interests, giving things away and recycling, daily rituals that you love, and the little things that make a big difference.

Can I suggest three ways to the simple, good life? The first is to define what the simple, good life would mean for you. What is it? How would your life be simpler? How would your ideal simple life be different? Once you’ve defined what the simple, good life would be, how do you find it? First of all, avoid your snake pits. What are your personal snake pits, and what could you do to avoid them or at least to avoid spending so much time in or around them?

Let me mention the 55 Principle, which is a close cousin to the 80/20 Principle. It’s about getting rid of things that don’t matter. It turns out that about half the things that we do lead to only 5% of our happiness and results. So, just as 80% of things only lead to 20% of results and happiness, so 50% of things, half of things, only lead to 5% of our results and happiness. So, it’s quite easy to boot out the bottom half of your activities, all that useless clutter. It’s getting rid of things that take up a lot of time and energy but produce almost nothing in return.

In finding your 80/20 route to a simple, good life, ask yourself these questions. Which tasks clutter your life but yield very little happiness or results? And then, how could you chop them out? Ask yourself which simple inexpensive luxuries you could swap for expensive luxuries? Which simple luxuries could you expand and which expensive luxuries could you do without? How are you going to do this? Could you imagine a life where most days were full of your favorite simple luxuries? How can you begin to move toward this ideal life?

And the third thing, as always, is to take some 80/20 action. I would suggest you define three actions. What are the three immediate simple action steps toward that destination of the simple, good life? The steps that will take you further along the simple, good life line with the least energy. Action one, action two, action three. Make a list of them. If you can, do it now. If not, do it within the next day.

Ask yourself, am I fully committed to taking these steps to reach the good life? And am I going to start today or this week?

When these steps are completed, take another three steps until you reach “la dolce vita,” life in the modern world, but without the tyranny of more with more. Because the truth is, it’s always possible to find more with less, a professional and personal life that is simple, refreshing, exciting, and constructed around what you love doing.


Written by David Frederick

September 8, 2009 at 7:06 PM

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