“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

– Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Caroll

More than ten years ago, I arrived in my city without really any purpose or goal in mind. I wanted to get a job, get healthy, date a few people and that was it. When I first got here, I rented an apartment near work and was pretty happy there. A couple years later, I’m talking to my parents who convince me I should purchase a condo. They tell me instead of paying rent, it’s better to pay a mortgage and build equity. Sure, I think to myself, without ever questioning whether it made sense or not.

Fast forward ten years, I switch to a new job because my old job isn’t moving fast enough for me. I purchase a condo. A used car. I get several promotions. I buy a house. Then, I sell my car because my partner and I don’t need two cars. The house has empty space so I need to buy furniture, curtains, shelves. It needs landscaping, a backyard deck and a fence. Those also need maintenance every year. And since those shelves are empty, I buy more things to put onto those shelves, which means I need to buy more shelves (and then more stuff). Now I’m looking to purchase a car to replace the old car we have.

The treadmill

As you can see, life quickly becomes a ‘treadmill’. You get on the treadmill, and you start walking. The pace gets quicker so you start jogging. Then it becomes quicker and quicker and now you’re running. Before long, you’re out of breath and exhausted from running, yet you’re still in the same place.

Ever feel that way with work? You start your career, thinking you can put in 8 hours every day. Then you see your colleagues putting in evening and weekend work, so you start to work evening and weekends. And you see your colleagues spending additional time to go to school, complete certificates or professional designations. Then you start to do the same too.

Or you buy a house in a fancy neighbourhood. And at first, you try to limit your spending. You don’t need the immaculate manicured lawn. Or the fancy backyard patio with a gazebo. But you see your neighbours’ house and think to yourself you should at least cut your lawn. Get rid of the weeds. Have a bbq. You now have a long laundry list of things to buy and do: hire a landscaper to get your lawn looking normal compared to others in your neighbourhood, buy a gazebo that you can put in your backyard but never use, get a bbq that you only use for a couple months out of the year, etc. All of that means working more. Or doing things you don’t like so you can get or save more money.

The problem with trying to run faster on the treadmill

I don’t have anything against hard work. The problem, just like trying to run faster and faster on a treadmill, is it’s not sustainable. Sure, you can do short bursts of work. Or maybe you can kill yourself over several weeks or months. But going into years of running as fast as you can on a treadmill? Not great for your mental or physical health.

The 80/20 way

What’s the solution? Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle, showed me the way (though in all honesty, I’m still in the process of applying it to my life). What is the 80/20 principle? It’s the idea that you can get 80% of the benefits with only 20% of the activities. Or rather, the idea that instead of the world being a 50/50 kind of place (where you get proportionate benefits from the proportionate work), it’s actually a 80/20 place (where you get unproportionate benefits from a small amount of work). Using the 80/20 principle and applying to the different areas of your life means you can work less, achieve more, and be happier.

How?

Work

Look at all the activities you do over two weeks. Measure, in 30 min increments, how much time you spend on each activity. Then, objectively look at the activity and define what value you delivered from it. For example, I sent an email to my boss informing them about a change in budget. That had a small amount of value. I drafted communications to let stakeholders know about project updates. That had a moderate amount of value. I developed a project plan, confirmed it with the project team, and then communicated that to the sponsors. That had a high amount of value. This exercise should not be taken lightly.

Knowing how much time you spent on what activity, and the value produced, you can do some analysis on it. What you will find (as I did), is that although you may spend 35 – 50 hours working, a fraction of that time is spent on high-value activities. And those high-value activities likely generate more value (3 – 5x more) than your low value activities.

The idea then is to spend more time on those high-value activities, and significantly less time on the low-value ones.

Relationships

Look at all the different friends, acquaintances, siblings, family members, and co-workers you hang out with. Some of those individuals are people you would go out of your way to spend more time with. Others are those you spend time with out of obligation.

Sometimes, after work, I would go for drinks with my coworkers. We would spend a few hours talking about life, drinking, eating appetizers, and a few of them would decide to continue this by going to another restaurant or bar. Other times, it would get to the end of the workday and I would lie and tell my coworkers I had something to do after work so I couldn’t hang out. I would then head home, get some grocery shopping done, exercise, and generally feel way better.

My point is find the relationships that energize and motivate you. Law 10 from Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power is to avoid the unlucky and unhappy. If you find yourself commiserating all the time with your friends and assuring them it’s not them, sorry to tell you, it is them. Some of your friends will get it and change the things they can control. Some of your friends won’t and continually blame things such as the economy, the market they’re in, their past, their childhood, and other things they cannot change.

Finances

Although Richard Koch says differently, I think an easy rule to remember is to live on 80% of your finances. Take 20% of your paycheck (any % is great) and invest it. Stocks are my preferred investment vehicle of choice, but low-cost index funds are great too and the best investments for those looking to ‘set it and forget it’.

The reason any saving % is great is because it’s more about getting into the habit of saving and investing your money rather than spending 100% of your paycheck on things that you don’t need.

Another way that 80/20 applies to your finances is figuring out what things to spend on that really give you joy. Ramit Sethi talks about living a rich life and looking at your money dials. Some money dials give you a ton of joy and excitement (for me, that’s learning, travel and food). Other money dials don’t, but are necessities (e.g., cars). You can turn down the dials on things you don’t care about, and use the ‘savings’ to turn up money dials that are important to you.

The 80/20 way is a mindset shift

Even though I’ve only applied the 80/20 way to three areas of your life (though arguably the three major areas of your life), the 80/20 way is a change in your mindset. It’s the idea that:

  • You can get 80% of the results spending only 20% of your time.
  • You can cut down on the 20% of the results where you spend 80% of your time on.
  • You can achieve way more by spending more time and energy on the small set of activities that give disproportionate results.
  • You can reduce the stress and increase the happiness in your life recognizing you can do the bare minimum and still achieve 80% of the results