There are times during the year when we may feel as though nothing is going right. Student behavior may be slipping, and students are not responding as we expect. Our lesson plans may feel as though they’re not penetrating student consciousness and sticking the way we want. Our relationships with colleagues and friends may feel strained or stuck and in need of repair. And, despite our busyness, we may feel that we’re not getting as much done or making the amount of progress as we want. The cumulative impact can be overwhelming and seem to ask more than we can give.
Yet, despite how we feel and how the situation may appear, rarely is it the case that nothing is working. Often, what’s not working is drawing so much of our attention, draining so much of our emotions, and sapping so much of our energy that we can’t see what is working well and not in need of fixing. In fact, close examination likely will reveal that far more is functioning well than is not.
Rather than attempting to “fix” everything or consider giving up, we’re wise to step back and take an objective look at what faces us. Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist, proposed that in life 80% of the results we seek can be found in 20% of the issues we face. Dozens of subsequent research studies spanning business, sales, problem solving, investments, relationships, goals setting, and even learning have established that in most situations a focus on the correct 20% of a problem, situation, or effort will generate disproportionate positive results. The concept is now known as the Pareto Principle.
Psychologist Joseph Juran extended Pareto’s theory to include the importance of focusing on the “vital few” rather than the “trivial many.” Our challenge is not to change everything, but to focus on the key elements and aspects of our situation where adjustments can generate the greatest positive impact.
Let’s return to the examples shared in the first paragraph. It may seem that student behavior is universally bad. However, it’s more likely that a few students are creating the greatest number of problems, or that a few issues are driving reactions that spread more universally in the class. The secret to turning the situation around is not to change everything but institute an innovative approach. Rather, we can focus our attention on the subset of students who are the source of most misbehavior, analyze the behaviors that are problematic and their causes, and design an approach to address the source of the problem. Similarly, we might collect data on key issues that create the greatest concern among students and make adjustments that address those concerns without disrupting all routines and changing every expectation.
We might address our distress about lesson planning and instructional design by observing and collecting data regarding when and where students seem to “tune out.” The information we collect can help us to focus on the specific activities, approaches, and strategies that don’t resonate with students. Of course, we also can enlist our students to help us discover and address specific areas in need of attention and adjustment. Rather than having to change everything, we’re likely to discover that a few shifts, such as integrating student interests, providing greater flexibility and choice, and being more explicit about the purpose and relevance of what students are asked to learn will make a substantial difference.
When we think about relationships, we might consider which friends and colleagues mean the most to us and whose friendship we most want to maintain – think 20%. These are the people with whom we should aim to spend most of our social time and in whom we invest our emotions. Additionally, if our relationship concerns are with any of these people, we might think about 20% of the relationship that’s leading to conflict and distancing. These are the aspects of the relationship where we need to focus, invest, and fix. When we do, the other 80% likely will take care of itself.
Similarly, there almost always are more tasks to be done and goals to address than there is time. Here the Pareto Principle also can help us to prioritize our attention and energy. Experience and research hold that by focusing on the 20% of tasks that matter most we can achieve 80% of what we need to accomplish. Specifically, we might make a list of what we need to accomplish in a day or week. Then we can consider the one task or goal that if accomplished would have the greatest impact. Next, we move to the item from the list that would generate the second greatest impact. Before long we will have identified the 20% of the items on the list that will generate 80% of the success we seek. Other items can be addressed as time and energy allow, but we can be assured we will accomplish what matters most and will make the greatest difference.
It is natural to occasionally feel overwhelmed and uncertain as we face the challenges of life. However, we don’t have to give in to our feelings. When we step back and ask ourselves where lie the 20% that, if addressed, would make the greatest difference, we can find a path to success with the other 80%.