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The 80/20 Rule: The Most Helpful Downsizing Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

When it comes to downsizing, it’s much easier to do nothing than to make a change – at least that’s what we’ve found.

But we were determined to simplify our lives and found an unlikely friend in Vilfredo Pareto, the father of the 80/20 Rule.

In 1906 Pareto, an Italian economist and wicked-observant gardener, noticed that 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of his peas. Hmmm …  And in what must certainly be history’s most inventive stretch of an analogy, he later went on to prove that 80% of Italy’s wealth belonged to 20% of its population. This 80/20 Rule (for the wealth, not the peas) went on to become known as the Pareto Principle, which is still taught in economics schools today.

Originally, the principle was applied in economics, but other researchers discovered that it had applications to many fields – like fundraising. Basically, the idea is that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort or resources. For instance: business people say they get 80% of their income from 20% of clients.

After mulling this over for a while, we had an AHA! moment: on a daily basis, we probably use 20% of our possessions to accomplish 80% of our normal activities. And if our goal is downsizing and simplifying, whether it’s an overstuffed closet, a garage we can’t park in, or a junk-littered email box, that “rarely used 80%” would be an easy place to start.

We’ve proven this maxim time and again in our own lives. For instance, we’ve completed a couple of round-the-world trips, and on these trips each of us lived out of a small, carry-on bag for 6-8 months. So we used 20% of our belongings, while 80% languished in a storage unit back home. Backpackers, you know what we’re talking about.

On our recent home sale, staging the house meant moving loads of clothes, decorations, furniture, and garage gear to a rented storage unit. Every day we’d prioritize what to pack to schlep to storage, and what to keep at home. The process was telling.

Once we moved all the boxes and put the house on the market, we were living the “new normal,” and it was just fine. Why? Because we’d thought it through and kept the “vital few” and moved out the “trivial many,” to use the terminology of business expert Dr. Joseph Duran.

So for us, there’s no doubt that the 80/20 Rule helped us plan and start our process of downsizing – and it can for you as well.

For example, people wear around 20% of their clothes 80% of the time. So if your goal is to simplify your wardrobe to save the Lovely 20% and ditch the Mediocre 80% of your clothes, you could:

Or if you want to finally whip your garage into shape, here are suggestions from the:

Just choose an approach that works best for you; then only keep the things you want, need, and use every day to live a life that makes you happy. Focus on the 20% of stuff that really matters, then start considering how to get rid of the 80% that doesn’t.

Unless you’re an aspiring monk, we don’t recommend that you live a life stripped to the bone. We certainly don’t. But what we do suggest is that you have a serious, objective look at what’s truly important to you – then clear out the clutter. The 80/20 Rule is a good tool to help begin this process.

And remember, it all started with peas!

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

If you’re intrigued, here’s an exhaustive list of 100 Examples of the 80/20 Rule 

Photo Credits: 1. Bill Ebbesen  6. Doordoctor  8. David Adam Kess

21 thoughts on “The 80/20 Rule: The Most Helpful Downsizing Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

  1. I love this philosophy and have done this somewhat naturally with my last year of, selling, buying and moving 3 times to settle in my new spot. It feels good

    • Beth, one of the biggest inspirations for our efforts to downsize and simplify was moving. After a few complicated moves we said to ourselves: “There has to be a better way.” It’s feels so liberating to have fewer things and be able to focus on the real priorities. ~James

  2. Looking back, our downsizing fell right in line with the 80/20 rule without even trying, funny how that works. I’m in the midst of trying to start a small business (see today’s post) and I’m hoping 80% of our income will eventually come from 20% of my time! 😉

    • Laura, I’m always surprised how many times in my daily life this 80/20 ratio applies. It isn’t always exact of course, but getting the majority of the desired results from a small amount of resources or effort happens all the time. Freaky and very interesting. ~James

  3. Love this James & Terri! An ambitious goal but one I am certain most of us could attain if we just focused! I may have to start at around 60/40 but I’m workin’ on it!

    • Lynn, starting at 60/40 works just fine. We’ve found that small steps work best for long-term results, and whatever the number, the important thing is to be happy about your decisions. ~James

  4. Pingback: The 80/20 Rule: The Most Helpful Downsizing Tool You’ve Never Heard Of — GALLIVANCE – Mediarteducation

  5. An excellent article for people wanting to know where/how to start.
    Even with the little we have I still look at things and think I should let them go since I don’t use them any more (clothes especially). I very much live by the rule something in something out.
    Alison

    • You’re right Alison, this method is the perfect place to start a downsizing exercise. Sometimes, large tasks can be daunting and it’s easy to be so overwhelmed that you never begin. This helps prioritize to break the project into smaller, more manageable pieces. ~James

  6. Well I must say I had no idea where the 80/20 rule came from. Always learning tidbits over here at Gallivance!
    We have just returned from three weeks away on a cycling trip with our carry on so I definitely get what you are saying about the clothing. I was shocked to see our own closet on return.

    • Sue, I wonder why so many people, me included, seem to accumulate more clothing than needed? I’d like to blame it on aggressive marketing departments anxious to sell me stuff I don’t want or need, but that can’t be the complete answer. And I can’t lay this problem on someone else. But whatever the reason, a stripped-down trip like you’ve just completed is a great reminder of the excess. For me personally, I’m going through the seasonal changeover from warm to cool, and this idea and post has inspired me to take a serious look at my closet and cull, cull, cull. It also helps that we’ve moved to a smaller living space with mucho less storage. I like simple solutions, so I’ve spent time standing in front of the closet saying: How many XXX do I really need? Welcome home and good culling. ~James

  7. Thanks for the ideas. I am looking forward to implementing them in my garage when I get home. By the way, do you think we get 80% of our blog post “likes” from 20% of our followers?

    • Joe, the more I think about this 80/20 relationship in my daily life, the more amazed I am at how often it applies. I don’t always put the pencil to it, but this lopsided distribution seems to exist all over the place, and your suggestion of likes/followers is another example. So there’s a lesson and tool here for bloggers as well. ~James

    • Nitisha, in our own effort to downsize, we found this 80/20 rule a good, simple tool to use. It’s an effective way to quickly recognize “the essentials,” and begin to see lower priority belongings that can go. Best of luck with your downsizing. ~James

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