The Vital Few and the Trivial Many

In 1906, economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in Italy that 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. This concept became known as the “Pareto Principle”, which describes the phenomenon that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Dr. Joseph Juran, a quality management pioneer, coined the phrase, “the vital few and the trivial many” to describe a similar concept. Over the past several years, in dealing with my own stuff and while working with my organizing clients, I’ve found the Pareto Principle holds true when it comes to our paper and possessions, too.

My husband and I stood in our basement yesterday, culling through tools, Easter baskets, plant pots, party supplies and other accumulated stuff. I realized very quickly that when your upcoming storage space will be minimal, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to keep and what can go! It became very clear that only about 20% of the stuff we had kept were things that we would really need and use on a regular basis. The rest was outgrown, excess, or just not relevant to our new lifestyle. The same holds true for most of the stuff in our homes and offices. When you stop to think about what you really need and use on a regular basis, it’s easy to see that:

  • We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time.
  • We use 20% of our kitchen equipment 80% of the time.
  • 80% of the paper we file will NEVER be touched again.

Hmmm…can we really live happily without up to 80% of our stuff?

Even if you take out the “usefulness” aspect and just focus on the stuff in your home or office that’s there because it brings you joy, like artwork, music, collections or memorabilia, I’ll bet that it’s really a select few items that give you 80% of your satisfaction and pleasure! The rest is just there because, well, someone gave it to you and even though you don’t really like it, you feel guilty about giving it away. Or, you paid a lot of money for it and letting it go will seem wasteful (even though you’re not using it, wearing it, or enjoying it!) Or those mementos of your deceased loved ones, or grown children, or a past life, or great trips you took, help you “remember the good times,” right? It’s possible, but not probable. Why? Because those mementos are most likely piled up in boxes or bags in your attic, basement, closets and garage.

When was the last time you actually hauled out those boxes and took a trip down memory lane? So how, exactly, is that stuff helping you remember? How does it trigger those happy memories? I have never had someone look at a pile of boxes and say, “Oh, yes, I remember the great family vacation we took when I look at all those boxes and bags full of stuff!” It’s only when they actually take the time to dig out the box, haul it downstairs, open it up, wipe away all the accumulated dust, and go through it that they actually remember. And then the stuff gets packed up again and shoved back into the dark recesses of the closet, not to see the light of day again for another ten years. How is that helping to preserve the memories of the “good times” or the legacy of a loved one? Maybe, just maybe, we need a new dynamic when it comes to our stuff, even the “memories” kind of stuff. Maybe just keeping that 20%, and preserving it or displaying it in a way that will actually be seen and enjoyed would help keep those memories alive! It certainly honors those important people and events in your life to have one shelf of mementos displayed on your bookshelf that you look at every day, or a few scrapbooks or photo albums that can be easily pulled off the shelf and looked through, instead of sitting in moldy, dusty boxes in the attic or basement.

And – I have to say it – moms are the worst! (I’ve been there, I GET it!) We save all those papers, art projects, toys, clothes, and childhood stuff because we look at our growing children, realize the time is going by so very fast, and we want to be able to hold on to those fleeting childhood years! But again, do those boxes and boxes of spelling papers, coloring book pictures, book reports and certificates for “the third-best math homework paper in the class for the second week of October” really help us hold onto those memories? How about just keeping the best – say 20% – and putting it into a special memory box, or a scrapbook, that brings back those really special times? Trust me, your kids really don’t want all that stuff! They may want the best of the best – the blue ribbon, the A+ research paper, or even the C+ calculus test that symbolized the hard work they put in just to be able to pass an impossibly difficult class. Teach them that memories are in our heads and our hearts, and not in our stuff!

I’m certain that if you really look through your home at all of your accumulated possessions, you can easily identify “the vital few.” Look carefully at your office, especially those paper files and piles, and realize that 80% of it is never going to be relevant to your work. Think about what your living and working spaces would look and feel like if you let go of 80% of what was in them. It’s a little hard to imagine, isn’t it? So, maybe think about letting go of 50%, or even 30%. Imagine the space, the breathing room, the time saved because there’s less stuff to manage every day, and less stuff to get in the way when you’re looking for something else. You know the Pareto Principle applies to our organizing efforts, too. 20% of the work that you put in on an organizing project (or any endeavor, for that matter) will buy you 80% of your desired results. But you’ve got to begin making those decisions, putting in the time and effort, and being persistent.

It’s a matter of making a commitment to a better life – more time, more money, more space. I’ll bet you can live with that, far better than you’re living now!

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