The 80/20 Lifestyle

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By Suzanne Woods Fisher

A few years ago, I stood in a long snake of a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles with my youngest son, Tad, who was eagerly poised to take the test for his learner’s permit.

Unfortunately, we neglected to read the fine print of the permit paperwork. After finally reaching the front desk, the DMV employee peered at Tad’s papers and scowled up at us over her bifocals. “You need to bring in a certified or original copy of your birth certificate.” She glanced past us and hollered, “Next!”

Well, it really was a certified copy, but there didn’t seem to be an effective way to point that out to the crotchety DMV employee. They’re always right, even when they’re wrong.

So we went to hunt for the original birth certificate, tucked away in the safety deposit at the bank, then hurried to return to the DMV. This time, the line was so long that it actually went out the door.

Thankfully, in this second attempt, the DMV employee could find no objections to my son’s paperwork or his original birth certificate. Tad took the test and passed. And I spent the rest of the evening pondering the wisdom of the 80/20 lifestyle. Almost to the finish line, but not quite.

Have you noticed the same thing in your own life? Some of your activities produce a lot of results from very little effort while other tasks take much more work and yield little to no value. Well, so did a clever Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, who popularized the principle as the “80-20 rule.” Here’s how to sum up the Pareto principle:

80% of the result comes from 20% of the effort.

20% of the result comes from 80% of the effort.

Obviously, everyone (except for the DMV) knows it makes sense to spend more time in the 80/20 side of the principle than the 20/80 side. Perfectionists often get stuck in 20/80. Taken to the extreme, some stay stuck at the 1% mark. Writers who are perfectionists are the worst. Completely paralyzed by their own expectations.

I know of one aspiring writer who longs to write a book and even has a title picked out (and it’s a great title) but has yet to write a single word. He’s waiting for the right conditions. The truth is that conditions will never be perfect for a writer to start writing. And conditions will never be perfect to finish a writing project, either.

I’m not knocking perfectionism or attention to detail. Obviously, there are some aspirations that require perfectionism. Brain surgery, for one. Wedding cake decorating, for another. But there’s a lot in life in which you need to plow through the last 20% to finish up and move things along.

The tricky thing is figuring out whether that last 20% is a critical component-say, for example, the nail biting climactic ending to your novel-or whether it’s insignificant, like looking for that perfect adverb to polish a sentence. At some point, you’ve got to make yourself type #The End# and push the send button to your agent or editor. There will always one thing that could be a little bit better. Always. You have to get comfortable with “good enough.”

As a recovering perfectionist, there’s a wonderful freedom that comes with good enough. I can do my best without trying to be the best. All in all, the 80/20 lifestyle works pretty well.

Unless, of course, you happen to be at the DMV.


Suzanne Woods FisherSuzanne Woods Fisher is a bestselling, award winning author of fiction and non-fiction about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. She is a Christy Award finalist and a Carol award winner. Her interest in the Amish began with her grandfather, who was raised Plain. A theme in her books (her life!) is that you don’t have to “go Amish” to incorporate the principles of simple living. Suzanne lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Visit Suzanne at

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