Reboot with Pareto

“When in doubt, reboot.”

This has always been my computer-fixing mantra, and it is repeated in similar fashion by every competent computer technician in the world.

But sometimes parts of your life need to be rebooted, too.

When You’re Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List(s)

I got way behind on my emails while I was involved with funeral and family stuff. Then it was so backlogged, I just didn’t feel like dealing with it—especially on dial-up. Finally, on Sunday,  when I sat down and looked at it, I had twelve pages of emails. But I cleared them all out in less than 10 minutes.


I did a reboot.

If I tried to read all of those emails—many of which were blog subscriptions, which means reading something long and then probably feeling compelled to comment and maybe even wandering off to see some other likely-looking posts—I would have been at the computer for hours and hours (and it had a high-speed connection).

So, I deleted everything except for some emails from friends, a couple of reminders to update my credit card information (it expired), and two or three notices from blogs that I always, always read. Total emails left to read: about 8. Not 8 pages—8 emails.

You see, there comes a point in your life when you are so far behind and so overwhelmed, you really need to say, “to hell with it,” throw pretty much everything out and start over.

This works for lots of things—not just emails. Are you behind on reading your magazines, catalogs, and/or newspapers? Most periodicals have an expiration date. They’re for current information only. If you have a summer sale catalog from Lands End, and it’s November, what good is it? The sale price is off and the thing you wanted is probably sold out by now. Not to mention it’s winter! It’s way past time to buy summer clothes.

Keep two or three of your favorite items—maybe the periodicals that don’t really expire, like Smithsonian or National Geographic—or keep only the current issue of everything and throw out anything that’s older.

Regular mail is the same way: throw away everything that’s not a bill or a birthday card. No, you are not legally obligated to open every envelope from every charity begging for money. No, you don’t have to read about the latest pledge drive from your alma mater. And, if it’s in an unmarked envelope—if the company felt the need to hide their name from you from the beginning—throw it away. (Better yet, shred it.)

The Pareto Principal

The Pareto Principal is one of those freakishly-accurate mathematical statements that people get PhDs for.

It’s quite simple: We get 80% of our output from 20% of our input.

What makes it freakish is that you can apply it to damn-near anything.

If you stopped to take an accounting of your closet, for instance, you would find that you wear about 20% of your clothes 80% of the time. We all do it—we have our favorite pants or our favorite top and we wear it every week, followed by a few other second and third favorites.

In the back of the closet, though, there are the clothes that are for special occasions—Christmas sweaters and interview suits and formal dresses—that we hardly ever wear. And you can’t forget to count the clothes that you’ve outgrown (but hope to one day get into again), or the piece that you bought that needs ironing or mending or altering, but you never seem to have time to do it, or the thing you paid too much money for, even though it doesn’t fit right (it’s like if it stays in your closet a little while longer, it will somehow magically alter its shape or you will learn tolerate it or you will somehow get your money back out of it, relieving you from the guilt of a bad decision).

When you take of all of it together, you will find that you probably do get close to 80% of use out of just 20% of your wardrobe.

Think about your kitchen and what you use in it. You use the same things over and over again: microwave, fridge, plates, glasses, forks and spoons. (Depending on your family, you may or may not include the use of the stove and pots and pans.) But how much are you not using? Your wedding china and Christmas or Passover dishes; your wok and roasting pan and George Foreman grill; your potato peeler and corn jabbers and whisk. I’m not saying you never use those things, but 80% of the time you don’t.

You can even apply the Pareto Principal to the blogs you read. (Yes, you probably get 80% of your information and entertainment from only 20% of the blogs that you follow.)

So what does that have to do with anything?


It makes it a lot easier to let things go if you realize that you’re not getting a lot of use out of most of your stuff. Look at my inbox: when push came to shove, only about 20% of my emails were really worthwhile to me; the rest was either junk or things that would be interesting to look over if I had the time (which I didn’t).

The same thing goes with stuff in your house: you give up a lot of space (upwards of 80% of it!) storing things that you use only 20% of the time (and that’s just an average; some things you might use 40% of the time, but other things you may never use).

The Pareto Principal is an average–meaning typical. You can go off the average in both directions. People who become hoarders may only use 10% of their house and stuff while the other 90% of house is taken up with stuff they don’t use 90% of the time, whereas someone like a nun in a convent probably gets 90% of use from 90% of the things she owns.

While I don’t think there’s any problem with getting more bang for your buck–i.e. having less useless stuff and using the stuff you like more–I would theorize that when we start getting into diminishing returns–meaning getting even less use out of our seldom-used things–we start feeling overwhelmed, out of control, etc.

Let’s face it: you probably aren’t overwhelmed by things you like and use constantly. I’ve never been so overwhelmed by birthday cards that I couldn’t open them. I’ve never been in a quandary about where to store the toilet paper or the milk.  I’ve never hesitated to accept a friend request from someone who is an old friend.

It’s the 80% items that bog you down. Where do I store this crock pot that I only use once every month or two? What do I do with bills that have been paid? How long should I keep a receipt? Do I really want to friend my boss or ex on Facebook? What do I do about these blog subscriptions when there’s really great, wonderful information on them, but only about 20% of it is applicable to me?

When you start going out of alignment–when the 80% of near-useless things start taking up 81% and 83% and 85% of your life, you need to clear most of it out and start fresh.


Edited to add: I just read an article that said Coca-Cola research has found that 20% of their customers account for 80% of their sales. Pareto strikes again!


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