The 80/20 Rule & Sharpening Your Axe

Kelsey CreehanFeatured News

By Marie Chatterley & Randon Jensen
From the Summer 2018 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

In the late 1800s, economist Vilfredo Pareto determined that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.  Later, while gardening, he observed that 20% of the peapods in his garden yielded 80% of the peas harvested. Thus, was born an unusual theory called “The Pareto Principle,” or the 80/20 Rule.  It has had unique applications and its validity has been proven in a number of interesting areas over time. For example, many will attest that 80% of their measurable results come from just 20% of their day-to-day activities, or that 80% of their income comes from 20% of their work. 

So, if this principal is true and 20% of your efforts will yield 80% of your desired results, how do you determine what that 20% is and focus on it?  Well, consider the following story:

Once upon a time, two men entered a wood-chopping contest.  They were tasked with chopping down as many trees as they could in a single day, starting at sun-up and ending at sundown.  The winner would be rewarded with both fame and fortune.

From morning till noon, both men steadily chopped and chopped.  By noon they were neck and neck. Then one man stopped chopping and took a break.  The other man, upon seeing this, thought to himself, “The lazy fool; he’s probably taking a break for lunch. He’s given me a chance to get ahead of him. I will without doubt win this contest!”

A while later the man got back to work. As the day continued, he chopped more trees than his hard-working (and hungry) competitor. By mid-afternoon he had taken a clear lead.

When sundown came, the man who had taken the break at noon had chopped almost twice as many trees as the other man, who was drenched in sweat, hungry and exhausted.

“How did you beat me?” he asked puzzled. “You didn’t work as hard as I did. You even took a break for lunch!”

“Ah,” said the other man. “I did take a break, but it was during that break that I sharpened my axe.”

The moral of the story: Time taken to sharpen your axe is worth many hours of hard toil.

In other words, sharpening your axe activities are part of the 20% Pareto was talking about.

While this principal is true in practice, many people fail to understand what it really means to sharpen your axe. If you are overworking yourself and your productivity begins to fall off, common wisdom says to take a break, maybe even go on vacation. However, that is not necessarily sharpening the axe. That is merely putting the axe down. If you set down a dull blade, the blade will still be dull when you pick it up again.

Sharpening an axe involves actively engaging in things that will make you more effective, just as the analogy suggests. Think about what it means to sharpen your axe, personally. Here are some axe-sharpening ideas:

  • Exercise and improve your diet
  • Get involved in a service project to benefit others
  • Educate yourself (read a book, listen to a podcast, attend a seminar)
  • Learn a new skill or develop a talent
  • Join a civic or recreational club
  • Meditate and/or pray daily
  • Keep a gratitude journal and write in it daily
  • Point out something positive about someone every day
  • Set new goals or review/update previous goals
  • Go out on a date with your spouse/ significant other weekly

Now, that being said, the woodcutter cannot just alternate between cutting wood and sharpening the axe indefinitely. Downtime is needed too, but as mentioned, downtime is not the same as sharpening the axe. The woodcutter can become even more productive by sharpening the blade, studying new woodcutting techniques, working out to increase his physical strength and learning from other woodcutters.

Forgetting to intentionally sharpen the axe can lead to a feeling of burnout. If you merely alternate between productive work and downtime, your production capacity is likely to drop off.

You are still working hard, but you do not feel as productive as you would like to be. When you sharpen yourself regularly, you will find that you can flow along at a steady pace week after week without getting burnt out.

Stop to consider the state of your various “blades.” Those blades may include your skills, knowledge, mind, body, relationships, motivation, commitment, capacity for enjoyment, emotions and so forth.  Are all of them sharp? If not, which ones are dull, and what can you do to sharpen them?


Marie Chatterley & Randon Jensen are with CTC Associates, a practice transition company located in the Rocky Mountain region. Contact them at 303-795-8800 or