Trying to prioritize

One of the metaphors I keep running across is the 80/20 rule. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Pareto Principle. Much like any number combination, I started seeing it everywhere. Actually, I first encountered it in the business world, relating to something only partially related: learning. If you search online you’ll see articles like Pareto Principle, and 80 20 Life, and 80 20 Learning. It’s pretty common. Of course, most simple number combinations are pretty common. Search for 70 30. You’ll find a new list of sites advocating the 70/30 ratio in life. Number pairs are everywhere in nature, and we humans just can’t help but try to seek out patterns in them.

I am more attached to 80/20, simply because it’s got an old dude’s name attached to it–and there is a long tradition of the rule in the software business. You can pick another rule. But here’s the point: it’s useful to devote resources toward more of one thing than another. Or conversely, it’s useful to expect results from more of one source than another. Not always useful, but useful maybe 80% of the time. See what I did there? The rule applies to itself. Meta.

Anyway, here are a few ways that I think it might apply to music.

Writing music by inspiration, not consensus

In the business world, you have 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work on a specific project. Then everyone gives feedback, and that completes the remaining project. Of course, the original 20% choose what feedback is included, and politics can play a role there I guess. Hopefully, the good feedback is mostly taken and, more importantly, the original vision stays in place.

In music, you often have a different hierarchy, but I have found that it’s similar. If just 1 person in the band works on 80% of an arrangement, then the rest of us won’t mess up the source of inspiration.

The reason for this, is that a consensus is only best for finding the common denominator. Consensus is where everyone overlaps. It’s not interesting. It’s not provocative or inspired. It’s safe. It’s watered down. It’s already understood. It lags behind. It’s conservative. Music by consensus isn’t going to create something visionary and exciting. If you are a kind of band where all are creative equals, then consider each of you individually writing your own songs–and then getting feedback to polish each song a little. This is already understood in business.


There’s always something to work on and improve. It never ends. So do you work on everything at once? I would argue that you focus on one thing, knock it out, feel good about it, get that burst of inspiration of accomplishment, and then move to the next. On the other hand, you don’t want to go soft on what you already know. So… 80/20. Search up how to get rid of debt–you’ll see the same advice. Pay off one card at a time, but pay the minimum payment on the rest.

Last minute rehearsal

I was asked at the last minute to sit in at The Them’s final show, at the Funhouse in Seattle. So, I applied the 80/20 rule to make sure I was optimizing the resources I was putting toward the project. I think it went really well. That show rocked! Anyway, rather than memorizing and practicing 100% of all the songs, I put 80% of my resources into 20% of the songs–focusing on how songs start, the key transitions, and the end. I had a short amount of time to prepare, and I knew I could read my notes and look for cues on stage that would help me fake through each song… and it worked out really well! Oh yeah, and I also spent 80% of my time rehearsing alone, so that I didn’t waste the time of my bandmates who already knew the songs.

Cool stuff. Have you used this rule? What other rules are out there?

2 Replies to “Trying to prioritize”

Leave a Reply