Covey, Pareto, Williams, and Hamming.

December 2nd, 2007

You might just want to buckle in for some serious personal-productivity wonkulation here. Because it’s not enough, in my fevered brain, to ponder the meaning of the Pareto Principle, to review books on personal productivity, and the like. No, I actually feel compelled, at some deep level, to add to the confusion rich body of productivity knowledge.

So, okay, if you’re still with me, we’re going to be talking about how you can combine the thinking of Stephen Covey and Vilfredo Pareto — with assists from Ted Williams and Richard Hamming — to achieve world domination and generally revolutionize the order of things. Please, remain beneficient when you complete your world takeover, and remember who helped get you there.

Now, everyone please say hello to Dr. Covey:


[Group: “Hi, Dr. Covey!”]

If you’ve read Covey’s First Things First, you’ll be familiar with his concept of the quadrants where we spend our time. In this rubric, you can spend your time on things that are important or unimportant, and things that are urgent or not urgent. Which leads us to this nifty chart:


The good news is, this is a classic of two-by-two, consultant-style rubric-ology, meaning that it makes its basic points clearly and is therefore straightforward to understand. It’s easy to see that you shouldn’t spend much, if any, time on the bottom half of the grid, and it’s easy for Covey to get his major point across that we often sucker ourselves into Quadrant III activities simply because of their urgency. While we must respond to the demands in Quadrant I — including things like broken limbs and make-or-break business deals — Covey would have us consciously devote more time to Quadrant II activities. These are things that are important but that aren’t obviously on fire — like, say, your relationship with your kids, or your desire to write the Great American Novel. No one’s going to hold a gun to your head to make you finish writing Chapter 6, but you’ve got to do it at some point or your imporant goal of finishing the novel will never come to fruition. Good stuff.

The downside of Covey’s rubric is that it’s pretty simplistic, given that we all understand that importance isn’t a yes-or-no choice, but operates over a gradient. And here’s where I’d like to bring in my man Vilfredo Pareto. Everyone please take a moment to salute the memory of Professor Pareto:


[Group: respectful silence, pondering our common mortality.]

In a nutshell, the principle that Pareto formulated explains how different inputs yield disparate outputs. He originally came across the principle, which is also often called the 20/80 Principle, when he was studying patterns of landownership in Italy and determined that the richest quintile of Italians owned 80% of all Italian real estate. (An aside: it’s merely an accident that the two numbers sum to 100, and indeed there are many instances of the rule in which, say, 15% of inputs yield 90% of outputs.)

If you apply the Pareto Principle to business, you’ll look for places where a small minority of inputs yield a large minority of results, and then adjust your practices accordingly. Theoretical examples:

  • The whiniest 15% of your customers are responsible for 70% of your customer-service expenditure. You get rid of these customers where possible, you figure out ways to “tax” their disproportionate demands (e.g. with service fees above certain thresholds), and you take steps to ensure that you won’t recruit more customers like them going forward.
  • The best quarter of your sales reps bring in 70% of your revenues. You try to hire more reps like them, and you try to get your other reps to act more like the top reps in revenue-boosting ways.
  • The worst 10% of incorrigible criminals in a country are responsible for 45% of all crime in the country. In forming incarceration policy, you attempt to ensure that these hard cases spend long stretches behind bars, separated from the general population of milder prisoners.
  • As you assess the public health of a developing area of the world, you determine that the cheapest 10% of things you can do to combat malaria reduce the incidence of the disease by 40%. You pursue these measures before turning to more expensive measures.

You get the idea: the few most potent things wield disproportionate influence, so act accordingly.

Since the basic formulation of the Pareto Principle — 20% of inputs yield 80% of outputs — is expressed in quintiles, it occurred to me that you could give more nuance to Covey’s grid by dividing it into fifths along each axis. Here’s the result:


Just off the cuff, it seems that many people I know spend the most time at around a “3” on the importance scale, and around “5” or “4” on the scale of urgency. In other words, they’re doing pressing things of middling importance, but seldom do things of truly high importance, and very seldom do highly important things without the press of urgency to worry and distract them.

Now, if you truly live in my head, (a) I pity you, but (b) you’ll guess that I’m going to connect this with baseball, and specifically with the famous diagram that Ted Williams included in his seminal book, The Science of Hitting. Thanks to the Sons of Sam Horn, here it is:


How to read this chart: In the book’s illustration, a picture of Williams in his batting stance was positioned to the left of the chart. (Williams batted left-handed, so that’s how you’d see him if you were the pitcher.) The circles represent baseballs, since Williams figured that for a man of his height, the official strike zone would be seven baseballs wide by eleven baseballs high. The numbers inside the circles are Williams’s estimates of his batting average on balls pitched there. In other words, he figured that he batted .400 on balls pitched to the dead-center of the strike zone, but only .230 on balls that hit the low-and-away corner of the strike zone.

Ted Williams was a smart one, he was.


The diagram of baseballs was in support of The Kid’s prime directive as a hitter, viz., “Get a good pitch to hit.” He never wanted to swing at balls in the gray corner of the strike zone if he could help it, since he knew he wouldn’t be making any baseball history on balls pitched there. (Another famous line from Williams that matches this chart: “Baseball history is made on the inner half of the plate.”) To put it another way that serves our discussion here, thay gray corner scored poorly on a Pareto analysis of Williams’s strike zone.

If we want to translate Williams’s diagram into Covey’s terms, we would say that it was important, but not initially urgent, for Williams to walk up to the plate with the idea of hitting only pitches in his “happy zone” — the tropically-colored parts of the diagram. With no strikes or one strike in the count, Williams could afford to be picky, eschewing any false sense of urgency and therefore waiting on “a good pitch to hit.” If he got to two strikes, okay, there’s more urgency, and he would swing at strikes in the gray corner as a means of keeping himself alive at the plate. But there was no sense in swinging at unimportant pitches — Pareto-disadvantaged pitches — unless failing to swing at them would automatically send him back to the dugout.

Hybridizing the Pareto-meets-Covey chart with the Williams strike-zone chart, we end up with something like this:


The point should be clear: You get the best results — and you have the best chance to “make history,” whether you mean that in the sense of Napoleon or just in the sense of attaining your own less-grandiose dreams — as you shape your work toward the “hot” corner of the chart. Forced urgency hurts your performance, because it tends to degrade the quality of your work, especially if your work requires hard thought. But if you’re willing to focus on importance over the long haul, you really can work wonders.

Which brings me, as a coda, to the thinking of the late computer scientist Richard Hamming.


We’ve talked here before about Dr. Hamming — and especially about a knockout lecture of his called “You and Your Research.” One of the things he stressed in that lecture was the compounding nature of doing even a small extra amount of hard work on tough problems day in and day out:

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.’’ Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

. . . The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That’s the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.

So, if you’ve followed me this far, I hope you’ll find that the thoughts here help you to apply your own efforts more sensibly.

Now go make history!

14 Responses to “Covey, Pareto, Williams, and Hamming.”

  1. Mark Says:

    Nice synthesis, Tim. This was surprisingly helpful. Doesn’t eliminate the chronic challenge of finding Good Work to Do, but it’s a great way to think about it.

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks, Mark!

    And if you don’t yet have your Good Work to Do, then *that*’s the first bit of Good Work to Do!

  3. Mark Says:

    [*light bulb*] Oooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhh!

  4. Tim Walker Says:

    Glad to be of service, Mark. ;)

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  6. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » The summary version. Says:

    […] Covey, Pareto, Williams, and Hamming. […]

  7. John Johansen Says:

    That’s incredibly insightful. You’ve obviously been putting the time into thinking and applying your work in the right places. I like the final chart you came up with.

  8. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks, John! Now, if I can just consistently APPLY this to my own work . . .

  9. Larry Swanson Says:

    This is great. I love the illustrations and the eclectic foundation. I’ve been doing a clunkier version of this with a spreadsheet-based prioritized to-do list. I assign each item a 1-10 rating for both importance and urgency, double the importance rating (to favor it over urgency) and add it to the urgency rating to get a priority rating. Sort the spreadsheet descending by priority and there’s my to-do list for the day.

  10. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Says:

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  11. Greg Spears Says:

    Fantastic analysis! One book I highly recommend is The Hamster Revolution. It focuses on the key issues that impede productivity in the workplace. It helps with the information overload dilemma which often gets in the way of the intelligent prioritization of tasks. I save about 15 days a year with the principles.

    One thing I don’t like is the parable format but it probably makes the book more accessbile to the typical information worker.

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  14. Changing the rules of the pitch Says:

    […] My friend Tim Walker wrote a brilliant post a while back that introduced me to this telling infographic demonstrating Williams’ point (if you look closely, or enlarge the image by clicking through, you’ll see the higher batting averages coincide with his identified area of the strike zone). With the picture so clear, it’s easy to see what pitches to focus on and which to avoid, right? So, can we apply this to the business we pursue and how we pursue it? […]

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