Here’s how to apply the 80/20 Rule to your photography business – so you can spend your time doing more of what you love

Jump To:

How the 80/20 Rule Works

Identifying the 20%

Reducing the 80%

More Tips to Simplify Your Photography Business

Use What Works For You

How the 80/20 Rule Works

Back in 1895, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed something interesting about the people surrounding him in Italian society.

Vilfredo noticed that people seemed to divide naturally into what he called the “vital few,” and the “trivial many.”

The vital few in society owned most of the country’s land, whereas the trivial many were a much larger group made up of the poor and middle class. These groups were roughly divided into 20 percent and 80 percent of the population, respectively.

He noted his observations while at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland in 1896, and published them in his first paper, “Cours d’économie politique.” In this paper, he described how approximately 80 percent of the land (i.e. wealth) in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the country’s population. He had also formulated the 80/20 rule by observing around 20 percent of the peapods in his garden produced 80 percent of the peas.

Photo Aspects 
Newsletter

Subscribe to our weekly 10 point newsletter. It's short and damn good - we promise!

Later in the 20th century, the engineer and business consultant Joseph M. Juran suggested this important idea be named after Pareto, and the Pareto Principle was born.

Over time, numerous other findings closely following the Pareto Principle (later widely known as the 80/20 Rule) were discovered. Since the 1960’s, it’s held an honored place in business and management theory as well as in economics, with multiple ideas and applications springing up around the 80/20 distribution of things.

For example, people have since observed that 80 percent of the decisions come from just 20 percent of the meeting time, and 20 percent of the sales force will produce 80 percent of the sales.

Other applications of this rule apply to goal setting, productivity and overall satisfaction with life in general. We’ll talk more about how to really put this rule into action to benefit your photography business and perhaps free up more time for you to spend doing what you love!

Practical Applications of the 80/20 Rule

Getting into practical applications is where the 80/20 rule really shines. During the average workday, it can most likely be said that only 20 percent of what you do produces 80 percent of the results you see.

Imagine the activities you spend your time on a normal day. You may spend a good amount of time at your desk, editing photos, answering emails, or working at your day job while pursuing your photography business in your free time. Whether you do this full-time or still want to make the leap, using the 80/20 rule can simplify things a lot.

A good way to look at your activities is categorizing them into inputs vs. outputs.

Your inputs are anything that requires you to give your time without much effort on your part. These things include spending time with friends and family, watching tv or browsing the internet. You’re passively enjoying these inputs for the most part. And quality inputs are very beneficial to your peace of mind.

Your outputs are tasks you do that create a result, such as answering an email, posting to social media, writing a blog post, taking photos, or creating anything in general.

Often, when looking at the day overall, I’ll find that most of my work has been spent engaging in outputs that don’t provide the most return for my time. For example, answering emails isn’t something I really enjoy doing, and it doesn’t produce long-term revenue like my photos or online products will. So, answering emails falls into the 80 percent, or the “trivial many.”

If there’s a disconnect between what you value and how you spend your time, sometimes you’ll find yourself fussing over the outputs that don’t serve you well and filling up the rest of your time with inputs while putting off what’s most important. In the end, the activities that would really move your business forward keep getting delayed. Or you feel like you’re constantly on a treadmill and overwhelmed with the day-to-day tasks that leave you no time for the fun stuff!

If you’re like me, there are probably a few outputs that you really enjoy that also produce the most results for you. Taking photos, for example, is not only incredibly satisfying, it also helps generate income, content for your social media and website, and new fans/customers who find you through that content. Writing blog posts or creating new products may also generate significant results for you.

So how do we focus on what really matters and gives us the most fulfillment, without letting everything else come crashing down?

It’s not as hard as you think. Examining the 80/20 ratios in your life will help you cut through the clutter and start spending time on the tasks that will have the greatest impact on your goals.

Identifying the 20%

Spend more time behind the camera

Spend more time behind the camera

The first step to applying the 80/20 rule to your day involves some introspection.

The first thing you need to do is decide what’s important to you. What are you passionate about? What brings you the most fulfillment? Do you have a larger life goal you’re working towards, and if so, what activities really work to bring you closer to that goal?

While some people can state exactly what their goals are (“I want to be one of the top 5 martial arts photographers in the world” or “I want to quit my day job and do this full-time”), it’s okay if your goals are a little fuzzy. If they are, ask yourself some probing questions around this. Test yourself, and figure out what it is you DON’T want – that’ll make it much easier to narrow down what you need to spend more of your time doing.

In regards to the inputs and outputs I mentioned earlier, it’s important to note that everything you enjoy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in your 20 percent of important goal-oriented work.

You may consider reading and watching documentaries part of the things you’re passionate about. Undoubtedly that’s true (well, if you’re me it is), but that doesn’t mean my goal is to spend all my time doing those activities.

It’s important to notice what your outputs are, because only then can you reap the rewards of a sustainable passion that provides value for other people. Your job is to identify what those activities are (most likely they include taking photos), and do more of them!

From Identifying Into Action

If you work another job on top of your photography, I encourage you to find ways in which you can change the ratios in your life for the better. Especially if it’s a job you don’t particularly like, see if you can work fewer hours or one less day per week. You may take a small hit financially, but I suspect you don’t need the extra money as much as you think you do. If you’re worried, really examine if the financial fear is legitimate (I won’t have enough to support my kids), or less so (I won’t be able to buy the latest gadgets). The latter concern about enjoying material goods is formally known as Hedonic Adaptation, which we talked about in the post about Stoic teachings and how they can help your photography business. You might be surprised by what you can live without if it equals greater happiness and more time for your photography.

If money’s too tight, or your job is too inflexible, then it’s all the more important to manage your time outside of work so you can get the space you need to create.

Choosing your passion is often seen as risky and cutting back financially is sometimes considered “living like a pauper” in order to free up our time. But, pursuing your passion often leads to a higher income because the quality of your outputs is much higher.

Action Step #1: Set Your Priorities

Try this simple exercise if you’re feeling like you’re always overwhelmed with too much on your plate. Log what you do for a day, and how long you spent doing it. You’ll find a surprising amount of time is probably spent on tasks that aren’t urgent and can be either outsourced or saved for another day. Things like housecleaning can be outsourced for quite cheap – I’ve hired a wonderful house cleaner who kept everything in order for as little as $50 every two weeks! It saved me so much time to know that things would be kept clean and organized without my involvement.

If you spend the vast majority of your spare time watching TV or surfing the internet, imagine what you could accomplish if you instead decided to spend that time working on something you love to do?

Action Step #2: Power Sessions

Power sessions are chunks of time where you focus only on the task at hand for a set period of time. I accomplish my best work during power sessions, which can last anywhere from a half hour to practically an entire day.

Get a simple kitchen timer, turn off your phone and make sure your distractions are minimized for however long you have (this could be as short as 20 mins, but I recommend shooting for at least an hour). I like to set the timer for 50 minutes, as this seems like the most productive chunk of time for me before I need to take a short break.

Committing to a power session or two every week can be a wonderful way to get a lot of creative and important work done in a short amount of time. Making this a habit will dramatically improve your productivity and enable you to focus on your true priorities.

Action Step #3: Set Up Your Space

This practice is so simple, yet so powerful. It only takes a few minutes in most cases, but it can dramatically change how often you engage in your priorities that truly matter.

If you’ve been putting off a project because it takes time to actually get everything together, just set things up in advance so it’s easy to start. If all your photography equipment is stashed away in a closet, you’re probably not going to drag it out as easily as if it were right in front of you.

Set aside space where you can set up everything you need, so it’s easy to just grab it and go. Painters will do this with a studio space, musicians do this with their instruments, and you can do it by setting up a proper workspace or packing your camera equipment so you’re ready to go shoot at a moment’s notice.

Action Step #4: Hell Yes! Or No

Most of us have commitments we wish we hadn’t agreed to. So our next tip comes from Derek Sivers, the wildly successful entrepreneur and musician who started CD Baby in 1998 and grew it to a multi-million dollar business – while still keeping his time freedom.

Derek says a friend of his introduced him to the simple concept of deciding whether an event or commitment was worth his precious time by asking, “Is the answer a “Hell Yes?” If not, then it’s a No.”

There are so many temptations that distract us from what’s really important (our 20 percent), and add to the tasks that make up our “trivial many” (the 80 percent). By simply asking if an invitation is a “Hell Yes!” or not, you can really simplify your life and become like the successful CEO who still has plenty of free time.

Action Step #5: Eat The Biggest Frog First

Running with a similar theme as our last tip, you’ll often see people who appear to be busy all day long but seem to be accomplishing very little. I’ve been one of these people in the past and I always felt burnout at the end of the day. I knew living like that was not sustainable for my physical and mental health.

After examining my day, I realized I was busy working on little unimportant tasks that then left me too exhausted to properly take on the bigger, more important stuff.

The most valuable tasks are often the hardest or most complex, so it made no sense to save them until my energy was sapped at the end of the day.

Your large, important task for the day is like a big frog. It’s uncomfortable and a little intimidating to face it, but once to finish it (“eat the frog”), everything else seems much easier. So, if you can reorder your day so that you “eat the biggest frog first,” the rest of your day will likely go much more smoothly.

BONUS Round: Find the Crucial 20% of Your Customers

All customers are not created equal. While a small portion of your clients and customers can earn you an amazingly disproportionate amount of money, most will likely make you a little bit of money, and some may even waste your time. With the last customer group, you lose money selling anything to them at all.

Your end goal should be to zero in on those 20 percent of customers who bring you the most prosperity with the fewest headaches. Not everyone is ready to do this – because it can be difficult saying “No” when you previously bent over backwards for some people.

Or, you may not be at the point where your business is profitable enough to choose who to focus on. You may still be defining your audience or discovering who the 20 percent might be.

But no matter where you are in your business, these tips are still good to pay attention to. Use the 80/20 rule of choosing your best customers as you grow. Once you do this, your business and work-life balance will greatly improve.

Customer Lists

First, it’s important to have a detailed list of all your customers. The simplest way to do this is to have an email list. If you can, look at which customers bought your products most Recently, bought more Frequently, and spent the most Money. Bingo! You’ve found a chunk of your 20 percent. Focus on them, and you’ll reap 80 percent of the rewards from just 20 percent of the clients.

Geography

Do most of your higher paying customers come from the same place, city, or geographic region? Delve into your customer data (your social media can be useful too) and find out where your money-making customers actually live. The odds are that people or businesses from certain neighborhoods or certain cities constitute most of your business.

Your Niche

Customers who buy the most expensive products or services from you almost always fit a peculiar demographic. They are noticeably different in age or income or interests than everyone else. It’s important to stay open-minded as you figure this out, too.

Reducing the 80%

Firing your worst clients isn't easy

Firing your worst clients isn’t easy

So, you’ve thoroughly identified the “20 percent,” or the priorities and customers that will have the most future impact on your life and work. What about everything else?

Now we need to identify what does not deserve your attention.

You can start by writing down everything that either inconveniences you or distracts you that does not deserve your attention. Ask yourself, “What is wasting my time?” and “What can I delegate or outsource in my home and business to free up more of my time?”

Open your mind to the possibilities here. For the same price as grabbing a fast-food lunch every day you can outsource all your office work to a virtual assistant who can give you weekly reports on what was accomplished. Imagine not having to deal with your email inbox all by yourself?

Or, like my practical example earlier, you can outsource your yard work and housecleaning for much cheaper than you’d expect. You can set aside one day a week to cook all the meals for that coming week.

Steve Jobs and Barack Obama are both notable leaders that took simplification to a new level by only wearing the same few outfits every day, and buying multiples of those outfits. For Jobs, this was a pair of jeans with sneakers and a black long sleeve shirt, every single day. That was it!

While you don’t have to go that far, it’s helpful to take a broad view of what you spend your precious time doing, and see if you can shorten the time you spend on things that don’t matter as much in the grand scheme of things.

In Regards to Marketing

We can apply the 80/20 Rule to your online marketing efforts too.

As a general rule, 80 percent of your social media posts should be non-promotional content. In other words, 80 percent of what you share should have some kind of value to your audience that doesn’t scream “Buy my stuff!.” But you probably knew that.

Social media users aren’t necessarily looking to buy something – though they will if you present them with the right offer at the right time – they’re mostly looking to socialize and enjoy the “input” they passively receive. It’s like an online form of happy hour after work – no one wants to hear you babble on about a promotion you’re running that they need to jump on soon.

Instead, your fans (friends) want to hear about things they can relate to. This is why stories are generally considered one of the best ways to connect with your audience. They love humor, and they love to be able to relate to you and connect with you as a person. They want to know you on a personal level. This is how we connect with others in real life, and the same can be said for the online world.

Fire your problem customers

Almost inevitably as your business grows, 10-20 percent of the customers you serve will create the most support tickets, need the most phone calls, and eat up your precious time. If you’ve tried to fit a square peg into a round hole too many times with them, it’s okay to let them go. Be polite and gracious about it (because nobody wants’s a bad online review) – but still do it.

If you’ve been in the trenches for long enough, it’s time to ignore the problem customers, and direct your time towards relationships with the hassle-free, “vital few.” Take them out to lunch if you can, and ask them questions about what they like and why they buy your products or services.

It is so natural to want to pay attention to all of your customers because they are all part of your livelihood. But you don’t need everyone to succeed – far from it.

Paddle away from the 20 percent of your customers who cause you headaches, and focus on the 20 percent who buy the most from you.

More Tips to Simplify Your Photography Business

Social Media Automation

If you’re frequently using social media in marketing your photography, most of what you’re doing can be automated. Of course, interacting with your fans and followers should still come from you, in person (not a bot), but all the other stuff can most likely be set on autopilot so you don’t have to worry about it!

Using an app like Buffer, you can schedule all your social media posts in advance so you don’t have to worry about it. You can also have them post at the best times for follower engagement. They have a Free account option that takes only minutes to set up but will save you hours and hours every week on your social media marketing efforts.

Next, you can set up a free account with a service called IFTTT to automate sharing posts across multiple platforms. Some example recipes you can use in IFTTT for multiple actions in your business include:

  • Share RSS content to Buffer
  • Share Instagram as native Twitter Photo
  • Post your Instagram photos to Tumblr
  • Post the Instagrams that you like on your Tumblr blog
  • Automatically upload your Instagram photos to Flickr
  • Use Instagram to update your Twitter profile picture
  • Photos added to a specific iOS album will upload to Flickr
  • Daily email of what GIFs are trending
  • Share videos you like on YouTube to Twitter
  • Save your favorite tweets in Pocket!
  • New Twitter followers in a Google spreadsheet
  • Download new Facebook photos you’re tagged in to a Dropbox folder
  • Backup my contacts to a Google Spreadsheet
  • Save my iOS photos to Dropbox
  • Save all of your liked videos in a spreadsheet

Backing up Your Work

Backing up your photos is extremely important, but it can also take up a lot of your time. Enter Carbon Copy Cloner, a backup service that automatically backs up your work to a secure server, and runs on a schedule you set. Currently, it’s a one-time purchase of only 39.99 USD, and they also have a free 30-day trial.

In the event of a hard drive failure, you can instantly reboot Carbon Copy’s hard drive clone (a duplicate of everything saved on your hard drive) and recover your work as if nothing ever happened. When the software is cloning your drives, it only clones new files added that day so the speed and performance of your computer aren’t affected and you’ll receive an email report once everything is backed up securely.

You can then rest easy at night knowing you’ll always be able to recover your work should something go wrong.

Use What Works For You

Time keeps marching on

Time keeps marching on

The 80/20 rule can be simplified to mean that in any situation, 20 percent of the inputs or activities are responsible for 80 percent of the results.

For Pareto, this meant recognizing that 20 percent of his Italian countrymen owned 80 percent of the land and wealth.

For those of us who run a creative business, recognizing the 80/20 rule can help streamline our entire process and free up time to capture and create what we want to see in the world.

Even if they know about the 80/20 rule and goal setting, not everyone will implement this advice in their lives. Why not? Well, it could be fear of taking the risks needed to pursue their dreams (fear of failure), fear of the unknown, or even the fear of success.

Unfortunately, those fears can prevent us from taking the leaps necessary to focus on what’s truly important.

It’s important to acknowledge what you’re afraid of losing if you decide to cut out activities or routines that aren’t super important to you or that you don’t find satisfying. You may realize that your time and freedom is more important than earning the extra income possibly gained from those activities. Or you may realize that your work can and should take precedence over everything else.

You may realize that your time and freedom is more important than earning the extra income possibly gained from those activities. Or you may realize that your work can and should take precedence over everything else.

We all have to maintain a balance in our lives, but that balance looks differently for everyone. Everyones 20 percent will look and feel different.

You may absolutely love the editing process and decide to prioritize editing over shooting photographs. Or you may love sharing your work in a meaningful way, so engagement with your audience or clientele is super important. Or you may just love good ol’ fashioned photo shoots and learning with a camera in your hands.

The reason the 80/20 rule is mentioned so often in business and lifestyle topics is that it allows you the structure to identify what you value most and dive headlong into it. It’s a tool to help you create a fully-customizable life around your values.

And that’s where pure creativity and enjoyment comes from.