The Pareto Principle versus the Long Tail

80/20. In every scientist’s life there is a point when someone points out to you that you should not waste your time and that you should work more efficiently. If that someone, be it your boss, supervisor or close friend with a superior track record, is inclined to resort to management language, you might hear about the Pareto Principle or the Eisenhower matrix. Follow me on a brief motivational blog post that your boss probably doesn’t want you to read – telling you why it is good to keep doing what you are doing.

London Heathrow. On my way to Tel Aviv last fall, I flew through Heathrow. In one of the bookstores, I stumbled across “The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking”, a small booklet with a collection of models for decision making combined with intuitive back-of-the-napkin diagrams. Decision-making is apparently taught in MBA and management classes, but as a scientist, I had never heard of the majority of the models. This post is about the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle.

The principle of the principle. Pareto and his colleagues noticed in the early 20th century that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes for many different effects, ranging from pea pods (20% of the pea pods contain 80% of the peas) to the wealth distribution (the top 20% own 80% of the wealth). This principle has since evolved into a management strategy (the top 20% of your clients result in 80% of your business) and concept for time management (80% of your tasks are performed in 20% of your time). The implications for your time management are at hand – focus on the important things, since with only 20% of the effort, you will manage to get 80% done.

How to know what is important. The Pareto principle is a good reminder that not every task during your day is equally important and that not every step in accomplishing a given task is equally crucial. However, there is one important caveat. The Pareto principle is applicable only for tasks with a known workflow and only applies in hindsight. Imagine, for example, a lab experiment. How are you supposed to know in advance what parts are the most productive? It’s quite easy to dissect a posteriori by identifying the parts of your work that were the least productive, but how are you supposed to know in advance?

Are you Pareto’ed? People might be inclined to apply the Pareto principle to your overall scientific career, suggesting that you “have your hands in too many pies” or that you’re about to become a “jack of all trades, master of none”. This type of advice usually ignores the fact that a scientific career is not straightforward and that this side project that you have been clinging to against everybody else’s Pareto advice, might suddenly become fruitful. Wasting your time against everybody else’s advice may be an investment in your future, also because Pareto is not always right. This is where the Long Tail comes in.

The Long Tail. WIRED magazine’s Chris Anderson observed in 2004 that everything that is offered on the internet is also bought by somebody. He hypothesized that variety rather than “blockbusters” might be the way to go for online businesses and analyzed data from several large online companies. When looking at Netflix, an online video streaming company, he realized that this company gets most of its profits from a large number of infrequently requested movies rather than from few large and profitable movies. The same holds true for songs bought on iTunes and books bought on Amazon. The “tail” of the curve, discarded by Pareto as the 80% that are not worth bothering with, suddenly results in much, much more and is the substantial part of the business (up to 60-70%). Being able to easily access a wide variety of products or information online might be one reason driving the anti-Pareto distribution. And this also holds for science.

The Channelopathist as an example. We used our own data to see whether we might have actually saved 80% of the time by focusing on the most rewarding 20% of blog posts. From the ~9,500 clicks over the last 12 months that we could trace back to particular posts, only 46% belonged to the 20% most frequently read posts. This means that more than half of the clicks were in the “Long Tail”. Therefore, suggesting that we focus on the 20% most rewarding posts would have been a bad trade-off. Again, information availability on the internet beats Pareto.

The blog post on www.channelopathist.net sorted by frequency of clicks that could be traced back to specific posts. We can only count clicks and not really tell whether people actually read the post. When looking at the distribution of the posts, it becomes apparent that the Pareto rule doesn’t hold as with other easily accessible data on the internet. In contrast, the frequency distribution appears to have a Long Tail, i.e. the majority of clicks are hidden in the various posts with lower click count.

The blog posts on http://www.channelopathist.net sorted by frequency of clicks that could be traced back to specific posts. We can only count clicks and can’t really tell whether people actually read the post. When looking at the distribution of the posts, it becomes apparent that the Pareto rule doesn’t hold as with other easily accessible data on the internet. In contrast, the frequency distribution appears to have a Long Tail, i.e. the majority of clicks are hidden in the various posts with lower click count.

You as an example. Next time some tries to be all Pareto to you, you might reply: “An overly stringent emphasis on a few promising projects/ideas is a thing of the pre-information era. With increasing availability of information, the future is all about multiple niche projects.”  So keep on having your hands in many pies.

2 thoughts on “The Pareto Principle versus the Long Tail

  1. Pingback: 10 strategies to help you get papers out faster | Beyond the Ion Channel

  2. Pingback: 5 good reasons for neuroblogging – The EuroEPINOMICS blog celebrates its first birthday | Beyond the Ion Channel

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