The 80/20 Rule

There are two questions people ask the most about my work as a freelancer: Where do I find gigs and clients, and where do I find the time to find them? In this post, I’m going to talk about the second question–we’ll save the first for next week’s post on freelancing.

I use the 80/20 rule, which originally stipulated that 80% of your output is generated from 20% of your input. When applied in this way, this rule is known as the Pareto principle, named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist. Since then, the rule has been applied in a broader sense to many practices–not just a statistical approach to input and output.

Want to be successful in marketing? Use messaging that blatantly sells 20% of the time. That means if you write a 1,000-word email, you should only allow 200 of those words to be “salesy.” The rest can be used to engage the reader with human interest stories for example. Think of an informercial–most of the time is usually spent showing how someone cannot complete a task without undue difficulty until they use the advertised product at the end.

Want to engage your social media followers? Only 1/5 posts should push your content and products.

Want to maximize your time finding freelance gigs? Spend 20% of it searching and applying for new work–and the other 80% working. Sometimes this means spending an hour and a half each day looking for new gigs; sometimes it means spending a whole day applying and pitching and devoting the other four working days to producing content.

But what if you’re new to freelancing? Should you spend more than 20% of your time searching for work?


There are two reasons to avoid this pitfall, and if I’d known this when I got started, I might have successfully transitioned to full-time freelance writing and editing in fewer than three tries (though the first try was influenced by the 2008 recession, I admittedly had no clue what I was doing when I tried again in 2011).

#1: You want to build good habits.

If you start out looking for gigs and pitching articles 100% of your time, you’ll build that as your work habit. It might become difficult to actually sit down and write once you do get work.

By limiting yourself to spending 20% of your working time looking for new clients and pitching ideas to editors, you establish from the start that you need to spend the rest of the time writing and that you must be efficient in your search for more work.

#2: Just because you don’t have any clients yet doesn’t mean you don’t have work.

Understand what it means to sell the rights to a written work. Understand why you need to use a contract when working with clients and how to get or create one. Build your website and start blogging. Start building your social media platform. What social media networks will you use, what will you post to them, how often, how will you post, how will you measure results, and what are your goals? Create business and marketing plans. Write sample articles, newsletters, white papers, blogs, website content, e-books. Learn about self-publishing, indie publishing, and traditional publishing. Acquire any tools of the trade you’ll need for your work. Make sure that you’re set up ergonomically.

These are just some of the tasks you can take care of during the other 80% of your time.

When you can’t freelance full-time…

Maybe you can’t devote all of your weekly working hours to freelancing just yet, or maybe you prefer to work on your freelance job on the side. That’s fine, and it’s the reason I love the 80/20 rule.

Sometimes because of school and teaching, I can’t devote 40 hours a week to freelance work. Sometimes I can only put in 30. By using a percentage and not a set number of hours, and by having the flexibility to distribute that time each week however necessary, it’s possible for me to meet deadlines while still feeling like I have enough irons in the fire.

Freedom and flexibility are some of the perks of the freelance lifestyle. I learned a lot of what I know the long, hard way–so I hope that in sharing those insights with you, you can enjoy a simpler path to freelance success, whatever that may look like in your life.

One thought on “The 80/20 Rule

  1. Pingback: Freelance Life: Where to Find Work | McNellis Writes

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