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A friend of mine is the executive director for an organization with global reach. He is intelligent and driven, but constantly distracted.

At any given time he will have Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and multiple IM conversations going. The majority of them are useful in some way. Yet, in the back of his mind, he knows there are more important deliverables to get to. But the days slip by and he finds himself working all weekend to catch up.

Staying up Sunday night until the early hours of Monday morning has become his modus operandi. He told me, while checking his Blackberry again, that it results in having no social life. It's so bad that he tried having his executive assistant pull all of the internet cables on his computer. But there were still too many ways to get online.

When he was struggling to complete a particularly big project, his brother took away his Blackberry and left him at a motel with no Internet access. Yet, even there, he still found a work-around within 10 minutes using his ancient Nokia phone to check email. Eventually, after eight weeks of almost solitary confinement, he was able to get the project done.

Why do otherwise intelligent people find it so easy to be distracted from what really matters?

Social media did not create the problem of distraction, but it is clearly an amplifier. Indeed, a Stanford University study headed by Clifford Nass showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli than light media multitaskers. Heavy multitasking may encourage even heavier multitasking because it leads to a "reduced ability to filter out interference."

Could the part of our brain that is processing deeper cogitative thought actually be atrophying in the process?

None of this would matter if activity and reward were linearly related. But we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is a counterintuitive idea. After all, the idea that 50 percent of results come from 50-percent effort is appealing. It seems fair. Yet, research across many fields paints a very different picture.

As far back as the 1790s, Vilfredo Pareto observed this nonlinear pattern in Italy, where he found that 80 percent of the land was owned by 20 percent of the people. Much later, Joseph Moses Juran, a management consultant and one of the fathers of the quality movement, called the insight the "Pareto principle" and applied it beyond economics.

In "The Quality Control Handbook," Juran called it "The Law of the Vital Few." His observation was that you could massively improve the quality of a product by resolving a tiny fraction of the problems. He found a willing audience in Japan, where the country had been producing low-cost, low-quality goods. By adopting the focuss on quality, the phrase "Made in Japan" gained a totally new meaning. And gradually, the quality revolution led to Japan's rise as a global economic power.

Distinguishing the "trivial many" from the "vital few" can be applied to every kind of human endeavor and has been done so persuasively by Richard Koch, author of several books on how to apply the Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 rule, to everyday life. Indeed, the examples are everywhere.

Think of Sir Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand, who discovered that just 700 words make up two-thirds of our language. This was further validated by Zipf's Law. Or think of Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer for Microsoft, who said, and then confirmed to me in person for this article) "The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10 times or 100 times or even 1,000 times , but by 10,000 times." It may be an exaggeration, but it still makes the point that effort and results do not share a linear relationship.

Once we unlearn 50/50 logic, a whole set of behaviors become instinctive. We start scanning our environment for what is really essential. We eagerly eliminate the nonessentials. We say no to 1,000 projects in order to say yes to the one that is exactly what we are looking for.

Just think of Warren Buffet's philosophy, quoted by Mary Buffet and David Clark in "The Tao of Warren Buffet," "You only have to do a few things right in your life, so long as you don't do too many things wrong." The authors continue, "Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of right investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the business that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them. He owes 90 percent of his wealth to just 10 investments. Sometimes what you don't do is just as important as what you do."

To get started, I recommend a simple action list.

  1. Before you leave the office today, write down your top six priorities for tomorrow on a Post-it note.
  2. Cross off the bottom five.
  3. Write down your single top priority on a Post-it note and put it on your computer.
  4. Schedule a 90-minute window to work on your top priority — preferably the first thing of the day.
  5. Every time you are about to check email, Facebook, Twitter or other form of social media, write down what you are about to do.

The cumulative impact of this small change can be profound. Indeed, I just received an email from an executive about a member of his team who has a particular tendency to want to do everything. Interestingly, this team member is the most productive member on his team. When he was young, he learned to push past his tendency. (A funny video, titled "A Handy Tip for the Easily Distracted," can be found on YouTube with a handy tip for others who are easily distracted.) Most of us just haven't fully learned how to do that.

But we can.

Originally published in "Harvard Business Review."