The 80/20 Rule of Gift-Giving

Millennials are kind of bad about thoughtful traditions. I include myself in that number.

We* don’t send thank-you notes. We don’t send sympathy notes. We don’t typically send gifts. Flowers are rare enough.

I don’t think our hearts are entirely in the wrong place. My theory? We’ve been trained to be perfectionists.

There’s been an arms race of big gift giving and big celebration as social media self-comparison has become a more important part of our lives. A few small life events like proposals and weddings have become so intricate, so public, and so elaborate that anything less seems to be not worthwhile.

When occasionally I do summon the thoughtfulness to send a note or give a small gift, I feel that.

I’ll find myself pooh-poohing the content of my note. It’s just a few lines – a way to say thank-you – that I could just as easily send on my phone in a few seconds. There’s nothing special attached to the note if I send it, just some ink that I took a few minutes to scrawl out.

What’s the point? I assume my effort is too small to seem meaningful in a world of the gift/celebration arms race, and it’s too great in the world of text messages and social media.

Here’s the thing: it’s actually in that middle ground between the great effort and small effort where the most opportunity is hiding.

Just the other day I gave a bag of oranges to couple of teammates working on a particularly hard project. I wrote a note with a few lines on it and left my gift where they could find it the next day. This cost me little effort and little money, but it made them smile and made them feel appreciated.

I think it was precisely because the gift was small and everyday that my coworkers appreciated it. When gift-giving is small-scale, regular, and routine, genuine appreciation becomes a regular and routine part of life for the giver and recipients. If it’s done only once in a blue moon in a big way, it is less a part of life and more an accumulated debt payment.

What if I had let myself overthink this gift? If I had tried to be perfect or extravagant or impressive with the gift, I probably wouldn’t have given it. If I had, I might be too obsessed or hassled with the work to do it again anytime soon.

There is an 80/20 rule of gift-giving, just like there is an 80/20 rule for most human activity:

“The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes” – Wikipedia

Most people follow either a 20/80 rule – over-extravagant effort (80%) for a few impressive results that linger for a few days – or a 0/0 rule – seeing the work of the first and then not even bothering.

The 80/20 rule of gift-giving looks a lot like buying a bag of oranges for coworkers who deserve the appreciation. The 20% of effort it takes to do something small on a regular basis – writing a quick note, making simple art, saying encouraging words, giving a modest gift – often yields the 80% of results you wanted to get out of gift-giving in the first place.


Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

* With some notable exceptions among my own friends, I should add.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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