Pareto Principle and Email

Pareto Principle and Email

Vilfredo Pareto, who introduced the Pareto principle, never used email.

Small wonder; he died in 1923, having lived a long and fruitful life, noted especially for his contributions to economics. Yet one aspect of Pareto’s thinking is quite relevant to the way I think about email. This is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, found to apply in numerous domains: “80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers”; “80% of the land is owned by 20% of the population” (Pareto’s original observation of 19th century Italy); and so on.

So what does the Pareto principle have to do with email?

Here’s what: 80% of the value in email comes from 20% of the incoming messages. Or maybe it’s more than that; maybe 90/10, or 95/5…the point isn’t the exact number, it’s that the great majority of messages convey very little value, even when lumped together, and certainly individually.

Mind you, I’m not talking about spam. Spam is actually quite easy to identify with modern tools, and most mail servers – whether a company’s Exchange server, or Google’s Gmail back end – filter it for you before you ever see it. The 80% we’re talking about are legitimate emails: ones sent to you by coworkers, colleagues, vendors, clients, etc. that just aren’t important to you.

And this leads to email problems for us users

With an inbox filled to bursting – what many knowledge workers see each morning – it’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Things would be easy if senders were kind enough to prefix their message subjects with a tag like #UNIMPORTANT – ahh, that would be the day… It would also help if senders at least made the subject indicative of the message’s actual content, but many don’t bother. They use a subject like “Meeting”, or RE: Memo”, or even “ ”. This is no help to figuring which message is of true importance. There are processes to attack your inbox, but many times, it is too much to handle.

All those low-importance emails clutter our inbox and push the few important ones below the fold. We’ve all been there: a week later you accidentally notice a time-sensitive message (or are reminded of it by an annoyed sender on the phone), and it is too late to benefit from its value.
Even worse, you may suffer from email overload – a senior manager can easily get a few hundred a day – that even if you have the 20% isolated, you’d still be looking at a few screens full of emails – and wondering which ones to address first. To do that you’d need to read all of them and besides not having the time, it is absolutely unproductive.

This is where Knowmail comes in handy

Knowmail goes through all the messages; it has more than enough time, being dependent on technology, not biology. It also has the smarts to understand what it’s reading. This allows it to scan the inbox and tell you which messages are the important ones – not just the 20%, but the few within the 20% that are most important. It’s as if all the hay in the proverbial haystack were to suddenly become transparent, leaving the needle in plain view.

To appreciate this feat we must recall that importance is a very fluid concept. What is important today may be unimportant tomorrow; what is important to me may not matter much to her. Knowmail’s artificial intelligence allows it to classify messages by their importance to you – right now.

How about that, Vilfredo?…

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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