Discreteness, Continuity, and Exploding Inboxes

Posted on March 8, 2024

A close-up on a small, metal counter, displaying 3435.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Raman Shah, an independent data scientist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Connect with Raman on LinkedIn or Twitter.

What I’m working on: Mining resident surveys for patterns complex enough to tailor policy, but simple enough to explain to electeds.

What I’m watching: Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+

A hobby I enjoy: Menswear


It’s poor form to talk about mathematics in polite company. But sometimes a mathematical concept offers so much opportunity to improve things that I can’t help myself.

In this case, the math connects with “adulting,” the inboxes and to-do lists that become ever more congested with age and seniority. Several years ago, I implemented my first system that assigned continuous, numerical scores to some of my adulting, allowing me to prioritize actions rationally. It changed my life. By taking pressure off my inboxes and to-do lists, I found myself better on top of what mattered, which made me happier, healthier, and more effective. I’ve found in my work that the same principle helps whole organizations operate resiliently and improve continuously.

Making work sortable

Obligations in life usually show up in a discrete form, like flipping a switch. You change your bedsheets or you don’t; you remember a loved one’s birthday or you don’t. These obligations eventually pile up. This is adulting. If you have 20 things to do today, you have to make a 20-way decision about which to tackle first. But it gets worse – if you can tackle two of them, there are 190 ways to do that. And 1,140 ways to pick three things to do. A set of 20 things has 1,048,576 subsets in total. Which of those 1,048,576 are acceptable outcomes if you find yourself limited in time or energy today, or if you’re forced to clear the decks for something urgent?

Talk about analysis paralysis.

But say that each of those 20 things has a practically continuous score, like 99.2% or 5.78%, for its immediate importance. Then you can sort these 20 obligations by score. The continuity of the score eliminates ties, keeping the ranking unambiguous. Good ways to do some of the 20 are obvious at a glance.

Putting continuous scores to work is real data science. To define and operationalize a reliable continuous score takes a real-world understanding of the obligations, some math, and some code. But unlike hype-driven Artificial Intelligence initiatives of speculative value, this mundane application of data science is reliably transformative.

Managing personal well-being

In grappling with adulting, I was captivated by Getting Things Done by David Allen. GTD taught me that the challenge of adulting is not that there’s too much to do – that’s always the case – but that it’s hard to choose what to do at any moment. The problem with adulting is prioritization.

I’ve been a committed GTD fanboy ever since; most of its tools are central to my approach. GTD revolves around getting inboxes empty and processed into a list of next actions, then going through them all in a “weekly review.” It feels superhuman to ride GTD’s rails, but its discreteness makes it brittle. I hit a rough patch, fell off the rails, and increasingly struggled to get back on. My inboxes exploded; my list of next actions got stale. My GTD system is a mess. My last true “weekly review” was in 2019.

Then, during the pandemic, I built my pocket-friend spreadsheet. I designed it as a replacement for Facebook in my interpersonal life; it relieved my GTD system of the responsibility of keeping up with people I cared about. Using my little spreadsheet, I can prove that I’ve talked to all 178 of these people in the last 16 weeks. I’ve maintained such a fact on a perpetual and rolling basis since lockdown, and it has made my life immeasurably livelier and cozier.

Retrospectively, what makes the spreadsheet so unexpectedly effective, even as my GTD system remains on life support, is its continuous prioritization. Pocket friends involve an intractable discrete decision – among the thousands of people I’ve known, whom should I call today because it has been a little too long, but not so long that they’re back to being a stranger? My pocket-friend spreadsheet sidesteps this decision using a continuous “recency” score. A single person closest to falling through the cracks bubbles up to the top of my spreadsheet. In a rough patch, the scores deteriorate, but the ranking remains meaningful. Over 16 weeks of communication at a normal, sustainable tempo, the system self-heals from the rough patch. Exploding inboxes don’t do that.

In short, continuity powers resilient management.

Managing organizations

Moving from discreteness to continuity also helps at work. I regularly help organizations with processes related to accounts receivable, replacing seized-up discrete workflows with resilient, continuous ones that sort processing or follow-up tasks into a rational priority.

The advantages of continuity, in fact, go all the way to the top of organizations in their strategic planning. A popular strategic planning framework is the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) model. This model was invented at Intel, and it’s discrete like a to-do list; you achieve a key result in a measurement period, or you don’t. A brittle, discrete management system like the OKR model, where 100% of everything must get done perfectly to declare success, is a good fit for something as perfectionistic as making microchips.

But in my travels I’ve found OKRs a terrible fit for social institutions like local governments, which live and die within shades of gray. Public servants steward aging infrastructure and care for vulnerable people with complex life challenges. This means OKR-driven local gov strategic plan reviews sound like this: “We achieved dozens of our OKRs, and we failed to achieve dozens more. That’s okay, I guess? Maybe we can define easier OKRs and achieve them all next quarter.” Despite a huge outlay of reporting busywork, the framework fails to advise its users on how to do better.

I suggest organizing strategic plans around more continuous principles, in which a suite of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) flows into a quantitative definition of community well-being. Sorting strategic options by their potential impact on large-scale well-being makes it possible to assign partial credit in a shades-of-gray world, rationally re-allocate resources, and embrace continuous improvement.

Engaging with imperfection

While crafting continuously prioritized organizational systems requires real data science, recognizing and adopting them does not. The brittleness and overwhelm inherent in discrete management systems can yield to resilience and a meaningful engagement with imperfection.

It’s something I never expected to learn in math class.

Close window