Productivity Algorithms for Humans – The Zero Inbox and The Happiness Diary

In 2011 I was working flat-out but stopped for lunch with Steve. He was buying. As part of thanking me for a work introduction he imparted his productivity techniques from his workshops that cost gillisions. Steve (hi) I do hope they cost gillisions. Three days later I was on the phone to Steve berating him for his advice. It wasn’t his fault we had an Olympics to stage and we still had several years of work to fit into a year.

So began my quest for inbox sanity.

It seems the world has recently caught up with its perpetual circulating internet articles of life hacks. Why are we obsessed with hacks ? When I write code I want it to be gorgeous, poetic, readable. A classic. Algorithms for the soul.

Obviously that isn’t what happens. My code gets unwieldily as does my task list and those productivity techniques become pesky distractions as does reading those hundreds of productivity articles on twitter. So this post is about documenting and refining how I manage my task list via my diary and how to avoid being a slave to constant flow of email’s.

Email Processing

The goal of the algorithm is to reduce the amount of time we spend looking at our email. An empty inbox.

This algorithm is solid. Refined over several years. I start each working day with it and I reach for it when I am feeling overwhelmed. Just the art of processing my e-mails has a soothing effect.

Mind you, so does a Gin and Tonic. Just like the state guidelines on drinking too many Gin and Tonic’s it is important to limit how many units of email’s you process a day. I suggest running the algorithm once a day max twice. Some people like to do this before stopping work so they can unplug from work knowing they are done. I like to do it as I start work like a clear desk it’s less distracting as most of my work involves writing an email.

The if then else statement inside the algorithm allows you to decide if you need to allocate time to the reply. By locking it in the diary you stop people booking you up with meetings. When someone says “did you get my email about xyz” then you can be affirmative and let the person know when they will get a reply.   The final thing to notice is that every email is moved into an archive folder. Long gone are hundreds of folders telling me about each topic.

do while there is email in inbox
  read latest email
  if reply < 2 mins then reply
  else add Task to diary 
  move email to archive folder

There are plenty of ways to adapt this basic algorithms for your own needs.

Originally Steve suggested a 3 folder system and there are plenty of explanation of the  5 folders system. Search has got so powerful I advocate the one folder. Ok two folders. I hate standing in a queue with the door keeper glaring at me as I tap on my phone looking for a reference code or barcode to gain access. So these email’s go into it’s own folder and archived once used.

The other adaptation is the rules about how long you allocate a task to respond to the email. I allocate 30 mins for easy task and 60 for hard. I also colour code so I can group tasks of the same project. These are all complex distractions which comes to my next algorithm…

Diary (and Task) Management

This algorithm isn’t as well worked out. My diary get’s messy and unwieldly with tasks shoved in there from my email algorithm or a request from a friend or when I have a great idea and add some garbled note to my diary. They all pile up causing other people who spot my diary to gasp in terror.

So the plan is to get this algorithm under control. We shall write and then bug fix in production.

The aim of this algorithm is to organise my diary to enable me to achieve my goals, be on top of my paid work while my happiness index is at an all time high.

I have one diary. Just like Hilary I am able to conduct my life outside of my corporate system but when a more stringent authority than the USA government employee me then this algorithm needs to work for two diaries.

Firstly let’s decide when to run this algorithm.

1.Just finished setting long terms goals 
2 About to stop work for > 48 hours (i.e weekend holiday). 
3.End of the working day 
4.When stressed about not having time.

Each one of these will focus on a different duration. At the end of the working day I may organise my diary for the next day. At the start of a holiday from work I might organise my diary for the holiday and the first few works days back.

Next we need to figure out what the algorithm is sorting in the diary and in what order. Gathering a ton of  anecdotal advice from the dying, extrapolated science findings and happiness index‘s has given rise to my own experiments in the elusive work life balance. Combine that with things humans must do to function or are expected in work then a checklist such as the following can be derived;

  • Fun (with nice Friends and stress free Family)
  • Health – exercise and diet
  • Appointments
  • Travel
  • Tasks  (work, chores)
  • Rest and Hobbies

So onto the algorithm.

Remind yourself of fun events. Pat yourself on the back. 
If required reconfirm event(s)
Add exercise work outs to diary  
Message people to come along to the same workout
Check appointments 
  if not required cancel
  else do you have to prepare ? add task to diary.
Block out all Travel time needed for appointments and fun 
Collate and Book any travel information you need (addresses, passport, tickets) 
Block out time for any meals during work blocks > 8 
Check that you have enough unschedule time (sleep, down time, quiet time) 
Bring forward any tasks that meet your deadlines
Reorganise work diary appointment in Goal priority  
If you feel relaxed then End
Else Repeat

I know from running precursors of this algorithm is that the time allocated to work in your diary look like your work block are non stop The reality is that if all tasks are allocated 30 mins of 60min they normally take less time occasionally more and you end up adjusting as you go along. In fact I put the real-time spent back into my task and now I have a timesheet of how I spent my time.

As I set out I am worried that the algorithm will take forever to processes or get stuck into some hideous loop. Remember this is being bug fixed and run against my life. So I shall post an update.


I am interested in finding parents or people in emergency related roles who might help me figure out if we can manage some kind of spontaneity but have this kind of schedule.

Could you help me test my algorithm then contact me @kavitakapoor or on Linkedin ?

If you read a lot of productivity posts then well done for getting to the bottom of this one. These are remix of GTD and Pomodoro Technique both of which I think have tons to offer towards work calm.

update Well this got test over a month and I can’t say my diary and task list is any less organised than the pile of junk mail sitting in my mail box. I have however adopted a very modified Pomodoro approach working in 8 daily 25min chunks with as long a breaks as I like 5 days a week. It is great.