Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 18

Chain of Self-Command

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Now that it's new years, more or less, I feel bad that I've been ragging on new years resolutions so much in these last few podcasts, because you know, it's good to be introspective and think about how to improve yourself, and it's good to take advantage of the excuse to do this that new year's gives you. So today I'm going to talk about a way you can incorporate a kind of new years resolution into something that's both productive and consistent with the emphasis on smaller granularity thinking that I've been touting. I call it chain of self command.

The idea is this: you organize your self improvement efforts on three scales, three temporal scales. It's a hierarchy. On new years, you're the general. The commander in chief. You make big vague strategic decisions. Like, "lose weight" or "stop smoking." You don't worry about how. You just make a note, that these are problems that ought to be dealt with somehow at some point during the coming year. On the first of each month, you change roles, you're an officer. You take the general's big vague ideas and translate them into specific, concrete monthly goals -- monthly resolutions. Example: start to lose weight by doing the no s diet. Resolve to do it for a month, and keep track with the habit traffic light. That's a good monthly goal. Every day, you switch roles again. Your daily self is a foot soldier. This is the smallest granularity. You carry out the officer's orders, and succeed or fail (habit traffic light). So the general gives direction, the officer interprets that direction, and the soldier implements it. You're an army of one, like that commercial. You in 2007 consist of one general, 12 officers, and 365 enlisted men.

If you don't like the military analogy, use a corporate one. On new year's, you're the CEO. Every month, you're a middle manager. Every day, you're a cubicle slave. Or go royalist. Year: King, month: nobleman, day: serf. It doesn't really matter, as long as it's hierarchical and you can get into it. If you're a devout egalitarian and hate hierarchy, relax, it's just pretend. You don't hate Shakespeare because there are kings and dukes and such in it, do you? I hope not.

OK, so what's the point of this analogy? Why is it helpful to think this way? Because if you don't, if you're always general, officer, and soldier at the same time, there's nothing to stop you from immediately countermanding your own orders whenever you feel like it. If you don't make a distinction between your boss self and your obedient self, you never really get the idea that you have to obey your own commands, you're just shouting out orders all the time. You have an army of 365 generals -- an army that is going to get slaughtered. With chain of self command, you learn to obey yourself. By making these processes distinct, you learn this self obedience, and yet it doesn't feel oppressive, because you know that a month later, you're in command again, you're an officer, and eventually, you're the general himself. And by obeying, for a month, even when you've made some dumb resolutions, your commanding self learns quickly what works and what doesn't. You don't just get better at following orders, by following orders, you get better at giving them.

Is one day a year enough time to be general? Of course not. But I've only told you the basic idea of chain of self command, not the implementation. The implementation makes it work out. I call the implementation of chain of self command personal punch cards, like the punch cards with instructions they used to stick into computers before they had keyboards -- except in this case, you're the computer.

Here's how it works. Every member in your army of one year gets an index card. So 365 daily foot soldier index cards, 12 monthly officer index cards, and one yearly general index card. I'd make these different color index cards, say royal purple for the general, red for the officers, yellow for the men, so you can tell them apart easily. The precise colors don't matter that much, but since I use white index cards for a lot of other stuff, you know, flash cards to practice my German and Hebrew, I prefer to use different colors for chain of command cards to have them stand out. Every card gets a date, to the appropriate granularity. The general is 2007. Your first officer is January 2007. Your first enlisted man is January 1st 2007, etc. You don't prepare these index cards in advance, just when the date comes. This is not a lot of work. You never have more than 3 index cards to deal with in a given day (and that's just once a year, on January 1st) and you usually have just 1 -- the daily footsoldier card. And you never carry around more than one card with you -- the footsoldier for that day. On each card, you write the commands that fall within its scope. So on the general card, you write the vague big picture stuff, on each monthly officer card you write a specific resolution, on each daily footsoldier your write the orders for that day -- and daily orders can be, not just self improvement stuff like exercise and diet, but errands, a daily todo list of phone calls to make, stuff to do at work, shopping, etc. As long as the card is in scope, you can come back to it. So you start the general card on jan 1, but as long as it's still 2007, you can always revisit it and scribble new big vague ideas on it if you're feeling reflective. For each officer card, you have a month to revisit and refine, if you feel the need. But when the month is over, file it and forget about it. Move on to the next one. The footsoldiers get just a day each. Cross out what you've done, make a star on the card if you've done everything (it's amazing how motivating silly things like stars can be). If you didn't get everything done, there's no make up the next day. File it and forget about it, move onto the next daily card. If the footsoldier the day before didn't get all his job items done, you can copy them over onto the current daily footsoldiers task list. It's a tad unsatisfying to file a card with uncrossed out items, and to copy them over, and that's precisely what makes this system such a powerful tool: it forces you to get good at budgeting how much you can get done by giving you quick and jarring feedback on how good your budgeting was every day. But at the same time, it's liberating. Because every day is a new start. You're not carrying around an enormous list of undone todos with you. Which also has the advantage that you can never lose more than a day's worth of todos at a time, as you could if you kept them in a notebook you carried around with you. You can copy over todos from the previous day, but you don't have to. It's an option. You do have a record, if you want, you can file these cards, but it's not a record you have to carry around with you and be conscious of every minute.

The daily foot soldier card is by far the most important. I've been doing it since July, and I'm astonished at how much more effective at getting stuff done I've become. My wife is even more astonished -- because I'm a pretty absent minded person by nature, and she's historically been the one to suffer for it. I'll spend some time next week talking about what my daily punch cards look like, because again, the implementational details make a difference. As for the monthly and yearly cards, I haven't actually started them yet. This is the first podcast in which I've talked about an untested system, or an incompletely tested system, more accurately. Generally speaking, I don't like to discuss my systems until months or years of successful self experimentation. But I'm confident enough in the basic principles, and happy enough with the components I have tested -- like the daily cards and monthly resolution -- that I thought it was worth taking the risk of sharing with you today.

Before I sign off, there's a related system, that Merlin Man of the 43 folders web site and podcast came up with a while ago, called "the hipster pda," that I'd just like to mention briefly. The idea of the "hipster pda" is basically just to replace your complicated, expensive electronic pda with inexpensive and simple but surprisingly effective index cards. It's a very cute and catchy name, and he's got a very funny page devoted to it which you should look up, but with all due respect, I think my personal punch cards are a better, more powerful analogy. Because a pda is a tool. It's separate from you. The punch card analogy makes you the computer. The orders that you write on these cards are for you, not for some other real or imaginary machine. Orders for you are harder to ignore than orders for something else.

That's all for today. Probably a little too much in fact. Thanks for listening, and happy new year.

By Reinhard Engels

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