Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 19

Personal Punch Cards

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Last week, I was a little overambitious. I basically tried to cram two systems into one podcast: chain of self-command and personal punch cards.

Today I'm going to clear up some ambiguities about both systems that I wasn't able to resolve last week despite my rush to cram everything in, but mostly I'm going to focus on the details of how I do my personal punch cards. I don't have time to repeat what I said last week, so please go back and listen to that segment if you haven't already, because this segment isn't going to make any sense otherwise.

OK. First dual system issue: The more anal among you may have been disturbed by the unsatisfying mix of metaphors going on here. We've got a military analogy for the chain of command, and a computer analogy for the punch cards. It doesn't quite fit. But I think I've figured out a way to resolve it: your chain of command army is an army of robots, of 1960s era robots, who take punch cards. They're like the Daleks from Dr. Who. For added motivational benefit, imagine your punch card orders being read in that evil robot dalek voice. In case you don't remember what this sounds like, I found a (somewhat relevent) clip on the internet:

Inspiring. OK. Next dual system issue: I want to give some more clarifications on "scope." Last week I said that as long as a rank in the chain of command is in temporal scope, you can assume that role and give new orders. So all of 2007 for your 2007 general, all of January 2007 for your January 2007 officer. It's a wonderful computery concept that I took from my dayjjob as a programmer, but it seems to contradict the major point of the system which is to separate out these functions so you don't countermand your own orders all the time. When your footsoldier self doesn't like what he's supposed to do, he shouldn't be able to all of a sudden put on a general uniform whenever he feels like it.

Here's how I resolve this, and this sort of ties in with the implementational details of what the punch cards look like which I'm going to focus on for the rest of this segment:

1. once you write an order, you can't negate it. You have to do it, or acknowledge failure. Or perhaps refine it a little, narrow it down a little. What you write on one of these cards does not get erased. So you can't simply countermand orders. When the scope of the card closes, say at the end of the day for a footsoldier, you either cross out each order, leave it uncrossed out to designate failure, or you've scribbled some little emendation next to it and then crossed it out. So you can't, directly, countermand orders. I think there's some historical precedent for this. In the book of Esther, if I remember correctly, King ahasheurus, the king of Persia and Medea, could pretty much give any command he wanted, however nuts, and it became law. But he couldn't undo his previous commands. This sounds a little inflexible, but it's limited inflexibility, (at least, what I'm talking about here, I don't know about king Ahashuerus), it has a built in time out, and it's better than mushiness. A degree of inflexibility is necessary to teach you how to set good goals. There's nothing like following through on something dumb to teach you to be smart next time -- and if you followed through even when you were dumb, and knew it that you were dumb, you can be sure you'll follow through when you know you're smart.

2. the footsoldier card is the only card you carry around with you. The officers and generals stay at home. So you can't just run into a phone booth like superman and come out an officer or a general whenever you feel like it. Only at home, in front of your file of index cards.

3. the kinds of commands you give at these three different ranks are really very different from each other. The subject matter, self improvement, is more or less the same, but the scales at which they operate are so different that it's like quantum physics vs. general relativity. So the orders on the general card can't really immediately contradict the orders on an officer card or a footsoldier card because they're (functionally) about different things. I'll give some examples in a bit.

4. If you want to get technical, the orders you write on each rank of card are orders for that role, not from that role. What you write on one card isn't directly to the other card: it can't directly countermand the other cards orders. The only way you can countermand the orders on a given card is to erase those orders or rip up the card, which you're not allowed to do.

OK, what do these cards look like? I was going to make this the crux of this segment and now I'm almost out of time again. I'm going to scan and post images of some of my cards on the everydaysystems.com website because I think that will be more helpful than anything I could say here, but I'll quickly talk through some of the salient features.

I use lined index cards. Yellow for daily footsoldiers, red for monthly officers, purple for the yearly generals. The orders go on the lined side, one per line (more or less). The front of the card, the lined side, is binding, you have to do this stuff, you can't erase it. On the unlined back of the card, I can write free form stuff, notes which I don't have to obey, but don't want to forget. Following the punch card analogy, it's like a computer code comment. On daily cards, I write phone numbers here, or ideas for my next podcast, or stuff to remember to add to the next day's orders, or stuff that I think should become an order maybe even today but I'm not clear enough yet how to express it.

At the top of each card goes the date, to the appropriate level of granularity. Just the year for the generals, the year and the month for the officers, year month and day for the footsoldiers.

On weekdays, for daily foot soldiers, I divide each card into three columns: work, routine, and errands. Work is pretty self explanatory. Routine is stuff that I expect to do every day, like shovelglove. I'm big on routine, so this column is always full for me. Errand is one-off stuff like shopping or calling a friend or paying a bill. I've done this for about 6 months now, and I find it an enormously helpful division. Almost every task I can think of obviously falls into one of these columns, and it's a good way to balance, at a glance, 3 fundamental priorities that most of us have. You can think of the columns as roughly corresponding to people as well. Work is your boss and coworkers. Routine is yourself. Errand is your family and friends. If, on average, the columns have roughly the same number of rows, you're probably achieving a good balance. If not, you may want to take steps to see that they do.

The fact that lined index cards have 10 rows is helpful too. It's a built in sanity check on your ambition: much as you may want to do more than 10 things in each column, it's probably not very realistic. That limited space forces you to be realistic and make considered, deliberate trade offs that you choose, rather than just waking up to the fact that life imposed certain tradeoffs on you after a while.

On weekends, and for the monthly and yearly cards, I don't bother breaking it up into columns. I just do a single column list.

I carry each daily card around with me in my wallet. The rest I keep in an index card filing box at home, in chronological order. I use golf pencils, those little stubby pencils, to write on my cards. Golf pencils are fantastic. They're small enough to fit in your wallet. And they're cheap, you can buy a box of a few hundred for a few bucks. I'm always losing pens and pencils but golf pencils are so cheap and plentiful that who cares. And unlike pens, you can always see if the darn thing is going to write. I can't stand starting to write with a pen and then seeing it's out of ink. And with pencils you can write at weird angles, etc.

As I mentioned last time, I have about half a year of experience doing these daily punch cards, but I've only just started doing the yearly and monthly. I'll just give a quick example of what those look like, and report back in a few months (and years) when I have better empirical data.

A monthly card corresponds to a monthly resolution that I've talked about in previous podcasts. So, for example, try to do the no s diet every day for a month. You might also want to attach monthly personal Olympics medal goals to this, like no failures is gold, one failure silver, etc. I would stick to just one card a month, to really focus on it. That still gives you twelve a year.

But I'm giving myself several yearly general cards, one card per issue. I write the year, and then the issue, like "2007 exercise," or "2007 driving" on the top (I grew up in Manhattan, I'm a terrible driver). Identifying these issues is actually the most important step, for the yearly cards. Then every month you can look at these and think how to translate it into a resolution. But I don't just identify the issues. I also scribble potential monthly resolutions on the card, for future reference, so I don't forget. And I even write some concrete goals, some of them framed as personal Olympics goals with the medal points. For example, under excerise 2007, I wrote pushups on one line, with medal points at 60, 65, and 70. On my "driving 2007" card I have a list of places I want to drive to as goals. I'll cross each one off as I get there. As with the daily and monthly cards, stuff I write on the line front of the card is binding, stuff I write on the back is just comments. You don't have to come up with all your yearly cards on january 1st. You can add throughout the year. But add carefully, unless you want to stare at a lot of unacted on cards for a whole year.

I could go on and on about this, but I'm out of time for today. If you're interested, check the everydaysystems.com site, I'll be posting scanned images of my cards and updates there. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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