Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 32

The Bigger (8x11) Picture

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Hi this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com

Almost a year ago, in January 2007, I did two podcast segments about todo listing: Chain of Self Command and Personal Punch cards. Today I'd like to well, one, report that these ideas have been very helpful for me and at least three other people that I know about, and encourage you, if you haven't, already to take a look, and two, I'd like to describe a modification that I made about six months ago that has made these systems even more powerful it's a reimplimentation of the "General" role in the chain of self command. Instead of using 3x5 index cards, I use an 8x11 sheet of paper. I call this the Bigger Picture. Seems like a superficial (and perhaps suspiciuosly cute) change, but it's actually quite profound (as far as these things go).

Here was the problem I was having. The daily cards have been fantastic in terms of getting myself to do a lot every day. I've got the micro level of todo-ing down pat. And pretty much in exactly the same three column format I described in the original podcast. The monthly cards have also been great at their job of keeping me focused on one medium sized goal at a time. It's december now and I'm batting a thousand in terms of following through on my monthly resolution cards for 2007. I've got a doozy for december, so we'll see if I can keep it up. And in terms of more free from stuff, random unformated ideas, I've been capturing this stuff very effectively for years with my audiodidact system of carrying around a voice recorder and babbling into whenever something occurs to me. Still, useful as these three idea and task management systems are, I wasn't capturing everything. Some important tasks, issues that were really nagging at me, were still getting past these nets, mostly bigger picture strategic stuff, stuff that was too big for a daily task, too amorphous for a monthly task, and too interconnected with other issues, so that it just got lost in my audiodidact stream of consiousness. The yearly index cards, that were meant for the purpose of capturing this kind of concern, just weren't doing the job. They were sitting at home in a box, and I never really looked at or updated them. They were armchair generals. I needed a commander in the field.

It was a good friend of mine who turned me on to the solution (I'm going to provisionally at least keep him anonymous until I find out if he wants public recognition). He'd been doing the daily punch cards for a few months, and also found them very useful. But for bigger picture stuff, he kept a kind of spreadsheet, with a box for each issue, that he update once a week, and printed out, folded up, and carried around in his wallet. I immediately realized that this was the "Genaral" I was looking for.

It may not be immediately obvious why this is such a good idea, and there are some details that I haven't yet described, so let me point these out..

1. My whole big picture life strategy has to fit on one 8x11 sheet of paper. Just as having a small 3x5 limit of a day is helpful in filtering out extraneos tasks on an index card, the 8x11 limit, gives me an effective (but somewhat more accomodating) limit for life scale issues. It's more room than a day, but not so much room that I don't have to make decisions about what just isn't important enough to make the cut. I've come to the conclusion that if you can't condense your goals to one 8x11 page, you probably cant' achive them. You'll probably never even be sure what they are.

2.I put work goals, family goals, and personal goals on this one sheet of paper. That way I have just one place to look to know what big picture, I should be doing. This is both efficient, and relaxing. I don't have to worry about stuff that isn't there -- if it's at all important, it's on this page.

3.Each concern gets a box. Each box contains a list of subtasks. So for example, there's a box for a particular piece of software I'm working on at work, containing a list of features I want to add. There's another box for German, with the steps I want to take to improve my germnan. There's another box for exercise, where I write what I'm doing for exercise -- shovelglove, urban ranger, and a running count of how many perfect pushups I can bang out. I have another box for antibookmarks, websites I'm not allowed to look at from 9-5 monday through friday because I find them too distracting: fidelity, the new york times, slashdot. I divide the concerns into four columns: personal, interpersonal, professinal, and semiprofessional (which is what I'm now doing -- semiprofessional is pretty much my everydaysystems related stuff). Just as the three columns in my daily index cards roughly ensure a reasonable work life balance (work, routine, and errand are the columns for the daily card) keeping these 4 big picture columns roghtly the same length helps me keep that balance on a larger scale.

4. For the daily index cards, it's no big deal if I lose one. It's just one day's work, and frankly, if I lose it that day I can probably remember most of it, and if I lose it after, it just isn't that important. It's out of scope, to speak like a programmer. But the big picture stays relevant over time, and there's a lot more information on it.So it's very helpful that there is an electronic version that I can backup. I update mine once a week in electronic form, then print it out, fold it up, and carry it arround with me in my wallet. I'll scribble ammendments on it during the week, and update the new version next Monday morning. This gives the benefits of having something low tech and tangible, with the power to easily backup and refine a complex document that computers give me.

5. Unlike the daily or monthly index cards, where I have to do every task, nothing on the big picture is necessarily binding. I don't HAVE to do a particular task to remove it. The primary issue here is to get nagging concerns out of my head and onto paper. It's a little like David Allens 43 folders thing except one one page instead of 43 folders (not that that might not also be valuable). Writing down a concern that turns out not to be realistic or desireable and then retiring it is valuable. You may not have actually achieved anything, but by writing it down and then officially dismissing it you keep it from swirling around in your head forever. If I'm feeling particularly confused about something, I put a question mark behind it, to emphasize that it's primarily something I want to explore rather than a goal to knock off (or feel guilty about not knocking off). If, on the other hand, I want to emphasize that something is a goal, and to be prioritized, I put it in bold font. I use ms word to create my big picture,just because I had it on my machine and understood it already to some degree, but any word processor should do the trick. Each concern is a text box. I align all the box sizes and positions manually which is irritating but not sufficiently so that I've bothered to figure out a better way. I format it landscape, 11x8, rather than portrait. It's more maplike this way, which feels appropriate given that this is kind of map of my life. Also my 4 columns would be very cramped in portrait.

5. When I achive or retire a goal, I cross it off in pencil from the printout, and remove it from the electronic version at the end of the week. I don't want to be walking around with a million crossed off ghost tasks. If I want to later review past accomplishments, I can always look at old printouts, or turn on track changes in word, or use version control. Frankly, it's just not that important, so I don't want to invest too much overhead in this.

6. This is less fundamental, but still useful: at the top of the sheet, I put the date and the current monthly resolution, just as a reminder. At the bottom I have a little weekly calendar. Plus a box to scribble in dates farther out into the future.

I'll post some iterations of my "bigger pictures" on the everydaysystems.com site when I get a chance, because, while principles are nice, there's nothing like examples. If I hadn't seen my friend's original physical version of this, I never would have gotten excitied enough to try it out myself. The contents of a single box might resonate more than any of these principles. I just need to review and redact a little, to make sure I'm not publishing anything inordinately personal. With this military analogy, we need some redaction, right? I'll try to post a few at various stages so you can see how it's evolved (I've been doing it since august, so almost five months now). Among other things, I didn't hit on the columns right away, and the font size has gone from 12 to 8.

I feel like there are a bunch of things I'm forgetting about the Bigger Picture... but I really want to get a podcast out this december to get back on track for one a month, so I'm going to call it quits for now. I'm planning to do another segment on little tweaks I've made to the daily and monthly cards and how they work even better in conjunction with the bigger picture, so I'll add anything else that occurs to me there. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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