Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 42

Personal Punchcards Redux

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems

Today I'd like to start revisiting some productivity related systems I first described in 2007. Long time listeners might remember "personal punch cards," "chain of self-command" and "the bigger picture." I'd like to describe some refinements and simplifications I've made to the systems, and discuss some more general insights that I think I've gleaned on the whole issue of productivity by methodically wrestling with the issue of getting stuff done going on 6 years now. I'm probably not going to be able to squeeze everything I want to cover into a single podcast, so I'll start with the system that hasn't changed much: daily personal punch cards. The daily punch cards have been enormously helpful to me, more or less as I initially described them, but with a few small but significant tweaks.

As you may remember, the basic idea of personal punch cards is this: instead of using fancy software to track your todo lists, use good old fashioned index cards, one card per day. Lined index cards. On the front of the card, the lined side, draw a line down the middle, dividing the card into two vertical columns. One column is for work related tasks, the other is for personal stuff. This is a good visual way to encourage a sane work-life balance: your work tasks should approximately equal your personal tasks. If it's a weekend or non-work day it's even simpler: skip the line down the middle, it's just a single list of tasks, no columns.

sample personal punch card
A sample new style, 2-column personal punch card

Only the tasks you can commit to accomplishing on that day make it onto your card. New day, new card. Every day is a blank slate, a fresh start. If you didn't get something done yesterday and want to do it today, copy it over. If you decide it isn't worth doing, don't. Every task you write on the front of the card, in one of these columns, is a commitment you are making with yourself to get it done that day. It's a contract. Cross off each task as you do it. If you get all the tasks on the card done by the end of the day, as you should always strive to, give yourself a little star at the top. Yes, the star may seem a little juvenile. But there's a reason generations of schoolteachers used starts and stickers to motivate their students. Human nature responds to these little gestures of recognition -- even adult human nature, and even when the gesture comes from yourself.

You don't have to write all your tasks all at once, at the beginning of the day. In fact, it's wise to leave some blank lines, to accommodate new urgent tasks that might come up during the course of the day.

If there's stuff you're not sure about committing to, or stuff that's not a todo at all that you just want to remember, write it on the back of the card, the unlined side. The front side is for commitments, a contract you are making with yourself, the back side is for notes or potential commitments that you're still a little unsure about.

That's basically how the system works. Very simple. And as low tech as it gets. An index card that you carry around in your wallet. But I've found it tremendously powerful. And I'd like to explain why, since it might not be immediately obvious.

1. Physicality commands respect. The fact that I'm committing to something with pen and index card feels, emotionally like more of a commitment. On a computer, you can hit delete and it's like it never happened. Even if you don't hit delete it feels like it barely happened. It's electrons, it's ether. Who cares? Sure you can tear up a card. But that's a physical act. Something happened. It's harder to forget or deny. You'll pause before doing it and you won't feel right after.

2. Physicality limits distractions. Computers are so efficient. You can get so much done in such a short amount of time. If you stay focused. That's such a big if I shouldn't even call it an if, because NO ONE stays focused for very long. Computers are so efficient, they give you so much power, that you can veer off in a thousand different directions and barely notice. I find that the effort it requires simply to stay on course, to reign in all that power and steer past all the distractions technology opens up, and do the job I set out to do, that effort often cancels out -- more than cancels out -- the efficiencies technology gives us in the first place. It's the tortoise and the hare 2.0.

3. Physicality is a reality check on your ambitions. There's not a whole lot you can fit on a 3 by 5 index card. That's good. Because there's not all that much you can realistically accomplish in a day. And most people's problem isn't not setting out to do too little, but the opposite, they set out to do too much. And then they get unhinged, and very unproductive, when they don't achieve the impossible. The goal is to figure out what you can actually accomplish, and then do it, day after day after day. Not to build a tower of babel of never-to-be-completed tasks, like online systems encourage you to do. Those towers of babel are very exciting while you're building them up, very depressing when they inevitably crumble from overwhelmed neglect. Know thy limits. Counterintuitive as it may be, humility is the key to productivity. And an index card is a great concrete prop to force yourself to confront the fact that you can't do everything.

A lined 3 by 5 card, divided down the middle into 2 columns, encourages a high but realistic and sustainable level of daily productivity. There's comfortable room for 10 work related tasks, 10 personal tasks. You can squish a few more in if you want to, and you can leave some rows blank. But you can't go too crazy adding tasks. There's just not enough room. And visually, it's most satisfying when there are about 10 tasks in each column. So there's an aesthetic nudge in addition to the hard spatial limits or the card. It gives you a physical frame for how much you can do really helps you, which helps you pace yourself, and find a good, productive cadence. It's take some trial an error to figure out the granularity of what should constitute a single task on your card, when to break apart a big compound tasks into several mini tasks and vice verse, but stick with the cards, and in time, you'll get a very good sense for this.

Note that we're using only one side of the index card for our commitments. That's how important this limiting function is. 2 sides would be too much. Even if we didn't want the other side for notes and so on. In fact, that note function is vastly less important than the additional limiting function. There are lots of ways to take notes after all. Much better ways, frankly.

4. Physicality is refreshing. I'm a computer programmer, so I spend even more time online than most people. I sometimes feel like I spend most of my life in an online ghost world -- a sort of gross ghost world; I get up from the computer feeling like there's this slime from Miyazaki's spirited away sticking to me.

There's something insubstantial and unsatisfying about technology. Even apart from the distractions. Even assuming I've been efficient. It doesn't feel quite real. And the worst thing is when you start to wonder, what is real? Is there anything more real than this virtual reality? Touch something physical to remind yourself that there is. Like an index card. You don't want your todo system to give you metaphysical angst.

5. By using a new card every day, you don't feel oppressed by previous failures. Yesterdays tasks, even if you didn't complete them, don't hang over you. Every day is a a new card, a fresh start, a blank slate. If you want to re-add tasks you didn't get done yesterday to your list today, no problem. Copy them over. Yes that's extra work, but hey, you deserve a little extra work, if it's something you really should have done. But maybe the reason you didn't get them done is they weren't really that important. Having to copy them over is a good filtering mechanism. If it's not worth copying over, it's probably not worth doing. Declutter your soul and forget about it. That little systematic cost of having to copy stuff over buys you a great benefit: the right to forget about what you're not copying over with a clear conscience.

6. Every day is your only chance to cross off a task from that days list. No retroactive crossing off of tasks. No crossing off yesterday's tasks today. You blew your chance to get that star. Now don't blow your star for today. Irrational? Yes. But highly motivating. Because instead of a task being simply a burden, something you have to get done, all of a sudden it's an opportunity. Your one limited chance get credit for getting that particular something done. One day only. Act now before it's too late. If I sound like a used car salesman, that's the point. There is a sales aspect to this. You are selling the tasks to yourself. And I've been astonished at how well it works. My success rate at accomplishing all my daily tasks is about 95%. Maybe one day a month I'll fall asleep while putting my kids to bed or something and wake up in the morning with a task or two undone but that's about it.

7. Just as one card is motivationally impressive, keeping old cards and looking at the mass of them as they accumulate, as a reminder of what you've accomplished, is immensely satisfying. I have one filing box per year since 2007. Each one feels like a trophy. I don't examine old individual cards a whole lot, but I love looking over the sheer mass of them every once in a while, flipping through and seeing all those stars.

8. The name, "personal punch cards," hearkens back to the way mainframes were programed back in the day, with these slotted paper cards. So it gives this pleasant retro-tech vibe. But more importantly, it also suggests, you don't need a computer. Not for commanding your soul. You are your own computer, like the mentats, the human computers, in Frank Herbert's Fantasy novel Dune, who, in response to you know, the bots trying to take over, through intense self-discipline and mental athleticism trained themselves do in their minds what computers used to do. This isn't a retreat from technology. It's a step beyond it. That's what this image, lightheartedly, but still, firmly, is getting at.

So what have I changed about this system since 2007? Not a whole lot. The main change is that I went from 3 columns (work, personal, and "routine") to a mere 2 (work and personal). So I got even less ambitious and made the system even simpler. The result? I get even more done with even less stress.

The bigger changes have been for medium and long term tasking. And again, it's been largely a matter of removing rather than adding system, of further simplifying and limiting. The original personal punch cards, you may remember, had monthly and yearly cards, as well as daily ones. There was a certain conceptual elegance to this, but I didn't find the longer term cards nearly as helpful as the daily ones. I'll talk about why these parts of the system as I originally conceived them didn't last and what I'm now using instead for longer term goals in the next episode.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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