Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 43

Scribal Filter and medium-term task management

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems

Last episode, I described how I've been practicing my daily task management system, personal punch cards, since 2007, what I've learned, what I've changed, and what I've kept the same.

Although I've learned a great deal, I haven't changed a whole lot. In fact, the one modification I made was a reduction in what's required: I subtracted a column. That's right -- it took me five years to subtract a column. Call me the Flaubert of self-help.

Mostly these 5 plus years have just deepened my appreciation for how well the system as originally described works. Which is good, if not very interesting news. 

So I hope you didn't consider it a waste of an episode not to get much new system in that last time, but if you did, today, I think, you'll at least a little more novelty for your 15 or so minutes of attention. Today I'm going to revisit higher level planning, planning beyond a day at a time. And this time a lot more -- well, some more -- has changed since 2007. But again, it's more about taking away rather than adding system.

My original vision for keeping track of longer term tasks built on the daily index cards. I wanted the same simplicity, the same tangibility, the same physical constraints for my hubris. 

Because this is a the flaw of every electronic task management system: infinite space for infinite tasks. Seems to be a feature right? It's certainly always marketed as such. But the problem is, we are not Gods, we do not have infinite ability to complete these infinite tasks; so infinite space turns out to be a seductive liability rather than an advantage.

So I thought, I have an index card for each day, and that works well, why not a card for each month, and another card for each year? And different color cards to make it easy to distinguish these three timescales. I had a military analogy to tie it all together: I called it chain of self command. The daily cards were the footsoldiers, the monthly cards, the officers, the yearly cards, the generals. I found this analogy helpful because it reminded me of the kinds of things that should be addressed at each level. And it kind of psyched me up to take my tasks seriously. You know, this isn't about shopping lists: this is war.

It was an elegant system, conceptually. And it had a lot of things going for it. In fact, there was only one thing wrong with it. Can you guess?

The middle value, a month, is the wrong unit of time. It's a little too long. This may seem like a detail, but it's decisive.

Here's why: Too much stuff will accumulate on that monthly card. It won't fit, and it properly won't fit. Since any task that is greater 1 day or even less than 1 day but not to be done today makes it on here, that's still pretty fine grained, that's legitimately a lot of tasks. This became so immediately apparent to me that I never even bothered using the monthly cards for task management proper: I just used it for monthly resolutions,  a single behavioral change I wanted to target for that month. Not a bad thing, these monthly resolutions; I still think it's good to do that for stuff like diet and exercise and other habits. But it's not task management. And those longer than one day tasks didn't go away just because I decided to use my monthly cards for something else. I still had to do those tasks. And I still had to track them somehow. So they started spilling over into my yearly general cards, where there really wasn't room. 

So what did I do then? As devoted podcast listeners may remember, I expanding the 3x5 yearly cards into 8x11 sheets of paper, the "bigger picture" I called this. Which was cute, but ultimately not very effective. And for the opposite reason: it was too big. I wound up using ridiculously tiny fonts to squeeze in every pipe dream and rarely had to let go of anything, because I could, just barely, make it fit. My big picture became an oppressive pileup of never to be completed goals. This is funny, because one sheet of paper doesn't sound excessive for an entire years worth of planning. And it isn't -- if you're expressing your goals on a very high level. But all that space invites you to express your goals in too much detail. Especially if you don't have a better, separate home for medium scale tasks.

So the solution, which I resisted for a long time because it sacrificed some of that calendar matching elegance --and I really liked that elegance --, was to fix the middle tier, the officer cards. Make it not months, but something more like 2 weeks. But not a hard 2 weeks. An about 2 weeks. Here's what I mean.

My daily footsoldier cards are yellow, my middle tier, officer cards are blue. It doesn't matter what color yours are, but I do find it helpful to have a separate color card dedicated to each, and make them non-white so you don't confuse them with flashcards or whatever else you might be using regular index cards for. Every day, I carry around the current yellow daily cards and the current middle tier blue card with me in my wallet.

You know all about how I deal with the daily cards already, I described that in detail last episode. The officer cards are for any task that I'm reasonably sure I want to attack but can't commit to solving that day. In other words, any task that can't make it to the yellow daily card. When the officer card fills up, I file it, and start a new card, copying over any tasks that remain undone that I still want to complete. Usually, it takes an officer card about 2 weeks to fill up. But I don't worry about that. It fills up when it fills up. And then I make a new card.

How are the officer cards different from the daily footsoldier cards, besides the amount of time they cover?

They're similar in this sense, that I write down tasks on them, and cross them off when they're done.

But unlike with the daily cards, tasks I write on the officer card are not binding commitments. This is important. Because it's really, really hard to estimate not just how long a task will take, but even if it's worth doing in the first place, or whether we've expressed it properly, whether it not might better be expressed as 2 or 3 tasks instead of one. Thinking a day at a time is hard enough. We have to acknowledge that anything beyond that is just a rough guess, and not give ourselves too hard a time about leaving them undone. 

On a daily basis, it's very important to do what you set out today. If you were wrong about the importance of one of your tasks, the cost of that misdirected effort is small, less than a days worth of time. And you gain in self-discipline from accomplishing it. You firm up that habit. But longer term, uncompromisingly doing whatever you set out to do can be a disaster. The costs of stubbornly persisting on the wrong course for weeks on end can be ruinous. So you have to give yourself some flexibility to reevaluate longer term goals. It's inherently a little more complex and fuzzier than daily planning. 

And I think the revised officer cards address this requirement in an elegant way. What I write down might not be a contract with myself, but I still have an incentive to choose doable and worthwhile tasks and actually do them, because when I run out of space, it's time for a new card, and I have to copy over any undone tasks still worth doing on the new card. And that's work. Not much work. But enough work to provide a gentle nudge. Or I can not copy them over, if they're not worth doing. But that can also be just a little psychologically unsatisfying. It's an admission that I made a mistake. A worthwhile admission, but not exactly pleasant.

This aspect of the copying over -- and not copying over--  is key. It's important to have a mechanism to keep these medium term goals from accumulating ad infinitum. You want to force yourself to periodically reevaluate them, and "honorably discharge" goals that aren't worth the psychic energy of keeping around as nagging never-to-be completed obligations. 

I think of it like the scribes in ancient times, before printing, when every copy of every book, every codex, every scroll, was handwritten. How few books were worth that monumental effort. What a tremendous filter for quality this having to copy it over was. And you get the same kind of scribal filter (though to a far lesser degree of course) by making yourself periodically copy over your goals. Only worthy goals are worth that effort.

The space constraints of the index card make the scribal filter even more powerful because you don't want to start your new card totally filled up with copied stuff from your last card. You want to leave yourself some breathing room for new, unanticipated tasks, or two days later you're going to be copying over to yet another card. If not a tabula rasa, you want a tabula with at least some space left on it. So you have this wonderful incentive to either get the tasks done, or consign them to oblivion, forget about them and move on.

As Steve jobs is supposed to have said, "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." And, I might add, it's much harder. We love to fantasize about what all we're going to do. Making lists gives us an enormous unearned feeling of accomplishment; we can taste what it'll feel like to have done all those things before we've even lifted a finger, accomplishment on credit. And for a lot of us, a lot of the time, that fantasy of accomplishment is enough: why bother going the next painful step and actually doing something? As a corollary, we hate removing things from those lists. It feels like defeat, like giving up. Or even worse, like Sophie's choice. Which one of our precious fantasy accomplishments are we going to give up on. But we have to whittle down those lists if we're to have any chance of getting what's truly important done, or even figuring out what it is that's important. That's not giving up, that's being serious. That's being an adult.

Using index cards like this forces us to make those tough but critical Steve-Jobs-like negative decisions. You have to focus because there isn't room not to focus.

Unlike the daily cards, I don't have any defined columns or structure for the officer cards, no distinction between personal and work tasks. For clarity, I'll usually draw lines through indicating columns, but only as I go. That being said, three (somewhat squiggly) columns is usually what I wind up with. I put a start date on the top of the card, and (though I sometimes forget to do this) a stop date underneath when I retire and file the card. 

As with the daily cards, I use the back side of the officer card for notes. And usually these notes are explanations or additional information about the tasks on the front side, which are sometimes expressed a little tersely. I can usually remember what a tasks that I have written down means for a day, but 2 weeks sometimes requires a little extra elucidation.

So what about the yearly cards? I certainly don't use the bigger picture 8x11 sheets of paper anymore. In fact I don't use anything, the general has abdicated, for several not completely satisfying and perhaps even contradictory reasons.

1. Highest level goals should be so concise that if you can't keep it in your head, there's a problem. Even an index card would be too much. Once you get the clutter of daily and medium term tasks dealt with, you'll realize that what's left is actually very clear and pure and simple.

2. We are so profoundly bad at estimating long-term that setting concrete yearly goals in any detail is by definition hubris. 

3. When you get to goals at the highest level you run into meaning of life type questions that it feels boorish if not almost sacrilegious to reduce to some task management framework. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your personal productivity system.

4. Thinking about the future is better done in a more expansive, open ended, note taking kind of way, rather than coming up with bullet point objectives. This is an area in which my luddite tendencies are weakest: I'm a big fan of speaking notes into an audio recorder, as some of you may remember from my audiodidact podcast episode a few years back, and I'm (somewhat more recently) also a big fan of Evernote. I find both these media very helpful for wrestling with wide expanses of future.

5. Most of the big things I want to accomplish aren't discrete goals, something I can cross off a list and be done with. They're habits or disciplines that have to be continually practiced on daily or maybe weekly basis. As such, they're better expressed on the daily cards. Did I practice this habit that I want to practice for the rest of my life TODAY? There's never a point at which I can say, OK, I exercised enough, cross that off for the rest of my life. Or, OK, I've practiced my German or studied the Bible enough, done with those. So although strung together, these are big, lifetime practices, the point at which it makes most sense to track them is the smallest point, day by day. And even activities that seem like they have a discreet end point are often better thought of as day by day habits: like, write a book or invent a gizmo. Those goals becomes a lot more achievable if you express them as "write (or tinker in the garage) every week day morning from 6-7:30 am" or however you want to arrange it. Rather than being an end in itself, the published book or patented invention (or perhaps string of books or inventions) is a by-product of this daily habit. 

6. At work, it's true, you will often have goals or projects that take 6 months, a year, or even longer. But this is beyond the realm of personal planning. Stuff like that is likely to involve not just you, but a whole slew of other people, over complicated project management systems you have no control over or choice about. Now chunks of this may make sense to express on your personal punch cards. But I find that however large the whole projects are, the chunks fit just fine on the daily and officer cards. And it's not like you're going to forget about the larger project, because, you know, just look up at the axe hanging over your head to remind you. 

7. Finally, Short term planning is easier, more pressing than, and a prerequisite to figuring out long term planning. If you can't figure out how you're going to get done what you need to get done today, you don't have a prayer when it comes to next week much less next year. It makes sense that I had to tackle daily planning first, then move to medium term planning, and then, maybe consider formal long term planning if still necessary. My sense is that most people more or less know what they want long term. It's the practical "what next?" that stumps them.

As I said, I'm not 100% sure I'm convinced by these reasons, and I can imagine myself revisiting long term goal setting again at some point. For now, with three young kids, my year+ scale goals are so unavoidable and obvious that it's difficult to wring my hands over them too much: pay the mortgage, put food on the table, get home in time so my wife and kids see me at the end of the day, etc. Perhaps, if an when these pressures ease up a bit, the general will return, in some capacity. In fact, I just got an idea for how this might happen, one that builds on the "scribal filter" idea, but I'm going to mull it over a bit longer and actually try it out before inflicting it on you.

So last episode I knocked of a column from an index card. This time I knocked two weeks off another card, and (provisionally at least) got rid of a third entirely. 

I would have loved to end with a literary minimalist Flaubert quote, but I can't find anything remotely appropriate, so I'll have to content myself with another one from Steve Jobs:

"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. "

I love that. It's not the "let a thousand flowers bloom" that you usually hear with reference to innovation, but kill a thousand flowers. 

Now just imagine how much this guy would have accomplished if he'd known about these index cards.

That's all for today, Happy new year, and thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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