Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 44

The Return of the General

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems.

Sometimes you don't realize how much something bugs you until you say it.

I guess this is the principle behind "talk therapy."

Well podcasting must be a kind of talk therapy for me, because it really rankled to have to admit that I no longer used my general cards in chain of self command last episode.

It left an aesthetic void in the unity of my system -- and I think also a practical one, despite my rationalizations for why one shouldn't invest too much in longer term task management.  I still think I was more or less right about that -- but one should invest at least something in longer term task management. And that my system no longer did was a defect.

The good news is that this feeling of dissatisfaction was productive -- a creative dissatisfaction --  because I already have an idea of how to bring the general back in a useful and elegant manner. It's a natural extension of the officer card mechanism I described last time and scribal filter.

In retrospect, it's obvious: just as anything that you can't commit to on a daily card should go to an officer card, anything you don't want to forget about completely but don't plan on getting around two in about the next two weeks should go to the general card. As with the officer card, there's firm commitment to any given task, and no finite amount of time associated with the card as a whole. When the card fills up, you "scribal filter" any remaining, undone tasks to new one, copying over what's still worthwhile, officially forgetting about what's not. But unlike the other two ranks of cards, you don't carry the general around with you, because he would likely get too tattered and worn in the amount of time it's likely to take to fill up. You keep him in your filing box and review whenever it's time to create a new officer card. The general belongs behind the lines at HQ, you don't want to risk him on the front.

What's nice about adding the general like this is that it gives you another mechanism to deal with overcrowding on the officer card. You have a fourth choice now for how to deal with officer tasks: 1. you can actually do them and cross them off 2. you can "honorably discharge" them if they're not worth doing, 3. you can copy them over to the next officer card if you want to do them in the next "about two weeks", or 4. if you decide that they are indeed important, but not something you're likely to get around to in the near future, reverse-delegate them to the general card. 

This is nice, because I've had a few items that I've copied over and over again on my officer card that I know I'm not really going to do in the next "about two weeks" but don't want to forget about completely. They are crying out for a more appropriate home. The general is that home.

The other thing that's nice about this chain of command is how organic and bottom up it is. It's a hierarchy, yes, but you always try to assign a task to the lowest possible rank first. Got an idea for something? Step one: ask yourself it you can do it today, if so, put it on the foot soldier card. If not, kick it upstairs to the officer. If the officer can't handle it, pass the buck to the general. The buck stops there.

What kinds of tasks should go on the general vs the officer vs. the foot soldier? What granularity?

I wouldn't obsess too much over this: the main criterion is when to you plan or hope to do it? Though of course, if soon, it should be pretty fine grained and concrete. But far off tasks can be fine grained too. For example: say I want to buy a printer. That task could go on any of the three cards depending on when I wanted to get it done. It's a concrete, contained task, certainly something I could do today. But maybe I'd rather save up some money first until I can actually afford it and do it more like six months from now, then it should go on the general.

Other other goals, though, make sense to express differently at the three different ranks, and possibly simultaneously on all three ranks. For example, let's say I want to write a book called Systematic Moderation. Obviously not something I'm going to  finish completely in a day or even two weeks. But I do want to do something towards accomplishing it today and medium term. So on the general card, I could write "Systematic moderation: write the book." This is a long term goal. On the officer card, medium term, "First draft of chapter 1." On the daily card, "60 minutes of writing -- today."

Three equal size physical index cards capture and filter all your plans: short term, medium term, and long term. Just like my original vision, except now the medium and long term cards aren't tied to any specific unit of time. Their term is dictated simply by how long they take to fill up. It's simple, spartan, low-tech, and now complete.

I can't actually comment on how well the reinstated general card works yet, because unlike the foot soldier and the officer, I've only just started it. I tend not to like to promulgate systems this embrionic, but I've got a real eureka feeling about this one, and the new years timing seems very appropriate to push it out. 

Because my thinking on the details of how to do task management has evolved a bit over the years, once I rack up a bit more experience with the new general to confirm or invalidate my optimism, I'll put together a summary description of the new chain of command, tying all these refinements together. I'll make this a top level everyday systems page. But in the meantime, I promise to return to subjects other than personal productivity in these podcasts, since many of you have probably had enough of it by now, and are interested in other aspects of everyday systems, like diet, exercise, and habit building.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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