Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 64

State of the Systems 2021, Part 3 (Meta Systems)

Listen | Discuss

Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.

Well, it’s three months into 2022, and I’m still not quite done with my 2021 state of the systems.  In January I covered Body and Spirits systems, in February, Soul systems, today I’m going to talk about meta systems, systems to manage other systems, to track and bolster them. And I’m embarrassed, looking over my notes, to see that it’s going to be extremely difficult to jam everything I want to say about them into a single episode. But I’m going to do my best. Apologies if this runs somewhat longer than usual.

“Personal punch cards” is what I’ll start with and spend the most time on. In one sense, it’s one of my most personally successful systems. I’ve been consistently practicing it almost every single day since I came up with it in 2006 and I have a mass of physical evidence that makes it seem real in a way that is simultaneous extremely satisfying and perhaps slightly disturbing -- visit the transcript page and you may behold photos note only of individual cards, but also fifteen years of cards in labeled boxes, that’s 13 boxes containing over 5 thousand index cards with (mostly) crossed out tasks and little stars scribbled on top. One might wonder whether this is evidence of a successful productivity technique or of a kind of OCD, like Carrie Mathison’s Post-IT notes mapping terrorist networks all over her bedroom walls  in Homeland. But I’ll suspend judgment on that for now -- perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Setting aside the dubiousness of this success for a moment, another reason it’s unlike the No S diet, Shovelglove, and Urban ranger, other successful systems which I’ve been practicing more or less as they first sprung from my head, is that this this system has evolved a fair amount over the years, and not always in a straightforward, linear path. There have been dead ends, experimental offshoots that I wound up abandoning. And there have been substantial changes: going from three column todo listing vs. two column, the byzantine evolution of what all I stick on the back of the card, (now an intricate system of hieroglyphs, which I shall interpret for you today), and new conventions around how I post-process a card when it’s done.

If you’re able, hit pause now, and take a look at the transcript at everyday systems.com/podcast, so you can see the pictures and follow along. But if you can’t hit pause now, just keep listening and and circle back to the page and take a look when you can. I’ll try to be evocative in my descriptions.

First, the front of the card. The big change, from the original three column system, is that I’m down to just two. I’ve podcasted about this before, so hopefully your minds are not too blown by this change. In the original system I had a column for life tasks on the left, a column for work tasks on the right, and a column for routine tasks, tasks that I perform every day, in the middle. Now I’ve just got two columns: life on the left, work on the right, with abbreviated headers: L for life, W for work, with a dividing line down the middle. So in this sense, and probably only in this sense, the cards have gotten simpler. The two columns provide a nice and clean visual way to see that work/life balance everyone is always talking about trying to maintain. And there’s less junk, with the routines no longer cluttering up the front. As always, there’s a date at the top of the card, and everything you write here, in these columns on the front of the card,  is a commitment to get done that day. Life comes on the left before work because 1) it should, in terms of priority 2) all days have life tasks, some days do not (or at least should not!) have work tasks and 3) the letter L comes before the letter W (I’m a librarian, after all).

Tasks are numbered in order, but there isn’t necessarily any significance to the order. It just makes the tasks feel more official and important, to give them numbers, and I can see at a glance how many I’m dealing with. I’ve podcasted before about the psychological power of even arbitrary numbers. Ideally the priority tasks would come first, but sometimes the higher priority task only becomes apparent mid-day. I allow myself to keep adding tasks throughout the day and will even write down and immediately cross off tasks retroactively, to give myself credit, if I realize I’ve done something todo list worthy without having remembered to write it down beforehand. Retroactive tasking like this is a good technique for feeling productive and increasing your morale so you actually become more productive.

In a perfect world, I’d have no more than 10 tasks in each column every day, but it’s not unusual for them to spill over into a second work or life column. I write really small to allow for this, with a superfine .38 millimeter point pen, and trying to allow space for second work and life sub-columns if necessary. Although permitted, spillover is a sign that I’m maybe undertaking too much. It’s a visual speed bump for task hubris. There isn’t room for more tasks than 2 x 2 sub columns without cramped and unaesthetic scribbling in the top margin, so going over 20 work or life tasks is a second, major visual speed bump. Soon after that you run into a third speed bump, a physical hard limit. Then there really isn’t any more room in those 15 square inches – the ultimate sanity check against task hubris.

So what happened to the routine tasks I used to have in the third column? I’m still all about routines, even more so, if possible, than I used to be. They’ve just migrated to the back of the card, as I”ll talk about shortly. And this is where the “meta” other-system-tracking power of the cards comes in. But for now, let’s stick with the front.

In my original podcast on personal punchcards, I talked about how I give myself a “star” on the card whenever I get all my tasks crossed off. I still do that. And I still find it just as irrationally compelling. Perhaps even more so, after all these years of reinforcement. It’s silly, but it works, just like for kids in elementary school. I really want to cross all those tasks off every day to earn that scribbled star, that sign of approval, even just from myself.

Ideally, I retire each day’s index card from my wallet to a box at the end of the day, whether the tasks had all been crossed off and I earned my star or not. At least, that was how I originally did things. Any undone tasks would either get copied to the next day's card or not transferred because they weren’t worth doing. And I’d circle the task on the retired card as a visual sign of acknowledgement that it didn’t happen, that I was accepting it and moving on.

But my desire for those stars was too intense. The stars were working too well. I found myself guiltily carrying around cards with uncrossed-off todos for weeks sometimes because I couldn’t bear to put them in my box without a star.

So I developed a compromise and systematized it. I decided I’d allow myself to keep cards in my wallet for a relatively short grace period, to give myself a chance to earn those stars. I’d still copy over tasks onto the new day's card, for daily time budgeting. I didn’t want to have this ever increasing burden of tasks on an ever increasing number of index cards. I’d add an exclamation point next to the copied over task on the new card to emphasize that this was a task I hadn’t been able to complete on a previous card. And I’d add an additional exclamation point each time I carried it over again. So a task I hadn’t done yesterday, would get one exclamation point after it on today’s card, two exclamation points if I still didn’t get it done on tomorrow’s card, etc. These exclamation points signal importance and get embarrassing if too many pile up. They’re great little visual motivators. They also serve as reminders that when I cross off the task that I should go through the previous cards in my wallet to cross out the task wherever it appeared previously and hopefully then be able to star and box those cards. I’ll also circle the number of the task on the older card as a signal and subtle tut-tut that though I accomplished it eventually, I didn’t do it on that day. I still cross it off, but I put a little circle around the number. A little visual nudge going forward to try harder to earn my star without any circled numbers.

If for some reason a task becomes obsolete in other words, I didn’t do it, but no longer have to, say because a planned meeting was canceled, a draw a squiggly line through it. This way I don’t get the false credit of a straight line, but not the shame of an uncrossed off or circled task either and it’s clear that I processed it at least.

Most of my cards wind up getting starred, if not day-of, then with circles, eventually. My maximum grace period is a calendar month. So I am allowed to carry around September cards in October, but by November, they’ve got to be out of my wallet. Note that I don’t have to carry around incomplete cards and it’s very rare for a card to linger that long. I can retire a card to the box without a star. It hurts, but it is permissible and sometimes advisable. Only if I think that the undone tasks are really worth doing and really doable do I allow myself to keep carrying them around. As my wallet gets increasingly stuffed, it’s a great, physical incentive to make this assessment more ruthlessly, and make room. So in practice, it’s never all that many cards I’m carrying around.

Another front-of-the card finesse that I’ve evolved is often I’ll write down timeboxes of effort rather than complete tasks. So instead of, say, “release report,” as a todo, I”ll write “release report” 14, “release report” with the number 14 in a little box after it. So literally a time box. The number is the number of minutes I will devote to this task or prompt, as I discussed in Timebox Lord last episode. Seeing that all I’ve committed to is 14 minutes and that’s all I have to do is cross if off  makes me less likely to procrastinate starting. It’s a very helpful technique for tasks I’m dreading, or murky tasks that I’m not sure how to even approach. Which as it turns out, is a substantial proportion of the tasks in my life.

Sometimes, if I know a task will take much longer, I will add additional timeboxes on the same row, diagonally slashing each box through as it gets done, and crossing off the whole row when all the boxes are slashed through. I only add an additional timebox after I’ve slashed out the last, rather than starting with a daunting multitude. And I’ll add a maximum of 4 14-minute timeboxes to any labeled task. If I wind up needing more than that, I’ll add another task on another row with the same label. At that point, that cumulative amount of time (14 times 5 is over an hour) deserves another row. That way I can visually budget my time better.

Timebox Lord and personal punch cards are a powerful combination. Someone on the facebook group posted recently that putting her timeboxes on her personal punchcards was how she finally got Timebox Lord to click and if you’ve been struggling with Timebox lord or the pomodoro technique or something similar, I suggest you try combining them with punchcards as well. Or the other way around. If you’re having problems with personal punch card tasks, or managing tasks in some other todo list system, try making some of the tasks timeboxes and maybe your task listing will finally click.

If you’re looking at the picture of the card on the site, you may notice the words “Thoughtful” and
“Dusty Donnerstag” in quotes on the left and right of the top margins. These are reminders for recurring “weekdaily” tasks or task sets that I associate with a particular day of the week. I always try to make them start with the letter of the day of the week, even if I have to reach into a foreign language, for motivational cuteness. More detail on that in an upcoming episode.

By the way, as you may notice from the date on the card, this is not an actual card I used in real life. I couldn’t find a single card that had every feature I wanted to discuss here: circles, starts, squiggly lines, exclamation points, timeboxes, so I created a model card to showcase them all. But all with real tasks plucked from other cards.

The back of the card has changed radically and as I mentioned, this is where things get really meta. Originally, everything on the back of the card was optional and free form. Notes, tasks I didn’t want to forget just yet but wasn’t ready to commit to, sometimes nothing, I had many cards with completely blank back sides. But slowly, incrementally, I started adding little glyphs, boxes, sections, numbers, mostly for tracking routine tasks and personal “key performance indicators” (KPIs) to use a bit of revolting business-speak, numbers like how long I how many times I did this or that good or bad thing. For many years the back of the card was the only place I tracked these things, though more recently, starting in 2016, so five years ago, I’ve been transferring some of them to my Life Log spreadsheet once a week, which I’ll discuss later this episode.

Please note that the things I track on the back of the card are very idiosyncratic and personal. I’m not suggesting that you or anyone else on the planet should be tracking the same exact things in the same exact way as I do. I’m going to selectively talk you through my back of the card just as an example, so you can get a concrete sense of how something  like this might work for you, with your different habits, routines, and personal “key performance indicators.”

Unlike the front of the card, I orient the back of the card vertically, “portrait mode.” At the top are three rows that I draw with lines for quantitative tracking: one for body tracking, one for soul tracking, one for spirits tracking. As with the organization of this “state of the systems” review,  I find it helpful to divide my self-improvement efforts into those three categories, vaguely inspired by the platonic tripartite self. And on the bottom of the card I have three more rows for qualitative tracking of the same categories, a sort of mini-diary with any notes. The middle of the card is still available for free form notes and reminders.

Each quantitative tracking row contains sections, boxes and little symbols or icons that I draw to prompt me for inputs.

I’m not going to talk about every single one because 1) you’ll fall asleep 2) they are really personal and idiosyncratic and your’s will be different and 3) they change. I keep tweaking them and next month they will likely be ever so slightly different. So I’ll give a selective tour, to give a flavor.

On the body row, all the way at the top, I have six boxes or cells. As with everything on the back of th card, I always put the same inputs in the same place in the same order. For some I draw a little symbol, in the body row, a little slashed out S to track No S Diet compliance, a little fat letter T looking thing for shovelglove, something that looks vaguely like a showerhead for contrast showers aka scottish showers aka James Bond Showers – which is a one minute invigoratingly bracing cold shower taken after a hot shower (a technique I read about in dopamine nation). For some a letter or pair of letters is my input prompt, like “UR” for urban ranger. My preference is always a cute symbol but sometimes I just can’t think of one that’s also easy and quick to draw. For some it’s just the location, or an empty box in a certain place. I’ve internalized them pretty well at this point, but in case my brain gives out, I can always consult yesterday's card as a template. At the end of the row I could dumbbell shadowboxing, stretches, did I do them, and number of pullups and pushups in two sets each.

The next row is soul. I divide it into 2 main sections with a little checkbox in the middle. The checkbox is for tracking whether I listened to my self-recorded mantras, which I’ve podcasted about before, and update periodically depending on what I’m struggling with at the moment. On the left section, I write, in all caps, an acronym, the letters F R A B C R Y M S. “Frabcryms” which sounds vaguely like something out of Lewis Carroll’s jaberwocky And CRYMS makes it seem like something excitingly transgressive as if I could somehow be the cool naughty kid and the gold star kid both at the same time The fact that it’s pronounceable and sort of funny sounding and redolent of Lewis Carroll and what not helps me remember it. F is for free prayer, r is for recited prayer, a is for anki card review, c is for creative time (writing these podcast scripts, for example) y is minutes spend working on my yellow cards aka the punch card itself, m is for meditation minutes, s is for study habit focused reading time. Some of these I measure with a stroke indicating how many times I did it, or that I did it at all, others with a minute count.

Then come spirits. One section for alcoholic spirits, how many drinks did I have and roughly how big. I have a rule of thumb, a four-category drink size classification:  from small, medium, big, and huge. So SD, MD, BD, or H, which later, in the Life Log, I have a formula for converting into standard DMV normalized drinks. The other section is for pills of all sorts. Melatonin or benadryl to help sleep. Did I take any Ativan for anxiety before that super stressful meeting.  How much? Low smoking gets tracked here too. All stuff I want to keep at the lowest level possible. Ideally zero but knowing I have to write the number here helps me at least keep it close to that.

After these rows I have a space that I sometimes use for minimalistic BLD food logging (BLD for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner) that I mentioned  in my first state of the systems episode this year. I don’t normally do food logging, but if my weight goes over a certain threshold (for me, weekly average of over 173 or any individual number of over 176) I make myself do it as a sort of punitive mindfulness exercise, usually during or after vacations or multi-S day holidays when my average drifts above the 170 pounds I like to think of as my official weight. When I get back under the threshold I can stop. It’s very minimalistic and doesn’t involve calculating calories or anything. The point is it’s an additional speed bump against excess to catch you before you stuff that extra whatever in your mouth with the thought of do I really want to have to write this down. And when my behavior and weight are good and I’m not BLD logging, the desire to keep not having to do it is motivating. There was a time when I would also transfer this BLD logging into my lifelog spreadsheet at the end of the week, but that was way too time consuming – that went beyond punitive mindfulness into cruel and unusual punishment. The index card speed bump is sufficient, having to write it down there. And the hope is that eventually the mere threat of the index card speed bump will be sufficient – we’ll see, this is still relatively new.

The middle of the card is still free form. Notes, shopping lists, tasks that I don’t want to forget but am not ready to commit to by writing them on the front of the card.

On the bottom are three qualitative rows for body, soul, and spirits corresponding to the top three quantitative rows, a sort of focused mini diary. It’s like private tweets to myself organized by category. In body I write things about various aches and pains to try to respond to injuries and keep track of how they’re doing (my runner's knee, my golfer’s elbow, etc.). Now that I’m middle aged there’s always something to put here. In soul I give a one sentence assessment of how I was feeling that day, and a “mood score” to try to sum it up, the idea being to see how my various habit experiments and routines correlate with a general feeling of well being. In spirits I note, for example, the circumstances under which a glass ceiling failure happened. I fess up. Any or all of these mini diary boxes can be left empty, and that’s usually a good sign when they’re empty, no news is good news. Except soul, where I’m eager to record happy mood scores and assessments.

Most of what I write on my daily punch cards stays there and that’s the beginning and the end of it. But some of it gets transferred to my Life Log, the spreadsheet where I keep track of a subset of numbers from my yellow cards. The Life Log is basically the HabitCal I talked about years ago on steroids: a mostly quantitative diary of how I am doing on all my habits and routines, with a habit traffic light – hues of red and green – automatically applied by conditional formatting.

The Body Tab

As you may recall, every year, I start a new Lifelog, one spreadsheet per calendar year. I use google sheets but excel or libreoffice or numbers will work just as well. In 2016, when I started, my lifelog was a single tab in that spreadsheet. By 2021 it had proliferated to 8. Definitely Homeland Carrie OCD level. That was a little insane. Now in 2022 I’m back down to 4: one for body, one for soul, one for spirits – to match all the other places I track stuff like that – and a monthly summary tab which gives monthly averages for key columns drawn from each of the other tabs.  I spend a lot of time agonizing over which key fields to summarize here. Because I don’t want it to be overwhelming. I want to be able to see everything in one screen, without scrolling, and I want the color signals of the conditional formatting, the red or the greenness of each cell, to jump out at me and not get lost in a sea of busyness.

The Soul Tab

One nice thing about restarting your lifelog every year is that it’s an opportunity for a fresh start, to reevaluate what data you are tracking, what columns, what tabs, is it too much, how to organize them. But you keep the past years intact, as a record. So it’s not like you’re messing with history (or at least, ancient history) when you make tweaks for the future. It’s not like I don’t make tweaks throughout the year, but it’s limited to that year, and I try to save the major revolutions for January and a new sheet.

The Spirits Tab

I don’t typically update my lifelog every day. Once a week, on Saturday mornings, I go through my personal punch cards from the week before and transfer select data to my lifelog. When a card is processed, I’ll write LL on it next to the star or where the star should be so I can see it’s done, and then file the card (unless I’m hanging onto it because there’s unfinished business). I also download a week of data from fitbit and transfer the bits I care about: at the moment, weight, sleep minutes, step count. It can take a half hour or more, I’m embarrassed to admit. But I love this process of processing my cards and updating the lifelog. I feel like I have all the mess in my life under control, or at least, under some control. Or at least under observation. It’s not total chaos. And, often, as with my weekly audiodidact voice memo review I described last episode, I’m pleasantly surprised that wow, this wasn’t such a bad week after all, even though I felt completely kaput by Friday evening. My mood ratings (except for that one day) were really good, my golfer’s elbow really is getting better, and I didn’t miss a single urban ranger walk or contrast shower. Etc. Or, by contrast, ok, that was bad. That excuse for an S-day was clearly BS. But I see it. And I can respond to it. It didn’t just slip under the radar. My air defense systems are working. That thought energizes me even when I do see bogeys blip up.  

I sometimes worry that the lifelog and personal punch cards, not to mention my audiodidact recordings, are obsessive and narcissistic practices. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the over-examined life ain’t that great either. I’m sure there’s at least an element of anxious vanity mixed in with the good in what I’m doing. But my experience has been, in the short times when I was lax with these systems or didn’t do them at all, that the feeling of chaos that rushed in was far worse. Not just for me, but for the people around me. I would like to be the sort of person who didn’t need such things. I’d like to be the sort of person who doesn’t need a system for diet, who is intuitively rather than systematically moderate. But I’m not.

The Monthlies Tab (in progress – I haven’t fished decided all the columns that should go here this year)

The Life Log and Personal Punch cards are great for dealing with the many little details of life. Mantrafication is for reminding myself of and focusing on the essentials. It’s basically an offshoot or special case of audiodidact, except instead of just recording thoughts and observations that I maybe listen to just once, I record something I want to remind myself of repeatedly: highly personalized pep talks and warnings. I listen to them every day and track my compliance in doing this on my personal punch card and life log. I update my mantras fairly frequently, every few months, as what I need to encourage and warn myself about changes. I classify Mantrafication as a meta system because very frequently what I’m encouraging and warning myself about has to do with another everyday system. Usually honing in on some corner case self-BSing that I’m using to route around my own rules.

Like many systems, Matrafication started simple, got complex, and then became simpler again. My middle period mantras got quite numerous and lengthy. At this system's convoluted peak, I was listening to 14 mantras, totalling over 18 minutes, so many that I scheduled different mantras for different days because it was too time consuming to go through them all every day. Now I’m down to three, one for body, one for soul, one for spirits, a total of just under 2 minutes. This is a lot less obtrusive and more sustainable. Something I really can and do listen to every day. But I’m glad I went through that more loquacious period because it helped me deepen my self understanding and develop a more compact vocabulary with which to exhort myself. Something that initially took me two minutes to explain and reexplain to myself is now so ingrained that I can refer to it with a single evocative word or phrase. Every once in a while, theoretically monthly but I haven’t been formal about this, I’ll relisten to all my old mantras, so they don’t fade completely, and my compact vocabulary gets recharged. So I’m very careful before recording a new mantra to say the date, so when re-listening I can place it in historical context.

I wish I could share an actual, full mantra with you, but they are very, very personal. Not just in terms of personal = private, but as I mentioned they’re expressed in this evolved, compressed language that only makes sense if you’re me and have this history of self-referential self-exhortation. Maybe in a future episode I can share and explicate some excerpts.

But this episode has gone on long enough. I’m guessing it’s going to be my longest yet.

So it is fortunate I don’t have much to say about my last system, loose lips sink ships. In fact, the whole point of it is not saying too much. The idea is not to squander your excitement about a new system or goal by talking about it too much, to cash in the emotional reward before you’ve earned it and depriving yourself of the motivation to hold out for it. It continues to work well for me.

But loose lips sink ships is all about balance. It’s also good to share what you’re excited about with friends, to get encouragement and feedback and maybe generously encourage and inspire them. And so, in that spirit, my friends, to conclude this episode, here are some titles of prospective podcast episodes that I hope might pique your interest. Some will be baffling, some, I hope intriguing. Let me know if any resonate. Or if there are other subjects you’d like to hear about. In no particular order:

  1. Clock & Calendar, your Sword & Shield
  2. Aristotelian Self-Portrait: a self-assessment technique inspired by the Aristotelian observation: “you are what you repeatedly do”
  3. Demihuman, or How to be Ordinary: a follow up on VC cat
  4. Demogorgon Whack-a-mole: how your appetites always seem to reroute around your willpower’s attempts to control them and what to do about it.
  5. Negative Ambition: we’ve covered a lot of the 7 deadly sins with everyday systems, but not yet envy. This is kinda sorta that. Envy for demihumans, maybe.
  6. Right relationship with Robots – weekend luddite writ large. What aspects of technology to tolerate, what to embrace, what to cast into outer darkness.
  7. The Metaphysics of Todo-listing

I’m also thinking of doing a couple of book reviews or responses: one on Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke and another on The Courage to be Disliked, a contemporary Japanese take on the early 20th century Viennese psychologist Alfred Adler in the form of a Platonic dialog. It’s rare that a book in the self-help genre impresses me, I think the only other one I ever podcasted about was Marie Kondo, but these two did.

If I do manage all those, at the episode a month clip I’ve been keeping the last few months, that should be enough to round out the year. And I promise, 2022’s review, if there is one, will not be so exhaustive. Thanks for listening.