Card-Sorting my Daily Life

At the TCUK conference last year, one of the best-attended sessions was on the subject of Getting Things Done. Of course I was there too – doesn’t everyone need help to manage the deluge of tasks? The presenter, Karen Mardahl, drew on David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, and also on two books by authors who applied Allen’s methods using the applications Microsoft OneNote and Evernote.

I came back to New Zealand inspired to try applying the recommended techniques, and installed OneNote, but never made the time to learn the application. Instead, I’ve spent the last 9 months operating as usual, with several to-do lists covered in extraneous scribble in different places on my desk, and a diminishing sense of control over my days. So when I recently clapped eyes on Dan J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, I was moved to read it. At about page 70 (of 396 pp plus notes), he describes a technique that I’ve been trialling for four weeks, and am finding genuinely helpful.

The technique involves having a stack of small cards (I’m using old business cards) and a pen available in all the places where I typically have ideas or remember jobs – by the bed, in the car, on my desk at home and at work. When I think of something I need to do, if it’s small and I have time, I do it. If I don’t have time, I write it on a card. The rule is simple: one task per card. The clever part is in the classifying. Each morning, and sometimes during the day, I go through the cards and sort them into logical groups. The contents of the groups vary, depending on whether I’m focusing on a particular project, or looking for several small or similar jobs I can knock off quickly. It’s rather pleasurable – like preparing for a game of 500. Whenever I’ve completed something, I can throw the card away – I don’t have to keep carrying items forward onto new to-do lists. There’s no computer involved; it has a visceral simplicity.

Most importantly, if I think of a task while I’m doing something else, I pause only to write the thought on a card so it’s out of my brain and into the system. “One piece of information per card allows for rapid sorting and resorting, and it provides random access, meaning that you can access any idea on its own, take it out of the stack without dislocating another idea, and put it adjacent in the stack to similar ideas. Over time, your idea of what is similar or what binds different ideas together may change, and this system – because it is random and not sequential – allows for that flexibility.”

I’ve found it really helpful. My description of the system probably isn’t enough on its own, so if you’d like to find out more, you’re probably best to seek out the book – it’s available online and possibly also at your local library. 

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