How I Built an Effective Productivity System Around a Simple 3 x 5” Index Card

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August 30, 2021
the today system

One of my favorite quotes about building systems comes from Albert Einstein:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

In nowhere is this more true than in personal productivity systems. After all, your productivity system is the hub where all your undone work goes, and where all of the work you’re going to do comes from. It’s where you put things, with the knowledge that putting them there will lead to them getting done. So the more complicated and cumbersome that system is, the less likely you are to engage with it. The less you engage with it, the less you trust it. And the less you trust it, the less it works.

Over the years, I’ve adopted various productivity systems and used all kinds of apps, planners, and paper-based schemes. They were always exhilarating at first. I was excited to put all my stuff into them, and to get to work tinkering with everything. But as the parade of work and life marched on, that enthusiasm would give way to a feeling of being overwhelmed. The systems would become too much to keep up with. The already difficult work of keeping track of my work became even more…well…work.

The Need for A Simpler System

And then one day, in a fit of frustration, I found myself in the office supply aisle in the grocery store, as I finished my usual weekly shopping trip. It was early Monday morning, and I had an entire week of ill-defined work bearing down on me.

Then I saw it. What would end up being—at least for me—the saving grace of my journey in finding a personal productivity system. It was something simple enough to keep me from getting lost in the weeds, but potentially powerful enough to compete with the other systems I’ve used over the years.

It was a 3 x 5″ index card.

And for as nondescript as it seemed, sitting there on the shelf with 99 of its identical twins, it held the key to a system that I’ve used every day for almost a year now.

The Simplest Starting Point

There’s nothing special about the 3 x 5″ index card per se. But as with any tool, it’s in how you use it. The card represents the simplest, but most effective unit of personal productivity as I see it: today.

That day that I picked up the pack of index cards from the grocery store, I took one out and wrote down the things that were most important for me to get done that day. I started with 6 items—straight out of the Ivy Lee Method. But there was one problem. For whatever reason, the order of the items alone wasn’t enough to push me to work on the top ones first. Perhaps it’s how I’m wired; perhaps I’ve been desensitized to lists.

But then I had an idea: what if I gave myself a score based on how well I tackled the items on my list? What if the score was tabulated in a way that rewarded working on important, goal-related activities, and punished working on distractions? Could I train myself to be more focused with something like that?

As it turns out, I could!

The Card and the Scoring System

To fill out a card, you simply draw two columns at the right-hand side of an index card and label them P for possible points, and A for actual points. It should look like this:

Then you decide how many items you’re going to be able to tackle today. My rule is to look at how many hours you have free in the day to get tasks done and multiply that number by 1.25. So if you have 4 hours where you’re not in meetings, or not otherwise occupied, you can probably put 5 items on your list.

Now it’s time to set up your points for the day.

However many items are on the card (no more than 9), that’s how many possible points the top item gets. Then count down from there. So on my 7 item card, the first item was worth 7 points. The second item was worth 6 points. And so on. Below is a sample of what that looks like:

As I completed the items, I crossed them off and awarded myself the points. At the end of the day, I calculated how many points I had, divided by the total possible, and got my score. The closer I got to 100%, the more productive I knew I had been that day.

I did it the next day, and the next day. I found that the pursuit of the points—while it may have seemed superficial at first—actually provided the ideal motivation for me.

I now use a card each day to serve as both a reminder of what my most important tasks are, and as a motivator to do them. The list itself keeps me calm by reminding me–even in the whirling storm of emails, calls, and interruptions to my day–hey, all you have to do today is this stuff. The point system reminds me that if I choose to do other things that pop up, or choose to entertain distractions, I won’t get points.

My target is to get at or above a .750 or 75% score, and maintain roughly that average as my “lifetime score”. I figure if I can count on myself to follow through on what I’ve identified as important 3 out of 4 times, that’s pretty good.

Here’s an example of a fully scored cared at the end of the day:

You’ll notice that the top item is half crossed-out, and only received half of the possible points. I do that when I didn’t complete the task as it was written on the card, but I worked on it a sufficient amount and made progress. So I get half credit. I’ve found this to be an effective motivator to get started on something, even if it’s late in the day, and I’m overwhelmed by the thought of having to finish something. Getting half credit, as opposed to 0 points, helps me to push myself to roll up my sleeves and just do something to make progress.

Building Out (And Using Workflowy)

I’ve found that I can best decide which things in my life to do, as well as how and when to do them, using the following flow chart:

The chart begins with whatever possible obligation might come my way. It then filters that into a path that ultimately leads to the card I fill out each day. The path it takes to get there involves a few lists, which I keep in Workflowy. It’s influenced by GTD concepts, and incorporates something I call “loose relative scheduling”. The lists are as follows:

  • Goals: A list of long-term goals for myself (next 2 years or more, and more general in nature)
  • Projects: A list of the projects that I’ve committed to, broken into 2 categories:
  • Goal-serving projects – projects that directly serve my identified goals
  • Non Goal-serving projects – projects that don’t serve my goals or quite indirectly serve them
  • The Simple Scheduling System (S3) – a list of the next actions associated with each project, or just lone next actions. But they’re put into an informal schedule, relative to today:
    • Today + – Items that will go on the card, with some that I don’t believe I can commit to, but would like to get to if I finish what’s on the card.
    • Next Few Days – Items I should get done in the next few days
    • This Week – Items I should get done within the week, or the next several days.
    • Next Week and After – A looser category for items that I can’t let fall off my radar, but are not as pressing as the others.

Each of these is a list in Workflowy. I keep them updated regularly. Each list contains a simple bullet point that I check off as complete when the item is done. If I don’t do it, but it becomes irrelevant, I delete it.

For projects that are a bit more in-depth and require many different actions, I have a project template that I’ve found useful. I just click it whenever I make a new project in my project list.

Here’s a picture of it:

Here’s a link to it (for you Workflowy users).

The “Log” bullet is where I tend to keep a record of what’s happened on a given project. When I had a meeting about it, completed a major milestone for it, or anything like that, I log the date (Workflowy’s date autocomplete feature is great for this) and what happened.

The “Plan” and “Notes” bullets are kind of a free space, where I can think in words and develop my tentative future actions and needs for the project–before I create the next actions that will go on my S3 list.

Keeping Score and Reflecting

Beyond the lists of what I still have to do, and how they relate to my goals, I’ve also found keeping track of my daily and weekly score extremely useful. For that, I have a spreadsheet (a template for which you can find here).

There are 2 tabs I use on the spreadsheet to reflect. Each day, I enter my score for the day, and I reflect. How did it go? What happened? How do I feel about my score, and what is that score telling me about what I need to do tomorrow?

At the end of each week, I calculate my cumulative weekly score. Then I reflect on the week, and I compare this week’s score to last week’s score. Specifically, I ask myself the following 3 questions:

  • How did the week go in general?
  • What contributed to my change in score vs. last week?
  • What things do I need to focus on in the coming week, in order to sustain my score or make it better?

Don’t underestimate, or fail to allocate the time for, this step. If you’re going to get better at anything, reflection is a necessary part of that journey. Reflect on how things went, why they went that way, and what you’re going to do differently in the future. Without that, a productivity system isn’t quite complete.

Best Practices for Getting the Most Out of the System

My system isn’t perfect. No system built by a single person is. But it’s worked well for me, and continues to do so. I’ve told other people about it, and gotten quite a bit of positive feedback about it as well.

There are a few best practices I’ve found, that can help you integrate it more effectively in your life. I cover those below.

Using it with other systems

Everyone has their own productivity journeys. And those journeys usually include adopting some sort of productivity system. Many people have adopted GTD or the Bullet Journal–or something along those lines. The way I’ve built my system, you can plug it into almost any of those systems.

If you’re running GTD, you can simply add the practice of tagging your projects as #G or #NG, based on whether they contribute to your goals. Then make that tagging process part of your weekly review. Focus on the #G projects, and see if the #NG projects can go into your “someday/maybe” list, or go away completely.

If you’re using a Bullet Journal methodology (but using Workflowy to do it digitally), you can still use the monthly, future, and daily logs. Any tasks can be hashtagged where they are in the daily log, and added to the S3 action list, based on when you believe you need to get around to doing them (today, the next few days, this week, or next week and later). Then you use the card and the scoring system to keep track of how well you’re doing on whatever you’ve captured and generated within your Bullet Journal system.

I’ve continued to tinker with what I have scaffolded around my card, S3 list, and score-keeping sheet. At the moment, I combine elements of GTD (projects, the incubator, and the weekly review) along with elements of the Bullet Journal Method (future logging and daily logging). My master Workflowy list (which I affectionately call the “Control Panel” is built of lists that help me feed my card each day.

Keeping a Lifetime Score

The daily and weekly scores are important. They’re the core of my system. The score each day keeps me motivated to really put in the effort each day. Seeing how my scores affect my weekly scores keep me motivated to improve or keep going strong each week. But one of the strongest motivations is the lifetime score.

In the spreadsheet I linked above, which I use to keep track of my daily scores, I have a formula that calculates the running total of all the points I’ve earned divided by the same of all the possible points for the days passed. That generates my lifetime score.

After a dip a few months ago, I’ve brought my score back up to .733 (or 73.3%). My goal is to get that back up to .750 by the year’s end. The thought of getting that number just a little higher each day keeps me both choosing more wisely what I put on my card each day, as well as working harder to get those things done.

Use Timeblocking to Break Through on Tough Items

If an item keeps going on your card, but you keep failing to do it, it’s easy to get frustrated and want to give up. After all, you’re getting half points or even 0 points for that item—day after day.

It’s in instances like these when I find it helpful to use time-blocking. I put an item like spend at least 45 minutes on the rough draft, or something like that. This way, it’s easy to hit that mark and get those points. And in many cases, when I have spent that time on something, I’m much further along than I thought I could have been. And that helps motivate me to keep working.

Us the Verb | Noun | Details Formula for Naming Tasks

My card each day is only as good as the items I put on it. And it’s not just what projects I’m working on, or the order I put them in—though those things are important.

Rather, a sneaky element that can make or break how effective I am at getting the items on my card done is how those items are worded. There’s a formula for more effectively writing a task on the card. It goes: Verb | Noun | Details.

Simply put, I think about what it is I want to get done, and word it in a way that begins with a verb, that does something to or for a noun. Then provide some details.

An example of this would be: “Analyze the margin report to find issues and email them to the group”. Notice how actionable, perhaps appealing it is. It tells you what you have to do. So it’s clear how to start and when it’s done.

Contrast this with: “Margin report”.

Of course, I knew what it meant when I wrote it. But when I’m knee deep in my day, it usually becomes less clear. Also, “margin report” could be what I wrote because I don’t even know what needs to be done about the margin report. That spells trouble for getting that task–whatever it might be–done. Which spells trouble for getting the points for it. Hopefully it isn’t a high value one…?

Closing Remarks

Almost every day, I start the day by reviewing my list of projects and tasks, and writing down on a card which items are important for me to do today, in order. Then I assign points to those items based on their importance. I have a goal for how many points I can get each day, and I work as hard as I can to get them.

Better than any organizational systems or list-management apps, putting things on a card each day, and shooting for a high score has made a huge impact on my productivity. I’ve integrated the card and scoring system with other elements that help me get my arms around the stuff of my life, and figure out their importance—so I can use the card and the scoring system to keep myself motivated to get more done.

I also use the score to reflect on my performance, and figure out what I need to do differently each day and week. It’s a quirky system, to be sure, but it’s worked wonders for me.

The simple summary is:

  • The Today Card – A card each day with my most important items, and a score for them which reflects their relative importance.
  • A list of my overarching goals, and project list which is sorted by which projects support my goals, and which don’t.
  • The S3 – A Simplified Scheduling List, which lays out tasks by relative timeframes: today/tomorrow, next few days, this week, and next week and after.
  • The Scorekeeping Sheet – Which records my daily score from the card, as well as notes about the day. It also calculates my score for each week and compares it to last week’s score. It provides me with space to reflect on my performance and plan for how to do better in the future.

You can include (as I have) elements from other systems—like GTD or the Bullet Journal Method—as I have. But the core is in the elements above.

This may work for you, it may not. But I’m excited enough about it that I want to share it with people—in the hopes that people who had the same trouble I did can benefit from it.

If you’re interested in learning more about it, visit https://thetodaysystem.com.

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Peter
Peter
20 days ago

4 x 1.25 is 5, not 6???

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