Task Index Cards Revisited

Task Index Cards Revisited

Index Cards Ahoy A few days ago I posted the latest progress on the Day Grid Balancer forms, a line of inquiry that has attracted very high-quality commentary from you all. Special kudos go to John Ballantrae for using Tarot cards as a tool for design reflection. Instead of using the cards to “read me”, he used them to reflect on the direction that the Day Grid Balancer might go. Despite what you might believe or not believe about the “psychic power” of Tarot Cards, the symbolism nevertheless does span a variety of human desires and anxieties; just by considering the interpretations of each drawn card, one can gain some insight by seeing how the symbolism might fit with the situation on your mind.

Dave's Card Reading John posted his 1 for everyone to see, and in his 12-minute video he came up with several interesting insights. One that resonated was the sense of anxiety and frustration that is driving the development of the Day Balance Grid; he suggested that perhaps focusing on that would provide some new direction. It is very true that I have been feeling that I’ve not been keeping balanced, and that I was potentially forgetting important things. I had started to write up everything that was on my mind, which works fine when I’m doing it for other people. This time, though, I was stuck. The thought of seeing all those unfinished tasks and unfulfilled dreams was incredibly demotivating. Nevertheless, it had to be done.

When I went to re-watch John’s video, the first three minutes suddenly stood out to me. He’s doing nothing but shuffling his cards as he’s explaining his approach to the reading. It’s rather mesmerizing to see someone who is adept with cards shuffle and spread a deck, and several thoughts came to mind regarding the appeal of a card-based form factor:

  • There is something cool about manipulating a deck of cards so much that they become familiar friends. John’s Tarot deck is obviously well-used, and he’s quite familiar with how it handles.
  • Tarot cards use strong symbolic language that carry the power of self-reflection in them. The Rider-Waite Deck, with its illustrations of the various meanings of each card, is particularly fascinating to look at.
  • Physically, cards are very easy to group, sort, and flip through. This is a huge boon to organization, and you don’t have to rewrite anything.

I also just happen to like cards. A few years ago I had made something called the Task Order Up! that included index card versions of task cards, though the system was originally conceived in the spirit of order checks and check rails used at fast food restaurants. This system assigned a card to each task, which you could then array in front of your desk so your coworkers could see what you had going on. You could also prioritize task cards by putting them all the way on the side. But really, the driving force behind the Task Order Up! was that I thought check rails are cool, and I built the process around that.

card stacks versus to-do lists

What I have so far is a deck of personalized task cards for everything I had going on. Instead of standardizing the look-and-feel of each card (as they are in the Task Order Up!), I am allowing them to have individuality. My thinking is that the cards will take on greater representative power the more I scribble and draw on them.

One issue I had come across in the use of my Emergent Task Planner was that I had so many outstanding tasks that it was getting hard to review them all. I am going to make this easier in the next design by reverting to the “right hand side for notes” layout; this will allow me to fold the “to-do” list backwards so I can transcribe it more easily into the next day’s task list. However, even in this case I’m forced to retranscribe data, which is a design no-no in my productivity form philosophy. With index cards, I can keep a master list in the form of a hand-held card deck.

Previously, I have maintained a master list electronically. For example, I recently used Google Tasks with Google Calendar. Results were mixed; Google Tasks is a little simplistic at the moment. An even older system I have used was a text editor to-do list, but since this is a local file I can’t share with other computers. However, web-based to-do lists have the requirement that I am connected to the Internet, which limits the places where I can access them.

The advantage of electronic media over paper, of course, is the ease of reordering data. However, electronic media suffers when it comes to direct manipulation of overlapping data; there is a lot of clicking and dragging of the mouse, which is slow and makes comparison of data sets cumbersome. Cards do not have this disadvantage, and their tactile qualities make manipulating them a pleasure. They naturally lend themselves to manipulation; when you’re dealt a hand of cards, the first thing you do is order them according to your strategic intent. Cards can be grouped, stacked, stuck together, taped, glued, and shuffled. Cards are also more pictorial, more solid, and make soothing noises as you shuffle them. Cards also afford a far richer repertoire of physical manipulation than the mouse, which I think is more helpful when thinking (I don’t have any kind of citation for that, unfortunately).

design and process

I sat down with a blank pack of index cards and wrote out everything that I could think of that I needed to do.

Cards I am starting to develop a visual vocabulary for the different kinds of tasks. Some cards are reminder cards that I will come across when I want to keep something on my mind. The “WAAH I’M FAT” card, for example, reminds me that I want to do something about that. There are some cards that I’ve marked with a symbol that means this moves you toward completing a strategic goal, and there’s another symbol that means this supports other things you are doing. Some cards just have the names of people and projects on them. Some of them are process cards that describe how to do the laundry, and assign point values to the card.

There are lots of ordering and prioritization possibilties with a deck of cards. I can extract cards to prioritize tasks, putting them on the top of the deck. I can also group cards with small clamps or paper clips, which gives me a sense of the magnitude of a multi-step project. I can sequence cards in the order they need to be done. I just started this on Sunday, but already I find it comforting to know that everything that’s on my mind is in this deck; I’ve found myself just shuffling through it seeing what was in there. It is like a portable version of my pickle jar. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the gaming possibilities around a custom-designed deck of cards. Collectible Color Card Task Management Gaming, anyone? Balance your Day by trying to get a Three-Of-A-Kind or Straight Flush? Unique Cards, with Webkinz-style Card Tracking and Social Media Integration via 43Things? Oh, my goodness.

Right now, the process I’m using is very simple: I’m just writing down stuff on index cards as they come to mind. The designs are sparse, but are already functionally evolving into distinct uses. When a task is completed, I’ll pull the card from the deck and retire it. There are all sorts of neat index card hacks out there that could help as well. There’s a nifty index card board on Unclutterer, for example, and Levenger makes those sweet index card holders and docks. However, what I’m more interested in doing is making a deck of beautiful, personalized cards that can be manipulated in my hands. We’ll see where this goes.


  1. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    I also love and use index cards (confession, from Levenger) in conjunction with the ETP. Here’s how:
    If I’m functioning at all, I’ve filled in the ETP, things to do and hard edge appointments. Then sometimes, when I find myself still unfocused. I read through the ETP (items included come from my Vitalist lists). I pick out 2, 3, 4, or even 5 MITs for the day. Now in my three ring note book, where I keep my ETP, printed out vitalist “next actions” lists & print out of gCal calendar for the day, I also have one of those Levenger “action sheets” made of clear plastic, with slots for index cards. I write one task per card, just the main tasks I want to pay attention to that day, then put them in the slots. I think it helps to have the visual attraction, in getting me to focus.

    I also use index cards for multiple other things, and recently had my name/business information printed on top of them, so now I use them as “business cards.” They really do feel wonderful in my hands. Long live index cards. I am going to follow your example and do a mind dump and then put each item on an index card.

  2. Daryl Furuyama 14 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    I’m glad you brought up using a deck and the Task Order Up! I tried using them in a check rail a while ago and it just became too overwhelming and wasn’t very portable. My solution was to create a Moleskine case to tote around a small deck I constructed daily with the stuff I wanted to do that day.

    Can’t wait to see what you do!

  3. Michael Kozakewich 14 years ago

    Wow, the whole concept is really coming along!

    Something I’ve always wanted to do was to create a sort of business-card Trading-Card Game. It would take a bunch of businesses to work together, but then you could get cards from them and battle against other people. A bit corny, but hey, I’m still young.

    Cards just have that fantasy surrounding them. You can do anything with them!

  4. Raghuveer 14 years ago

    Instead of standardizing the look-and-feel of each card … I am allowing them to have individuality.

    Well Well … while most readers of this blog including me are kind of obsessed with a process and tool-based approach to productivity and execution, we do have a strong need for creativity, varied experience, recreation, and other right-brain indulgences.

    While the former pulls you towards separating the process from the person (as in minimizing human-error and dependence on human moods and vagaries) … the latter actually entices you to let go of it all (and be everything human).

    Balance is the word. Would we know when we achieve it? :)

  5. Darren 14 years ago

    This is great, I love it. The portability and tactile nature of the card system is wonderful.

    Can’t wait to see how you get on with this… in fact, I’m off to see how I can get on with this.

    thanks for sharing

  6. katrina 14 years ago

    I just posted my blog on finding balance at http://www.katrinamessenger.com
    I continued my train of thought on what was frustrating me in my search for balance.

    As you know, I use an index cards as my weekly stroke sheet, but I have resisted using them like the Hipster’s PDA because I would run through a lot of cards in short order.  I use OmniFocus to track my GTD next actions and projects, and so far it works really well for me. 

    I use to schedule my Big Rocks each week, so I found it fascinating that Leo Babauta of zenhabits.net mentions this as a good habit to have.  I dropped this habit when I started GTD!  I am thinking I might want to go back to scheduling the big rocks … we will see. 

    This week I started identifying the three Most Important Things or MITs I want to accomplish each day.  (Which is what you suggest in all your forms – but I always listed way past three items.  Now, I get why it matters.)

    As a teacher of tarot, I am often amused and fascinated when I hear others describe the cards and their uses.  You are right on target as to their meaning and use beyond divination.


  7. john ballantrae 14 years ago

    These are interesting developments with David’s balancer, I think. I am very keen to explore a non-occult or non-fortune telling use of the Tarot, so if anyone would like input, just get in touch.


    John Ballantrae

  8. Stephen Smith 14 years ago

    Wow. This phrase really caught my eye, “They naturally lend themselves to manipulation; when you’re dealt a hand of cards, the first thing you do is order them according to your strategic intent.”

    According. To. Your. Strategic. Intent.

    I have a card on my desk that reads “Make strategic actions part of your daily routine” (I do not remember where I saw that, sorry) and it has become invisible to me because it is always right there in front of me.
    I have been thinking about index cards a lot lately, because I agree that re-writing your list all the time is a waste. Hmmm. I will put some ideas down on paper soon.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Aaron Korver 14 years ago

    Another visible way to organize cards might be http://www.ultoffice.com/catalog/2280.  I’ve always wanted to buy it and try it out.

  10. Grady Kelly 14 years ago

    This makes me think a lot about the whole agile thing.  For those who don’t know—When you use agile/scrum, you can use a task board, and cards to hold the various tasks.  The board has categories like … Not started, In Progress, Blocked, Completed.  Agile is such that you can name them how you like.  And there are only really 2 cards, the ones with the tasks, and the blocker card, which you place on top of the task card when there is something keeping you from doing it … hopefully you get the idea.

    I think that extending this to how you are describing is a wonderful idea.  You could even make little to do hacks, like picking a random card to see what you do next, or maybe asking your boss to pick a card, and that’s what you do next. :o)

    Me Likey.

  11. Carsten 14 years ago


    Nice idea about the cards, I like the notion about not having to rewrite stuff that flow over several days.
    Also having something physical to move around and organize is nice.

    Is someone getting married?? :)

    2 rings by the the 26th of June.
    (or just for nipple piercing :-p )

  12. CricketB 14 years ago

    I love the idea of cards, and how they can be spread out and re-organized, but have been too afraid of dropping them. (Although, maybe dropping them would be a form of shuffling, and let me see new patterns.)

    The system FlyLady based hers on uses index cards, too. The most common complaint that system had was the number of cards got out of hand. Written lists get out of hand, too.

    Re-writing info isn’t always a bad thing. Copying a task to the new list week after week because it still isn’t done can encourage me to get it off the list (by either dropping it, or just doing it). It also helps me rethink and reorganize the list. But, that’s in a small amount, otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

    Moving finished tasks to another pile just doesn’t seem as satisfying as making a mark on something.

    Just thought of an idea for the kids’ chores. I don’t care which kid does them. I could create a set of chore cards, and each kid takes turns drawing them, either at random or looking at them. They could also trade them with each other. “I’ll trade you tonight’s dishes for two breakfasts.” Hmmmm, must think more about it.

    I agree with listing the three most important things to do each day. I usually look over the entire week before choosing which three to do each day. Taking an hour off is much more relaxing when I know for certain I won’t have to rush and catch up later. It’s enough of a difference that it feels like a reward.

  13. CricketB 14 years ago

    Another point: My husband and I have a rule that, when we feel out of balance or grumpy, we take the first thing that calls to us, and do it. If nothing calls, take the first thing we won’t mess up. Usually, it’s something that has been niggling for ages. It keeps the grumpy person out of everyone else’s space. It often turns into “spending time with kid fixing the drywall.” Combine that with a bike-ride to the hardware store for more screws, and that’s points in three balance columns. But those extra points have to grow organically—if we try to get a kid who isn’t interested to help, or look for a task that doesn’t need the car to carry drywall, we get more frustrated, and nothing gets done.

  14. john ballantrae 14 years ago

    Picking the top three tasks per day seems a common and normal approach.

    I think there would be a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement if one were to choose 4 tasks and not 3. You are building on a square, so to speak, and not a triangle. There’s more that could be said about this, but I don’t want to push my luck.

  15. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    Given your tendency to have multiple projects going at once, I would also make sure to have some way to bundle index cards into some coherent format and have a “back burner” designation—maybe a file box or a drawer.  Then when you realize that something you did 2 years ago is perfect for what you want to do now (like, say index card task lists), you can pull those projects out and have that foundation on which to build.

  16. Rose 14 years ago

    I always like the pictures of your handwriting/doodles like in your (new) banner. The solitaire layout with the reminders in color are visually motivating.

    I use index cards by making lists on them. Putting one action item on each card will now be the way to go, and using color!

    Like the idea of using as business cards.
    Just got a ream of bristol paper (for paper craft) so can make my own!
    I have a 2$ index card carrier with pen loop.
    See here;

    The best part is finding old cards and realizing you did half of the items on them! Also seeing that some items turned out not to be as important as you thought, and everything turned out OK.

  17. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Lynn: Ooo, are the cards from Levenger nice? I should pick some up to see what the quality is like.

    Daryl: That’s pretty sweet! I am starting to get a vision for a custom card case :-)

    Michael: That’s an interesting idea with the biz-card trading game. You could probably develop something that was aligned along business practices, and it could be a great way of training people to THINK like professionals in a competitive business. Hmmm!

    Raghuveer: I’d be curious to know if most readers of this blog really ARE obssessed with process and tools and productivity and execution. That might be what draws people here initially. But I like to think that right brainers are the ones who stick around because they like the atmosphere. My process designs are almost always people-centric because they are ultimately the operators and users. Now that I think about it, even my programming is people-centric; I design protocols and classes to reflect how people think more than how they are executed. Hmm!

    Darren: Check in and let us know :-)

    Katrina: Those are thought-provoking and soulful posts on balance, girl! I have a theory about balance versus # of tasks versus cognitive processing limits based on your posts…will write it up as a response!

    John: Thanks again for your work! We should have a summit :-)

    Stephen Smith: I love it how phrases can jump out at us and suddenly crystalize a whole course of thinking and action! What are you using for tracking tasks now?

    Aaron: Yes, those systems are cool! The one you linked reminds me of the Magnatag card systems.

    Grady: I’ll have to find some agile/scrumm practitioners and sit in on them and watch the process. The task board sounds really neat. I was just thinking that there’s a way to boil down projects and tasks versus todos, and your mention of the BLOCKER card suggests a methodology.

    Carsten: LOL, no, I’m not getting married. A friend of mine is supposed to do some ring casting (she is a jewelrymaker) and I am supposed to bug her about it.

    CricketB: I agree that rewriting is not a bad thing; the act of doing so is a focusing tool. The cards might be more useful for longer-term thinking. I have this cool kid’s task board (I haven’t yet posted a picture of it, need a damn polarizing filter) that reminds me of the chores you’re talking about. I love your out of balance compensation rule, btw. That’s great.

    John: Hm, the idea of the four points versus three is an interesting idea from the point of geometry. What I like about triads is that they are inherently stable in all stages of construction, whereas quads carry with them a need for completion to be stable. Unless…well, that would be an interesting discussion :-)

    Amanda: I was thinking about “bundled cards” as I was reading through all the comments here, and how they could be used as longer-term storage. It’s sort of like the Pickle Jar, in a more manipulable format. I suspect that cards should just be tossed into a dungeon or trashed so we don’t have to think about them again…but that’s just my mood at the moment.

    Rose: Thanks, glad you like pictures of handwriting! I’ll have to look out for that index card carrier. This has been on my mind a lot more than it should :-)

  18. Stephen Smith 14 years ago

    I have created a system that works pretty well for me, a notebook and list system, which you can see here in a short video http://stephenpsmith.com/blog/2009/04/working-the-list/

    As long as I am disciplined about my Weekly Reviews and daily MITs it is functional. This past week, however, has been about putting out fires – working on the urgent rather than the important. Next week will be a time for re-grouping and “thinking about thinking”.

  19. Perry 14 years ago

    It was quite funny to read this article and the comments as it made me adware to the fact that I am already using index cards for all sorts of purposes.

    Whether it is as a grocery list, a gift list, a task list etc.

    So seeing David (and all other readers) looking at it from a design/system/function aspect is quite nice. I am very much excited to see what it will lead to.

    Lately I have been developing a habit into summarizing books back to speakers’notes on index cards format. With the idea of laminating them and using them as daily memory training tools by picking up one card a day. Thus actively transferring the knowledge from short term to long term memory (or so I hope :-)

    I find MS Word being quite a designing hassle as you will need to work with table structure. A nightmare in layout perspective. If anyone has any tips I would be very open to it/tem.

  20. CricketB 14 years ago

    Perry, for Word to print on index card sized forms, you have a few options.

    On the Print dialog, maybe under “options” or “advanced”, there is Print Multiple, or something like that. You can print 2, 4, 9, and other multiples on one sheet, then cut it. Four on one is close enough to index cards.

    Also, if you go to the Printer Options (beside where you select which printer), most printers allow for multiple pages on one sheet.

    Just type in the info, and format each “card” as a regular 8.5×11 page. It will do page breaks for you, then print four pages on one sheet. You may want to reduce the margins and boost the font to survive the shrinking.

  21. Brian 14 years ago

    I don’t know if this be of an interest… and was recently learned about Action Method… Action Method has a nice system that works with Apple iPhone, or online, or even on piece of paper… I find that these stuff very useful for my situation. Pretty nice stuff…

    Action Method link: http://www.actionmethod.com/