The new card-based productivity system

I have a new productivity system. Well, actually – it’s a “supplementary” productivity system. I already have a fairly sophisticated productivity system in place, and by most people’s standards, I think I tend to be reasonably efficient.

I get a lot done. My email inbox is empty each day. As far as I can tell, there are no (or hardly any) loose threads or unfulfilled promises.

I don’t trust my brain to get me to do things – to remember all the stuff I’m meant to be doing and at the right time. That’s why I need the system. The system is basically bulletproof – or as near as possible. But that doesn’t mean the system couldn’t be better, or as a matter of fact… a bit more fun.

The current system

I use a piece of software called Things. It’s basically a sophisticated project-based to-do list system. I’m a pretty close follower of the GTD system, which is a complete lifesaver as a time management / productivity tool. I’m also an advocate of the Pomodoro Technique and I still use that 30-day calendar thing I invented.

I like to focus, though. One thing at a time.

Most days, generally speaking, I’m working on one or maybe two main projects. A large bit of writing, for instance, or a block of reading or research. I tend to do this in 25 minute ‘pomodoros’ (bursts of focused activity) and take 5 minute breaks in between. That’s the core of the Pomodoro Technique and it works well as part of the wider GTD approach.

The email checking, RSS feeds and other stuff is scheduled around these blocks – and of course, there are longer breaks throughout the day as well for this sort of thing.

But sometimes I get bored or (more often) distracted. I can’t quite face going back for another ‘pomodoro’ – and so I procrastinate by doing something else entirely. And usually, that thing isn’t something all that productive.

So I came up with the card system.

The card system

As you can see above (and the title kind of gives it away) the card system is just a pile of cards. I picked up some blank cards from the local stationery shop for 85p and I have written on them. Each card contains something that I could do that would be considered at least vaguely productive.

However, some of the tasks are difficult or menial tasks that need to be done – and some of them are downright pleasant. There are even some rest and reward cards in the pack. Sometimes it will say ‘vacuum the house’, other times it might say ‘do the filing’, ‘write a blog post for Radio in the Digital Age‘ or ‘sit down and have a cup of tea’.

I’ve also stacked the deck with all of the other things from my ‘To Do’ and ‘Project’ lists… so I might actually even end up with the task I was trying to avoid in the first place – or I could get 25 minutes to chip away at something else that I had scheduled for another day.

There may actually be more than one “nap” card in that pack, if I’m honest. But that’s all about the productivity, you understand.


At the start of each ‘pomodoro’, I have the choice of carrying on with the task at hand, or choosing a card at random. The deal is I must do whatever is on that card before returning to do the next pomodoro on my day’s main task. And no more than 1 in 3 pomodoros can be replaced with a card (or possibly 1 in 2 or 1 in 4, depending what I decide each day).

The task on the card need not actually fill 25 minutes (though that’s the maximum I can spend on it), but it’s instead of doing a pomodoro – so I do that thing, take the five minute break and then go back to doing the regular pomodoros I had planned.

In other words, this is a game I play in order to get more stuff done than I ordinarily would have.

Going for the high score

This is only my second day of doing it, of course, but I’m liking it so far. I’ve had to do a bit of tidying up, but I also got to make an iTunes playlist I’d been meaning to make and I also wrote a short 1-pager that’s not due for at least a month. Also, happily, I got to write this blog post. It was on the cards…

Plus, I actually did more work on the main thing I was writing – simply because I wanted to get a couple of blocks of writing out of the way so I could choose a card.

Once I work out how to score points, unlock achievements, gain badges and progress up levels, this will be amazing.