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Deep Habits: Use Index Cards to Accelerate Important Projects

January 18th, 2015 · 26 comments

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The Difficulty of Deep Projects

For the sake of discussion, let’s define a deep project to be a pursuit that leverages your expertise to generate a large amount of new value. These projects require deep work to complete, are rarely urgent and often self-initiated (e.g., no one is demanding their immediate completion), and have the potential to significantly transform or advance your professional life.

Examples of deep projects include writing a highly original book, creating an irresistible piece of software, or introducing a new academic theory.

The problem with deep projects is that they’re complicated and really hard. Almost any other activity will seem more appealing in the moment — so they keep getting pushed aside as something that you’ll “get to soon.”

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a habit that seems to help with this challenge.

I call it, the depth deck…

The Depth Deck

The idea behind the depth deck is simple. Identify one or two deep projects that are important to your professional life.

For each project, identify one or two concrete next steps that:

  1. require deep work;
  2. are self-contained in the sense that they have a single focus and a clear criteria for when they’re completed.

You can vary the sizes of these steps. Perhaps some require only an hour or two of deep work, while others might require 10 to 15 hours. (If you think more time is needed, than you should probably break it down into smaller pieces.)

You can also vary between decidable and undecidable tasks. (I try to keep half my next steps decidable and half undecidable). If you select an undecidable task, however, you should integrate a time limit into your completion criteria (e.g., solve this proof or spend 15 deep hours on it: whichever comes first), as, by definition, you cannot force such efforts.

Next, record each next step on its own blank index card. Under its description — and this is important — write the date that you started it. Take this small stack of index cards, fasten them with a binder clip, and keep them with your work stuff at all times. (See the image above.)

This is your depth deck.

Now, going forward, whenever you put aside time for working on important, but non-urgent projects, focus your attention on one of the small number of steps in the deck. When you finish one of these steps, record on the card the date you finished it, add it to a completed pile, and create a new card to replace it.

Why it Works

There are three reasons why this simple habit helps counteract the difficulty of deep projects mentioned earlier.

  1. The first reason is clarity. As mentioned, deep projects are complicated and hard, so it’s easy for them to morph into an ambiguous, overwhelming mess. This is not a state that will generate much productivity. The depth deck cuts through this murkiness and produces a small number of concrete next step that can become the target for all your ambition-driven energy.
  2. The second reason is priority. The idea that should reduce your obligations to clear next steps is standard productivity practice. By pulling out a small number of next steps that affect projects of real significance, however, and then keeping them with you at all times in their own special deck, helps you maintain a sense of high priority for these high value pursuits, even as the rest of your time saturates in shallower minutia.
  3. The third reason is accountability.ย  Because you record the date in which you started on each next step, and you keep the depth deck with you, you’ll be constantly confronted with evidence about how much time you’re letting pass without taking action on something important to you. The fact that these next steps are relatively small plays an important role here. If, for example, on January 1, you added a card that said, “write a novel,” and three weeks go by without you doing much about it, this isn’t so distressing: a novel is a really big project that takes a long time. Three weeks is just a drop in the bucket for this project’s duration. On the other hand, if you have a small next step in your depth deck that reads, “write a back story on your five main characters,” and you let three weeks go by, you’ll be confronted with the reality that you couldn’t even scratch together a handful of hours for your project in the last 21 days! This is more embarrassing. Avoiding such internal embarrassment will spur your mind into action.
  4. (A bonus benefit of this strategy is the pile of completed cards it generates. Periodically browsing these cards can provide inspiration — e.g., transform your self-image into someone who does get deep work done — as well as important knowledge — e.g., if you notice tasks of a certain type take a long time to complete, you might better schedule time for them.)

To summarize, the depth deck is a relatively minor hack. There are many others like it that might help you advance in the battle to consistently work deeply on important things. The bigger point here, therefore, is the recognition that to master the art of deep work you need to continually muster every advantage available.

26 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Use Index Cards to Accelerate Important Projects

  1. Sara says:

    Hello, Cal!

    Great post as usual! I am thinking to use this method for my CPA auditing exam. I am having a hard time focusing. I find this process of preparing for a daunting exam is more of an internal battle and I am looking for all types of sources that can help me to get engaged in the process.

    Thank you again.

  2. Mark says:

    Hi Cal. Long time blog reader. Heard your interview at AOM and decided to get your book “So Good They Cant Ignore You”. Read it in one sitting and its in my essential books for 20 somethings. I was reading it and just kept saying YES, EXACTLY! Put to words my philosophy.

    Anyway, finishing up medical school and getting to do research means less memorization and “simple” problem solving and more time contemplating and interpretting real data on that bleeding edge of the known/unknown (can’t remember what you called it in the book)

    I keep an Evernote note with a running list of Next items, theories, and extended thoughts. Basically, when I am working on a hypothesis, there is a basic process that needs to happen with data collection, organization, and interpretation. But sometimes, I need to get deep on a topic for some reason.

    For instance, we were analyzing angles of bent rods that were obtained from different image modalities. Comparing meant I had to utilize image capture and analysis using Matlab, which I hadn’t used in a decade. I would work out the “theory” and then spend time programming. Then trouble shoot, adjust my theory, etc.

    Important, I would “disprove” my theory when it is wrong, instead of deleting it. That way, when I had a new theory, I would check to make sure I didn’t already try it. Keeping failed programs and linking to them was super important when I was only able to work a few deep session at a time.

    I also developed “extended thoughts” that were generated while reading/working. I have 3 projects that I have developed from my original because I had an unanswered question. I like to work hard on the task at hand, write down these extended thoughts, then do a bit of research at the end of my session, when I’m kind of burnt out. 90% of the time the answer is already out there, and I can add it to my background knowledge. Sometimes though, I’m pretty sure no one has answered my question, and I can add that entire project to my growing list.

    Coming back to your book, I can only do that now that I’ve found a specialty I want to do, and have spent 100s hours on a niche topic. With all that work, my project and the 3 it’s spurrned, are carving out an area I want to expand as a career. It has taken 4 years of biophysics undergrad to understand the field I am working in, another 4 medicine to find the questions that are still unanswered, and it will take another 6 to train as the surgeon that will collect the experience and patient load to realize more problems worth solving. I am passionate about a subject that I didnt know I didn’t know about 8 years ago starting undergrad, 6 years ago finally choosing a real major, 5 years ago choosing medicine, or even 1 year ago choosing a specialty. I always love the quote by Rowe on that topic:

    “Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why Iโ€™m more inclined to say, ‘Donโ€™t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.'”

    1. Phalguni says:

      Mark, I think you would love to read Barbara Oakley’s book “A mind for numbers.” She talks about focus and diffuse modes of thinking and how alternating between the two helps you solve difficult problems.

    2. Joy Casey says:

      Mark, your post was very interesting. I particularly like the quote you ended with.

      BTW, though I am not in the medical field, I am an avid and eclectic reader. I read a lot of history, biographies, science…and medical history and the latest greatest in the medical and technical world.

      A book I read recently was called, “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.” It was a really fascinating story about a dedicated coroner and his toxicologist who pioneered the field of forensic medicine so that their findings could hold up in court. Before this field was trailblazed, people were being poisoned right and left…and were not getting caught. The founder of Rice University, for example, was chloroformed.

      Anyway, it is so interesting to know what came before (not so long ago) and the great new areas that are being pioneered.

      Good luck to you. BTW, I adore and use Evernote, too.
      Joy

    3. Joy Casey says:

      P.S. Mark, I am saving the quote you included at the end of your post to my evernote album on quotes. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Joy

  3. Very nice idea/system. I am used to using notecards for listing my top daily priorities/actions so this should be a logical extension of that. I will try this, thanks for the tip!

  4. Eva says:

    Thanks, I’m going to use this idea for my business.

  5. Tushar says:

    Hello Cal,

    Great post! This seems so simple and so feasible. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Kirill says:

    Hi, Cal.

    This blog is great at addressing optimization of creative processes.

    But any creative process (and any activity in general) ought to have a purpose. So what about figuring out, what to pursue or to be driven by? On scale of whole life. It may even seem strange to say ‘figuring out’ here. Or not?

    No passion exists in a human being by default, does it? It may arise though from a dramatically strong external impact (a person might be impressed by something and hence become focused on a humanity-wide problem for a lifetime) or just stumbled upon while pursuing some hedonist (well, virtually any activity may be considered hedonist) or utterly unconscious aims and then reinforced by sudden success (like sudden discoveries in science or inventions in engineering).

    What are the other ways?
    In case none of the above happened, how does one get to feel this purpose?

    Anyway, after twenty (30, 40…) years of deep work, looking back and seeing the pile of done index cards, where do you get? What are you going to think about this pile? A financial clerk may wish to hang himself looking back on how he spent last decades. But so can a researcher without a purpose, can’t he?

    So what is your view of these problems?

  7. Laszlo says:

    Hey Cal, apart from the decidable-undecidable task management (which is a great insight btw), what’s the difference between this system and a simple to-do list solution?

  8. Mariana says:

    Mark, love the quote, thanks !

  9. abi manesh says:

    awesome post ! Thanks

  10. India says:

    I’ve read and re-read this post probably more times than I should, and I have to confess I just don’t get what the innovation or utility is. I have respect for Cal’s work, but what am I missing?

    “1. Identify one or two deep projects that are important to your professional life.
    2. For each project, identify one or two concrete next steps that require deep thought or are self contained
    3. Record each next step on its own blank index card. Under its description…write the date that you started it.
    4. Take this small stack of index cards, fasten them with a binder clip, and keep them with your work stuff at all times.
    This is your depth deck.”

  11. Samar says:

    Great post . I am using it for quantam mechanics

  12. hester says:

    Hi Cal! Great post! Will you do a cheat sheet for this like a practical application? Thanks! To your brilliance!

  13. OPGWS says:

    Hi…Cal..Really I appreciates you for your intelligence and thanks for sharing.

  14. Danielle says:

    Thank you, Cal! You’re right, a lot of small but concrete steps can solve even really deep project. From my experience using different tech tools also can help. For example, I use https://casual.pm/ (helps you manage projects as visual workflows) – it really increased my results, because I can prioritize my tasks and track dependencies between them. It’s simple & useful.

  15. marty says:

    This system is not something I have heard of! But I love it ! I am going into grad soon and I will need all the help I can get

  16. Wil says:

    I have a hard time scheduling and planning out my day. This sounds like a great idea to try.

  17. Reid says:

    Just finished the audiobook Scrum. Similar method that may assist thinking on this topic for you and readers who enjoyed this method. I will be integrating the index method for our nonprofit golf tourney fundraiser. Thank you.

  18. Logan says:

    I really like the idea of the method. Its simple and not hard to understand and a good way to help people apply themselves in a more straight direction on their projects. I’m going to try it out for a several months and see how if it changes my experience for big projects.

  19. Dhayashni Candasamy says:

    Fascinating and age-old technique. I think the mind becomes stressed when faced with a mammoth, seemingly impossible task, and we feel the urge to procrastinate. this is easy with self-regulated projects, such as writing a book. the objective may never be achieved because of the anxiety involved. tasks always seem more laborious before one has started as well. Splitting a large task, into smaller, seemingly easy tasks makes us more motivated to start. this is the most important step. after that, one keeps going, as the satisfaction grows with the height of the “done” pile.

  20. Zach says:

    Really cool post. Will start implementing these tips. By the way: the singular of “criteria” is “criterion”!

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