The Tarot system of tactical time-management


I am recently retired.

For many years now the list of things I want to do has far outstripped the time I have available (you too?). Retirement alleviates this situation but by no means eliminates it.

I've also long been interested in "time management," both for practical, selfish reasons and as a theoretical concept. 

In recent months I have been using a new system I developed to help me prioritize my time. I started doing this before retirement. More available time allows the system more room to play but I found it equally useful when free time was scarce. I only wish I had figured this out years ago.

Because the system uses index cards, I call it the Tarot method as a catchy name. Actual Tarot cards are not used.

This system stands on the shoulders of the giants--or at least the fat people--who went before me. Some important perspective can be gleaned from the Eisenhower Matrix. You can visualize this matrix as a sheet of paper divided into half both vertically and horizontally, thus with four quadrants. Each of your obligations goes into one of the four quadrants. 

The left half of the page is for obligations with high urgency--that need to be done soon--and the right half is for obligations with low urgency. Examples: cooking today's dinner is high urgency, since it needs to be done today; starting an exercise program is low urgency, since in the long run it makes little difference whether you start today, tomorrow, next week, or even next month.  

The upper half of the page is for obligations with high importance--feeding the baby, while the lower half is for obligations with low importance--rearranging your sock drawer. (Caveat: what is important or unimportant often depends on your own subjective priorities.)

So the four quadrants we could describe as HIHU (High Importance, High Urgency), HILU (High Importance, Low Urgency), LIHU (Low Importance, High Urgency), and LILU (Low Importance, Low Urgency). The problem many of us have (as Eisenhower described it) is that LIHU obligations tend to take attention away from HILU obligations, which are all too easy to postpone until tomorrow. Generally HIHU obligations get done, and presumably it's ok to ignore LILU obligations altogether (though I'm not sure I agree with this--subject for a future post). The Eisenhower matrix is not really a method so much as a way of looking at things.

(One can refine this matrix by allowing more than two columns or two rows--although understanding the concept might be more important than actually writing down the matrix.)

One of the major benefits of the Tarot system is ensuring that low-urgency obligations are not starved for attention--especially the high-importance ones.

The second pre-existing building block for the Tarot system is the Pomodoro Technique. This is a particular system of timeboxing, based on units of 25 minutes. 25 minutes seems to be a good length of time for maintaining focus on a given task. The standard Pomodoro Method consists of 25 minutes working, 5 minutes rest, 25 minutes working, 5 minutes rest, etc. There are many enhancements but I won't go into those here. A unit of 25 minutes spent on a single task is called a pomodoro. The Tarot method operates in units of pomodoros.

Step 1 of the Tarot method is listing out your priorities. Make a list of the activities you would like to be doing with some regularity. The list should not include anything that is non-negotiable for a given day--getting up and going to work, feeding the baby. You do these outside of the Tarot system. Limit the list to activities to be done in your negotiable time--that gray area between daily obligations and daily leisure time (everyone needs some leisure time).

Some examples of items on my own list (yeah really):

Studying Burmese;
Studying Cantonese;
Studying quantum mechanics (yeah, yeah, I like studying)
...etc... but also:
Playing chess;
Going through my CD collection; making sure I have ripped each one, and deciding whether to dispose of it;
Scanning documents;
Reading a book;
Writing this blog;
Shining my shoes;
...and so on. Currently my list has 35 items on it.

Step 2 of the Tarot method: for each activity on your list, decide what percentage of your negotiable time you would like to devote to that activity. Make this an even percentage--no fractions of a percent. The total percentages for everything should add up to 100%.

What if you have more than 100 items on your list? It could happen. Then you will have to make some tough choices. I suggest keeping a second list of things to work on at some future time. It's also possible to merge two extremely low-urgency items into one and assign that one a 1% priority.

Different items could have very different percentages, but no single item can be less than 1%.

Examples again: the largest percentage on my list is Cantonese, which is 16%. At the 1% level are things like shining shoes and scanning documents.

Step 3 of the Tarot method. Now the cards come into play. Get a stack of 100 index cards. For each item on the list, write that item on the number of cards equal to the percentage given to that particular item. Each card gets just one item. So in my case, "Cantonese" gets written on 16 different cards, while "shine shoes" gets written just one card. Now I have a deck of 100 index cards, each with a single task.

Shuffle the deck well. (It's possible to mix the cards more evenly than a random shuffle, but just shuffling is a lot easier.)

Thereafter you will use this deck to plan your negotiable time. When you have an available pomodoro of negotiable time, take the first card off the deck and do what it says. Move the card to the bottom of the deck. When that pomodoro is finished, take another card off the top and do what it says. Repeat whenever you have a pomodoro of negotiable time.

If you get a card and just can't deal with that particular task at the moment (maybe mowing the lawn, but it happens to be raining), take the second card of the deck and keep that card on top of the deck, so that you will deal with it at the earliest opportunity.

How long will it take you to get through the entire deck? That depends on your life and how much negotiable time you have available. For example, suppose you have an average of 2.5 hours of negotiable time each day--that translates into five pomodoros. So it would take about 20 days to get through the entire deck. Your very low-urgency (1%) tasks would get about one pomodoro of attention in those 20 days. But that is way better than zero.

As life evolves, you can let your deck of cards evolve with it. Take out some cards, add some new cards. It's a rewarding feeling when you wrap up a project and can pull those cards from the deck.

To be honest, there is nothing sacred about the number 100. You can add a card to the deck without subtracting one, so the deck now has 101 cards (or 102, 103...). Be aware, however, that there is always a trade-off. When you increase the number of cards in the deck, each pre-existing item loses a proportional amount of time. So I suggest being honest about these trade-offs by adding and subtracting at the same time.

One aspect of the Tarot system I have come to enjoy is as an approach to handling unpleasant but necessary tasks--like doing your taxes, for example. When the task first arises, I simply put some cards for it into the deck--enough to be sure the task will be completed by the deadline. (For example, doing my taxes takes about four pomodoros. Just a single card is enough to complete them by the deadline, since I go through the whole deck at least four times before then. And putting the card(s) in the deck, I immediately forget about that task for the time being. When the card comes to the top of the deck, I then spend a pomodoro on it and then forget about it again until the card comes around again.

The original Pomodoro method was extremely rigid as to schedules. Each pomodoro is 25 minutes, no more, no less. No interruptions allowed--an interruption immediately cancels that pomodoro. However, I have decided that allowing each pomodoro a little flexibility in reaction to circumstances makes it possible to fit more into a day--more precisely, to have more productive time in a day. So sometimes I keep working on a task for a few extra minutes if it means I can reach a milestone or even finish the project. If I get interrupted, I stop the timer and come back and restart it when I can. 

Emotionally I find that using the Tarot method has freed me from nagging anxiety or even guilt about the various low-urgency tasks that were so easy to neglect. All I have to do is make sure each of these gets at least one card in the deck and progress (may be slow but) is guaranteed.

The big lie. I have described the Tarot method in terms of a stack of index cards because I wanted the simplicity of the underlying principles to come through, and because I wanted to make it clear that the ideas do not depend on technology. However, I actually don't use cards; I use a spreadsheet that I have programmed to emulate the deck of cards. Actually, it's a little more powerful because I can in fact use fractions of a percent, and it distributes the tasks more evenly than pure randomness. But the card method described here works just fine and is easy to get started.

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