Not gamifying productivity and not a to-do list, by David R MacIver

Another cool idea on @drmaciver’s blog:

I chimed in in the comments as well.

Here’s my summary…

Productivity Deck, by David R MacIver

You have lots of ongoing projects and you want to make sure none of them starve. So here’s what you do.

Setup and basic rules

  1. Write each project on an index card.
  2. Create a time- (or TagTime-) based Beeminder goal for following this system.
  3. Every day you randomly select a card.
  4. Only the chosen project each day counts towards the Beeminder goal.

Rules for adding & removing cards

  1. The only way to reject today’s card and draw a new one is to rip it up and drop that project entirely.
  2. The only other way to remove a card is to choose not to put it back in the deck at the end of the day.
  3. No adding new cards until you’ve picked today’s card.

Clarifications & caveats

  1. If you’re legitimately blocked by something external, pick a new card.
  2. Planning new things to do for the project counts as work on the project.
  3. Work on other stuff is fine, it just doesn’t count towards the Beeminder goal.
  4. ADDED: Want a card to come up more often? Include multiple copies of it!

David says he likes the randomness. I’m still thinking about whether I prefer a non-random version like Mark Forster’s system. (One might think I have a randomness fetish with all the systems I’ve come up with that employ it – stochastic payments, this other forum post today, TagTime, Expectorant – but in all those cases the randomness achieves something specific. All else equal I prefer determinism.)


I can totally legitimately be accused of having a randomness fetish, and often am.

One feature of the random version that your deterministic suggestions don’t seem to capture very well is that I have a couple cards in the deck multiple times as projects I’d like to work on more than I currently do.


In human todo systems, most of what we think of as deterministic is just badly distributed randomness. :slight_smile:

I get great mileage out of a script that selects tasks at random. It seems to overcome the friction of choosing and getting started. (Inspired by Mark Forster’s random method.)

Also have had some success this year with physical cards. Bought a thousand blank playing cards for £15 on amazon, and equipped with Sharpie, was surprised at the difference being able to think kinesthetically makes for me.


Hmm. That’s an interesting idea. I’m finding the index cards a bit annoying to shuffle.

How are you finding them to write on? Does the ink tend to smudge?

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I just tried to smudge one, and failed.

There’s also value in having limited writing-space.

Hat tip to Steve Stark of Then Somehow for introducing me to the use of these cards.


Good to know, as I actually ended up ordering some earlier anyway. :slight_smile:

Thanks for the tip!

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I love systems like this. The freedom of not having to choose is very liberating. I made a similar system earlier this year for tasks during work-from-home conference calls. Keeps my body engaged with brainless stuff which makes me less likely to computer multi-task. My box of old business cards from my last job has worked in lieu of index or playing cards.


Yeah. I’m really enjoying that. The feeling of “What should I work on today? I don’t know! Let’s find out! Surprise me!” is actually lovely.

I do have a bunch of meta cards in there that force me to do a bit of choosing. e.g.

  • look through the deck and pick the card you want to do today (I’m not at all sure about this one and may end up removing it. I feel like never scanning the deck might be a good principle to uphold)
  • draw two more cards and pick one of them

As I think having it be completely choiceless would get frustrating over time, but this turns choosing into a treat rather than a chore.

I’ve also got a bunch of deck curation meta cards that are in effect choices. e.g.

  • write a new card and do that
  • write a new card, add it to the deck, draw a new card

But the big thing with these is that they are in some sense forcing me to make choices about how I want to spend my time, not so much what I want to do today, which I feel more able to make healthier choices about.

ETA: I decided “Never scan the deck” is in fact an excellent principle and have removed all cards that required me to scan the deck.


PS. I’m really looking forward to those blank playing cards arriving. The index cards are already getting unwieldy.

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I’ve been thinking about @dreev’s deterministic version of this and I think I’ve settled on a halfway house between the two that I like more than either on their own:

  1. New cards and the day’s task always go onto the bottom of the deck (possibly new cards go one from the bottom so the card on the bottom is always the last card done).
  2. Draws are always from the top of the deck.
  3. Some of the cards are “shuffle the deck and draw again” (currently two in a deck of 22 cards, so I’m likely to shuffle about every week or two)

It keeps the system mostly random but with a bias towards doing tasks you haven’t done that recently.

ETA: It does tempt me to look at tomorrow’s card though. I’m not sure how bad that would be.