A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me I’ve scribbled on and recycled about 30,000 3×5 task cards since starting at Atomic in 2001. They’re such a pervasive tool here that we’ve got our own branded variety littering both offices. Their use varies from project to project, month-to-month, but they’ve never gone away, even though we’ve used (and written) software systems that obviate them. Something makes us want to keep using these little, physical tokens of work.
I think it’s because they make us happy. I got that idea a few weeks ago when I taught my 4th-grade son how to use them to manage a troubling homework assignment. Not only did they help us turn around an emotionally difficult Sunday afternoon, he actually had fun doing it.
Work & Fear
My son was struggling to complete his reading homework one Sunday afternoon. He knew it would take him the rest of the day, and that alone was enough to frustrate him into immobility. When I sat down with him and explained that he was quite capable of doing any of the assigned tasks, he began enumerating his entire workload in a panic-stricken voice and trailed off with, “I’m never going to finish!” As we talked through the task at hand, he would consistently get upset and return to the litany of all the work he had in front of him. I knew there was a lot of work, so I didn’t want to give him false hope by assuring him that he’d be done soon. Instead, I tried to calm him down and restore his motivation.
I tried to clear the dam by reminding him that he knew the material well, and had not only completed similar assignments before, he was actually pretty good at this kind of work. I asked leading questions about specific details, to distract him from the overall workload. I set timers on my phone to create timeboxes. I reminded him that he’d have more time to play when it was all over. (I even tried using my Dad voice to command him to calm down and focus on the work, but quickly abandoned that line of attack.) I was sure that if I could restore his confidence in his ability to do the work, he would calm down and let the work flow. But I was wrong.
Then it hit me: he wasn’t doubting his abilities, he simply couldn’t function. He knew he wasn’t going to finish, and the fear and shame of it had driven him to extreme frustration. He was caught in an emotional loop that prevented him completing even the simplest task, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Making Molehills out of a Mountain
I asked him: “What if problem 3 was the only thing you had to do today? I think you’d finish in 5 minutes. Do you agree?”
It took a few minutes to move into theoretical space, but I got him to recognize that problem 3 didn’t seem so hard by itself. I sent him away from the table to get a snack and grabbed some 3×5 cards from my bag to make a Kanban board. I started breaking the homework assignment into 10 or so little bits like “Do problem 3,” “Select a topic for problem 4,” “Write your first reflection for problem 4,” “Finish reflections 2 and 3 for problem 4.” Using poster putty, I created columns for “TODO” and “DONE” on the wall and stuck all the cards under “TODO.”
When my son returned, I told him to make his own selection from the “TODO” column and stick it to the table in front of him, and to think only about that card. When he’d completed exactly that task, he could stick it back on the wall under “DONE.” As soon as three cards made it into the “DONE” column, he could take a fifteen minute break.
Then I left the room. For twenty minutes, I heard none of the groaning or sighing from the work room that had drawn me there in the first place. Instead, he emerged from the work room, poured a glass of water, set a 15-minute timer on the microwave, and sat down to play a video game. The timer went off, he went back to work, and soon the day’s work was done… without further intervention.
The change seemed magical: we’d spent 2 or 3 hours arguing and struggling over this homework assignment, but once the mini-kanban went up on the wall, the work was neatly finished in an hour and a half.
And after that video game break, I noticed something amazing: he smiled as he returned to the work table and pulled the next task down from the wall. I was mystified.
Task Cards Make Me Happy
But why be surprised at all? I’ve completed multi-month software projects from start to finish using little more than task cards and push-pins. (And to be fair, in my son’s case, I “cheated” by having expert task decomposition skills; though I didn’t do any of the actual work for him, I gave him neatly bounded tasks designed to build momentum. I set him up to win.) But in all the years I’ve used cards and columns to manage my work, I’ve overlooked their basic psychological benefit: they make me happy.
I think “happy” is a fine word for the positive emotional state that I arrive at after completing a well-defined task, secure in the knowledge that each new task will be as concrete and meaningful as the last. As a word, it nicely contrasts “unhappy,” “frustrated,” or “panicked,” which is how I feel when I’m stuck on a problem, stressed and fearful, knowing that I’m marching toward certain failure. “Happy” is certainly how I feel when I find a way out of that awful situation. Upon reflection, it makes perfect sense that my son was smiling as he returned to finish his small mountain of homework: he knew what had to be done, and knew he was going to win!
This little experience has made me re-think what I already thought I knew about one of our core software development practices, which we’ve applied from the highest levels of product management down through the debugging of firmware and device drivers. Watching my 4th grader lift himself out of the depths of Homework Desperation on a Sunday afternoon has shown me that these little cards of happiness can help anyone overcome a big challenge.