Expanding your working memory from 7 chunks to 700 chunks (or something) : An Alternative Getting Things Done (GTD) System

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Update: I’m already using this differently than I expected. I’m not using the Legend at all. Mini squares are getting two-letter mnemonics and sometimes I’m squeezing three- and four-letter glyphs into mini squares. I’ll have a more substantial update eventually. In any case, so far, I’m really liking this.

Update: Also, using a pencil allows for subtle shading and layering of information, even in tiny squares. Like, some background shading, a glyph, some tiny dark dots in a row, an arrow spanning multiple mini squares, a border–that’s a lot of information in less than one square centimeter!


(Downloadable pdfs and some sample code are at the end of this post.)

Metacognition being what it is, I daily bump up against the limits of my puny human brain. Besides just having better maps of the territory, I’m always looking for better tools and techniques to manage complexity. I want a better handle on fast-moving, ambiguous, high-value situations with lots of potential moving parts–my reach exceeds my grasp; reality is not serving me what I want on a platter, etc.

So here’s one thing I’m playing with. I intend for it to be a replacement for a GTD-type system, or a novel index into a GTD-type system. Right now, I’ll just blog about the bare bones. If I actually start using it in earnest, I may blog some concrete examples in the future.

First of all, this is all on paper, because that’s where I’m consistently happiest. You can of course do the below in spreadsheet software.

There are four parts to this system:

  1. The Grid
  2. The Index
  3. The Legend
  4. Pencil and Eraser

The Grid


Alright, so the grid is your dashboard. There are nine “major” squares, twenty-seven “minor” squares, and 729 “mini” squares. The mini squares are intended to represent individual items. The major and minor squares ease visual navigation.

When I’m using a GTD-type system, the number of tracked items (of all types) typically doesn’t go above 300, and is often much less than that. In using this system, I’m curious to see if I start naturally tracking more and if I bump up against 729 or if the grid at least starts to feel cluttered for hundreds of items. (I’m well aware of the benefits of work-in-progress constraints.)

(In addition to the letter coordinates. There is also a three-coordinate system: major-minor-mini that goes from 111 to 999.)

Ok, so what do you do with this grid? You make entries on it, usually a single letter or symbol, though I can imagine some other types of bounding and marking. Let’s say you have a bunch of projects and actions. You might have a bunch of P’s and A’s scattered across the grid, or clustered intuitively around projects or contexts.

The ideas is that the grid allows you to grasp everything, all at once.

But where does the detail live? That’s where the index comes in.

The Index


What you’re looking at above is one page from nine pages in total. Each page corresponds an entire major square. Each shaded or unshaded 3×3 block corresponds the nine minor squares that make up a major square. Each individual cell, of course, corresponds to one of the 81 mini squares that comprise a major square.

You can use these cells to explicate projects or actions in their entirety, e.g. if all that’s needed is a few words or a sentence. What you can also do is use it for one layer of indirection; you can index into a longer description, project support material, a paper file, an electronic document, etc. The index is how you bridge from the grid to whatever you need to bridge to. The shading and the one-to-one correspondences are intended to make it very fast and easy to get from the grid to the right cell and back again.

The Legend

dotsSo, back to the grid, maybe you’ve got P’s and A’s, but maybe you’ve got all sorts of symbols. What do they all mean? How will you organize them and keep track of them, so they’re meaningful, useful, and so they visually pop? That is done with the Legend. You might have P=Projects, A=Actions, Contexts, Waiting-Fors, Eventuallys, Somedays, Stuff, Do-This-Today, Project-Support, Freeform-planning…

It’s very helpful to think about types and meaning, clear, crisp edges, GTD-style, whenever possible, and it isn’t always possible. And I think it can be helpful to invent symbols and meanings on-the-fly, as you need them. I would record them in the legend, and eventually you’ll start to develop your own operational language, that fits your brain and situation.

I imagine color could be very helpful, though it adds considerable additional fiddly-ness (at least on paper). You could of course use erasable colored pencils, removable colored dots, stuff like that.

Pencil and Eraser

So, yeah, if you’re going to do this on paper, you need to be able to erase stuff, to update the grid and the index. I’m using a Pentel Twist-Erase GT, because it has lots of extendable eraser and the pointy metal tip retracts when not in use.


So, there you have it, everything in your life, all at once, at a glance. Let me know if you try this out, and I’ll update eventually…


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