Use Old School Index Cards to Find New Ideas

I’ve tried Evernote and Scrivener, paper planners and Moleskines, and it seems like all the apps under the sun to get my ideas out there. But I keep going back to one simple, underappreciated tool to capture those unfinished ideas and thoughts that don’t seem to work for others. The ideal spot is a humble index.

Of course, index cards have come and gone from our personal organizational systems. Few of us use them, for example, to write down family recipes, but index cards are still more than just a tool for making flash cards or recording key points before a show. You may have heard of Getting Things Done (GTD), the system by which you record every task so that your brain doesn’t have to manipulate too much information at the same time. An extension of this system is the use of index cards to keep track of daily tasks and records, record quotes that you like, or take notes of what you have learned. You put them all in a box, sorting by date or note type. This is aptly called the Index Card Stack system .

This is where I get off the organizational rails. I use index cards for all my impractical notes. Reminders and tasks are put in my planner, research on a specific subject area is put in Google Doc with a table of contents. But random, half-baked ideas end up on index cards. I keep them in a stack, but this stack is not organized. This is a big mess.

I dabble in writing fiction and personal essays when I’m not using money, and the idea of ​​keeping a special notebook for questions, witticisms, or short scenes that pops up in everyday life is daunting. How many notebooks have you hidden with the first three pages filled out to be thrown away? I hate it when I do this.

So I took the pressure off the blank page. Instead, an index card. This is a cozy place for my thoughts. If I feel tidy, I use a lining. Feel the scrawl? I turn it over to the clean side. You can write in any direction, I don’t care. Like GTD, it helps you get an idea out of your head before your brain can forget about it.

When I need a little writing inspiration, I pull out a stack of cards. Most of them are mysterious, in writing no one can decipher but me. One of them simply says, “The keys are cut off.” Two words. I know what that means, and with a little space in the account card, I don’t feel like I need to expand the phrase across the rest of the notebook page. I will come back to this later. I will use it when I need it.

This is a bit like the project research process that Twyla Tharp explained in her book The Creative Habit . You launch a new box for each project, and all the materials, whether they are newspaper clippings, photographs, or notes, are placed in the box. You keep adding until the project is complete, at which point you mark the box and store it.

I thought I was just a Twyla freak with my stack of index cards until I found out about the dossier of comedian Phyllis Diller . It’s a catalog of cards with 48 drawers, each filled with decades of her jokes, sorted into categories – about 40,000 jokes! Joke files are not uncommon for comedians, but for me it was the insight I needed to use my index cards. Diller owned her method. It’s time to own the mine, no matter how messy it may seem to others.

What works best is an organization system that works for you. You can take inspiration from others and try out their methods, but eventually you may find that you no longer need to show you the way.


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