I’ve tried Evernote and Scrivener, paper planners and Moleskines, and seemingly every app under the sun to capture my ideas. But I keep coming back to one simple, underrated tool to catch those half-baked ideas and thoughts that don’t seem to fit in anywhere else. The perfect place is the humble index card.
Sure, index cards have come and gone from our personal organisation systems. Fewer of us use them to, say, record family recipes, but index cards are still more than just the medium for making flash cards or noting key points before giving a speech. You might have heard of Getting Things Done (GTD), the system by which you write down every single to-do item so your brain doesn’t need to juggle too much information at once. An extension of this system is using index cards to track daily tasks and records, record quotes you like, or note something you learned. You stick ‘em all in a box, organised by date or type of note. It is fittingly called the Pile of Index Cards system.
Here’s where I go off the organisational rails. I use index cards for all my impractical notes. Reminders and to-dos go in my planner, research for a dedicated subject area goes in a Google Doc with a table of contents. But random, half-baked ideas go onto index cards. I keep them in a pile, but that pile is not organised. It’s a big jumbly mess.
I dabble in writing fiction and personal essays when I’m not slinging money hacks, and the idea of keeping a dedicated notebook for the questions, one-liners, or short scenes that bubble up during daily life is intimidating. How many notebooks do you have tucked away with the first three pages filled out, only to be abandoned? I hate when I do that.
So, I took away the pressure of the blank page. Instead, an index card. It’s a cosy space for my thoughts. If I’m feeling tidy, I use the lined side. Feeling scribbly? I flip it over to the blank side. You can write in any direction, I don’t care. Like GTD, it helps get the idea out of your head before your brain has the chance to forget about it.
When I need some writing inspiration, I pull out the stack of cards. Most of them are cryptic, in writing no one can decipher but me. One of them simply says, “keys cut.” Two words. I know what it means, and with the short space of an index card, I don’t feel like I need to expand on the phrase on the remainder of a notebook page. I’ll get to it later. I’ll use it when I need it.
It’s a bit like the project research process Twyla Tharp explained in her book, The Creative Habit. You start a new box for each project and all the materials, whether newspaper clippings, photographs, or notes, go into the box. You keep adding until the project has been completed, at which point you label the box and store it away.
I thought I was just a Twyla-inspired oddball with my stack of index cards until I learned about comedian Phyllis Diller’s gag file. It’s a 48-drawer card catalogue, each one packed with decades of her jokes organised by category — about 40,000 jokes! Joke files aren’t uncommon for comedians, but for me, it was the epiphany I needed to embrace my index cards. Diller owned her method. It’s time to own mine, no matter how messy it may seem to others.
The organisational system that works best is the system that works for you. You can take inspiration from others and test out their methods, but you might eventually find you don’t need anyone else to show you the way.
Stress and anxiety never fully disappear from your life; they only move from target to target. But dealing with your next worry can be easier if you reflect on your past worries. Reviewing old worries gives you perspective, shows you what matters in the long run, and reminds you of challenges overcome or simply avoided.