The Indescribable Impact Of The Index Card

I’m in the process of writing a book on developing student leaders. While that really sounds cool and admirable – I quickly realized that one doesn’t just sit down and write a book (at least this someone – me! – doesn’t do it that way).

I have a wide range of thoughts, quotes, and ideas that I need to organize. I feel like I’ve forgotten at least half of the ideas because I didn’t have a good system to capture them. It’s amazing all of the good stuff one can think up in the shower and forget by the time you’re done toweling off.

While there are a number of great tools and resources out there for idea capturing (Evernote, moleskine notebooks, the back of one’s hand), I’m still impressed with the simplicity and beauty of the index card.

The index card was invented (yes…invented!) by the Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) – the father of modern taxonomy. He has been described as a “pioneer of information retrieval”.  Science Daily states…

Linnaeus had to manage a conflict between the need to bring information into a fixed order for purposes of later retrieval, and the need to permanently integrate new information into that order, says Mueller-Wille. “His solution to this dilemma was to keep information on particular subjects on separate sheets, which could be complemented and reshuffled,” he says.

Towards the end of his career, in the mid-1760s, Linnaeus took this further, inventing a paper tool that has since become very common: index cards. While stored in some fixed, conventional order, often alphabetically, index cards could be retrieved and shuffled around at will to update and compare information at any time.

Thank you Carl.

There’s all kinds of things you can do with an index card to organize your life a little better: Write a list, capture an idea, doodle, leave a short note, pass on a recipe, prioritize your options, organize your ideas, test yourself with terms/definitions, and on and on and on.

For the purpose of my book, I’m using index cards in the following way:

1. I have a stack of 100 or so index cards that I carry. They are secured with a rubber band.

2. When I think of an idea or concept I write it down on a card. If I have more than one idea or an idea needs to be broken down, I use more than one card.

3. I have surveyed different people and I write down their key ideas on index cards (noting where the idea came from and where I can find it online or in a book…we call this citing).

4. If I find a good quote – it goes on an index card (with citation).

5. Every few days I go through the cards and tag them with the chapter # I think they’ll fit in (I’ve already decided on my chapter titles/topic).

6. I’ll lay out each set of cards based on chapter to get an idea of the flow of ideas. This is easily rearranged.

7. I transfer the ideas from the cards that I believe belong in the book to Google Documents. I have a document for each chapter. I will expand and elaborate on the idea in the document.

8. Sometimes new ideas will emerge as I lay the index cards out on the floor and see the relationship between different ideas sitting next to each other.

9. I don’t throw away any cards. Bad ideas or ideas that I won’t use are simply crossed out but serve as reminders of what I don’t want to write about.

10. One thing I haven’t done but want to try is handing the deck of index cards to someone and having them pull out the ideas that seem most useful/meaningful to them. I think that would be great feedback.

What do you think? Is there something else I can do to make my system better. How have you found index cards helpful?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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