How I Use Index Cards

I watched a lot of MacGyver growing up. I realize he’s somewhat a cultural metaphor to most people these days, and sometimes the butt of home improvement jokes, but the man always managed to get the job done. As a writer, and specifically a fiction writer, I subscribe to the notion that heroic characters need to exhibit traits that we wish we possessed ourselves. And with MacGyver, it was all about getting things done.

For years I carried a red Swiss Army knife in my front left pocket. Just like MacGyver. And as a youth, that was a very handy thing to have around. Open boxes, cut rope, whittle a stick into a marshmallow-roasting implement; I think you get the point. But these days I carry something different in my pocket: index cards.

Sexy, right? Imagine the heads I turn when I pull out a small stack of dog-eared index cards in a coffee shop. They must think I’m the next Don Draper. But I manage to stave off the celebrity by reminding myself of how incredibly practical it is to carry index cards around with me. And I thought I would share those benefits with you as well.

Instant Capture I was in a meeting this week, and much like many meetings, there were assignments sprinkled across the table over the course of the 90 minutes we were there. A task would come up in discussion and one of the attendees would say, “I’ll take care of that.” But they wouldn’t write it down. None of them. Each and every task mentioned went unrecorded. And though it would be difficult to do this, I would like to see what percentage of those assignments were actually completed. Because I doubt all of them were even remembered.

The main reason I carry index cards with me is to capture thoughts, ideas and tasks that will need to be done. And so I was the odd man out in that meeting. I had a single index card in front of me, and a pen, and as tasks fell to my responsibility, or ideas for something else I needed to do occurred to me, I would write them down.

When I’m back at my desk, the next step is simple. I open up the task management app of my choice (I use the Mac app OmniFocus, but any todo app will suffice) and enter all the items into the system. Personally, I assign dates to complete tasks for 100% of the items I enter, but your style may vary. The important thing is to treat the cards as a capture point, and then transfer their contents to the Greater System.

Take Aways Nothing is worse than having a meeting with someone, assigning them a task, and having them forget. You can manage your own forgetfulness with the section above, but other people are seemingly out of your control. Unless you carry index cards with you.

I just wrapped up a meeting with a friend (literally, between writing this section and the last) who is starting up her own greeting card business. Small scale, very personal, and very exciting to talk about. Except she has nearly no idea how to build the foundation of the actual business. Where will she keep the money she earns? How will she ship the product? How can she prepare for taxes next year? All of these things were “OMG moments” when I brought them up. They aren’t the sexy part of building a business, but they are just as essential as the product itself.

So, because of her innocent cluelessness, she needed my help. And to help her, I had an index card in front of me for our meeting (noticing a pattern yet?). And rather than writing out what I need to do, I wrote out what she needed to do. I even gave every item a little check-box so she can work through the list like it was her own. And now she can’t forget the important pieces of our conversation, because I’ve written them down and handed them to her on a small card.

I do this in larger settings, too. If I’m in a room full of people and someone asks me for a resource, I will literally take out a card, write down the information and then hand it to them. People forget stuff. They lose things less often. I’m hedging my bets by putting something into their hands. An app recommendation, a book I spoke about or a website that could help them transform their business; I write it all down and give them the card.

Interactive Book Marks Another great use for index cards is as a book mark to a specific book. Especially cards like the Frictionless Capture Cards, where there are some simple fields at the top to write things like the title of the book and the year or author. The cards make a great place to write notes or page numbers that you want to reference at a later time.

When you have completed reading the book, just tape the card to the inside of the front cover. This way, the next time you are reminded of a passage in that book, you can check the card first, rather than randomly flipping through the pages in hopes that you will find the information you were looking for.

Get Some Cards Index cards are great to have around. Keep them on your desk in a little stack or box. Keep 10–20 in your back pocket or your car. Set some beside your bed for those moments when the Idea Fairy throws a brick through the window of your mind. Whatever use you can think of, index cards can meet the challenge.

Life is full of friction. Find tools that help you remove it.