How The Index Card Method Improves Your Knowledge Gathering - THINKERS Notebook

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How The Index Card Method Improves Your Knowledge Gathering

"[Note cards] are building blocks, creating a foundation upon which the work can lay. They are the inches in the game of inches that is the sport of art or business.”

Ryan Holiday

In this third article on paper-based tools, we’re focusing on a note-taking method based on the humble index card.

Index cards are used as a means to classify and categorize information. They form the basis for a powerful system you can use to link, number and connect threads of knowledge. 

From book writing to presentations, research and project development, to connecting themes and ideas, an index card method helps order and structure our information clearly and simply.

The Origins of the Index Card

Carl Linnaeus created an index card system in the 18th Century to help organize the taxonomy for his groundbreaking book, System Naturae.

In the same century, French libraries started using playing cards for their catalogues, before index cards were adopted by libraries more widely in the 19th Century. And then Melvil Dewey took the library system to the next level.

In the 20th Century, Niklas Luhmann, a prominent sociologist and systems thinker, developed an index card system that he dubbed the Zettelkasten (aka “slip box”) containing 90,000 cards!
Luhmann defined his collection as a “combination of disorder and order, of clustering and unpredictable combinations emerging from ad hoc selection”. (Source: Sociologica)
Luhmann’s system is a complicated one. But you don’t need to follow such a detailed path to benefit from using an index card method. 


An Evolving Method

“Nearly every dollar I’ve made in my adult life was earned first on the back or front (or both) of an index card.”
~ Ryan Holiday

Index cards have been popularized for a modern-day audience by the author Ryan Holiday, who originally learned this method from his mentor Robert Greene, another respected author.
Greene and Holiday each have several successful books under their belts, written with the aid of index cards as their primary research and info storage tool. 
The key components of an effective index card method are: 

  • The information on the card is summarized or simplified.
  • Each card is linked back to a main thread or theme of information via a number, a tag, or a title (or a mix of all three).
The lovely thing about this method is that you can adapt it to suit your writing and research style, incorporating it into your existing note taking process. 
This means that you don’t actually need physical index cards to use the method. Instead, you can use separate pages in your notebook to represent each one.


Ways to Use the Index Card Method

In the last article about mind maps, I shared an example of how I fleshed out the page requirements of my new podcast website using a mind map in my THINKERS notebook

There are several plugins I need to add to the website to help it work. I can take this project a step further using an index card method to document the process and tasks related to these integrations, and then share the cards in the THINKERS App with my website developer.

First I created index overview pages for both the front end and back end integrations. 

Each listing on these two pages gets its own index page. The numbers in brackets next to each listed item indicate page numbers.

The index page example below on the left documents the steps we need to take for implementing the Spreaker podcast player on the website. 
The example below on the right lists the actions needed to integrate a Mailchimp signup form. 

These pages happen to be next to each other in my notebook, but you might find that other note taking intersperses your card pages. And that’s ok, because if you’re tagging and logging page numbers, you can still find them easily.
Uploading my mind map image to the THINKERS app and storing it in a  new folder.

See how the page numbers at the bottom correspond to those listed on the original overview pages? Similarly, I’ve added ‘(36)’ to the top of these pages, to link them back to the overview page.

Indexing and You

There are other ways you can use this method in a notebook, to help order and structure your projects and ideas:

  • Organize your thoughts and findings around a particular topic you’re researching.
  • Scope your long-form article, thesis or book, summarizing each section or chapter. 
  • Store important research data for key business metrics.
  • Create reference cards for your business presentation.
  • Track specific habits and goals for a week or month.
  • Keep note of specific birthdays and recurring events by month.
  • The key to using an index card method effectively lies in how you connect the separate ideas and information that you’re listing.
If you use the THINKERS Notebook and App for your index card method, you’re saving space and your index pages are more easily searchable with hashtags. By digitizing them, they also become usable in a variety of other scenarios.

Using an index card method is simple, easy and effective. It could help you write your next big novel, start a new habit, or save time and money.
What would you use it for?

This is the third article in a series by Mich Bondesio on paper-based tools that can help you start the year right, stay the course, and achieve your most important objectives. 

Read the other posts about bullet journaling and mind mapping.

Additional Reading

Not Sexy, but Powerful

“I wish I had some satisfying explanation about why notecards are so powerful, but I don't. I don't know why they are so integral (and yet used in such diverse ways) to so many fascinating people. It's not like we're ever taught how to use them.” 

Read: The Creative Power of the Index Card - Ryan Holiday (Forge)

A Short History of the Index Card

“The index card movement for libraries started in France during the French Revolution. As revolution raged in the streets, an evolution in library cataloging was also underway.”

Read: How the humble index card foresaw the internet (Popular Mechanics)

Don’t Break the Chain

“Building a habit is hard enough on its own. If there’s anything you can do to remove friction from the process while still keeping the benefits you should consider it.”

Read: X-Card Technique: How to Build Any Habit (Saeed Gatson)

About Mich Bondesio

Mich Bondesio is the founder of Growth Sessions and the host of the Creating Cadence podcast. She also publishes a bi-monthly newsletter called Cadence - Life & Work in Motion

Mich is a writer, coach and consultant with a focus on ‘Intentional Productivity’ and the Future of Work. Her aim is to help people develop more mindful approaches to work, to better support their digital wellbeing and creativity. 

Mich loves journaling and is a fan of paper-based productivity methods. Read last week's essay on bullet journaling here.