I recently wrote a post about effective inbox management that came down to this: use as many inboxes as you need and can check reliably, and no more. One reader, “Erika in VA,” left a comment requesting more information on how I used index cards to capture information for my physical inboxes:
Loved the post, but could you explain what you normally write on the 3×5 cards? My typical physical in-box item is paper, so I’m having a hard time imagining how I might use 3×5 cards to help process “stuff.” Thanks!
Paper is Technology
Even as a technology-savvy person, I love paper and use it daily. In my experience, nothing is more flexible. Paper is pure potential. You can jot down a shopping list or solve a complex financial crisis with a pencil. In fact, paper is an example of technology, it’s “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry. Or machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.”
I’ve been using index cards for years. There’s always a stack on my desk. I use them for several purposes, but most frequently to capture ideas, tasks, reminders, figures and so on for later reference. Here’s how and why I love using index cards.
How many times have you said, “I’ve got to remember to …”? When I have those thoughts, I know that if I don’t write them down right then and there, I’ll forget them. I must capture this “stuff.” I use the term capture to mean to create a record of that idea, thought, or bit of information that I know I’ll review later. That last bit is crucially important.
When I’m away from my desk I’ll use a notebook and pen to capture stuff. I like Fieldnotes Brand notebooks and the Fisher Space Pen, but really anything you like will do. When I’m in the car, I use my iPhone and record voice memos with Apple’s Siri.
But when I’m at my desk, it’s all about the index cards.
There’s a simple inbox on my desk that I bought at Staples. It contains a stack of unused index cards, plus any that I’ve written on during the day. When I’m working and I think of something that I want to capture, I grab a blank card and write a few words down. Just enough to trigger my memory later. For example, there’s a card in my inbox as I write this that says, “Make ‘Tally’ next week’s app.” I know that means I must review an app called “Tally” for next week.
When I’m done writing, I toss the card back into the inbox. The whole capture process takes just a few seconds, and that’s important. The more time I spend off task, the harder it will be to get back on task. Since I can jot something down in just a few seconds, I can return to whatever I was doing prior to making that note easily.
At the end of the day, I process the index card notes I’ve made. This is simple to do. Just pick up each card, read it and decide:
- What is it?
- What must be done (if anything)?
The first question typically has three possible answers:
- An action step. Something that must be done, either by me or by someone else.
- Reference material. This is information that doesn’t require action but could be useful in the future. Move it to your long-term storage solution.
- Date- or time-specific to-do item, or what I’d call a “reminder.” Add to your calendar.
That’s it. I move through each card in turn, following these steps. It’s pretty simple, but there is one important rule: go in order. It’s tempting to pass over a card that’s boring or seemingly too-much-to-think-about-right-now. If you put it back once, unprocessed, you’re likely to pass over it a second time. And a third. So, you are not allowed to put a card back and you may not alter the order.
A Matter of Trust
Earlier I mentioned that I know I’ll review my index cards at the end of the day. In other words, I trust my system. This is critically important. When my brain knows, “Yeah, he’ll look at this later. I trust him,” it stops pestering me. Imagine that you promise yourself, “I”m going to clean the basement.” Every time you walk past that basement door, your brain says, ”We ought to be cleaning the basement, you know.“ But if you make an appointment to clean the basement on Saturday at 10:00 a.m., your brain will give you a pass. “She’s put it on the calendar. We’re good.” I know in my bones that I’ll review my index cards, so no more remembering to change the furnace filter when I’m driving on Rte. 3 and can’t do a thing about it.
That’s my index card system: capture, review, do. Nice and simple. It’s quick, I trust it, and it works. I hope this answers your question, Erika!