Capture ideas quickly with index cards

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:

  1. What is it?
  2. What must be done (if anything)?


The first question typically has three possible answers:

  1. An action step. Something that must be done, either by me or by someone else.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

20 Comments for “Capture ideas quickly with index cards”

  1. posted by PatGLex on

    I LOVE!!!! index cards. I have a bunch at work and I have a shoebox full of packages of cards at home. (Like clockwork I buy a package or two at the start-of-schoolyear-clearance sales.) I put shopping lists, things I want to remember, to-do lists, all sorts of stuff, on index cards. (The trick is to remember to process them once I have stuff written on it.) It’s my goal in the new year to come up with dealing with them on a consistent basis.

  2. posted by jp on

    I use a nearly identical system and can vouch for how convenient it is to keep the mind uncluttered. The slight difference is that I use 3″x5″ glue-top scratch pads. The paper is far less robust than an index card but I can consistently find scratch pads at very low cost. It adds up to pocket change but every little bit helps. Ultimately it’s one less excuse to avoid jotting a few words down and getting on with my day.

    The paper only ends up in my inbox or tickler file anyway so durability isn’t important for me. If the information needs to leave the desk, it does so digitally on my calendar or task list. I also like that the blank sheets stay together and provide a stable writing surface. (Though a binder clip on a modest stack of index cards would do the same!) Just wanted to throw that out there.

  3. posted by DawnF on

    I know this is a post about utilizing index cards (which I definitely do), but I would like to suggest using plain envelopes for a grocery list (or errand-running list) and then putting corresponding coupons inside the envelope. I realize using the note pad on my phone is easy and fast, too, but I love having my list and coupons together.

    If I have a long list of errands to run and make the list on an envelope and collect all of my receipts (from errands ~ dry cleaners, post office, etc.) in the envelope for easy reference later at home (when entering info into financial software).

    Have a great day, Unclutterer!

  4. posted by Scott Carlson on

    When writing out your cards, always think about being kind to your future self. Write out enough on the card so that if you don’t come back to that card for a month, you’ll still understand the message.

    For example, don’t just write “call mom”. Write, “Call Mom about when to show up for Christmas”

  5. posted by Shalin on

    GREAT POST! Thanks for explaining your system!
    One thing I like about paper is that, unlike a smartphone or tablet, it’s not going to crash on me or risk a dead battery 🙂
    Also, I can always digitize my notes by taking a picture.

  6. posted by Mary Page Hickman on

    What do you suggest if I’m a busy mom who doesn’t sit at a desk all day? I could carry a notepad with me but I’m afraid that I will leave that somewhere. It might work for me to have a stack of index cards and a pen throughout the house (laundry room, kitchen, den, master bath/closet, etc.). What are your thoughts?

  7. posted by Jason on

    Or..use Evernote…on iPhone.

    I also will sometimes record an idea on voice setting in the iPhone Reminders…because it is set to sync seamlessly with my Outlook account on PC desktop.

  8. posted by CarolynKD on

    I have on my computer desk a spiral steno pad – lined. It is used as mentioned above when I am sitting here which is really a good bit of time. I put day/month @ top – it gets quick notes written on it, phone #, etc…..other than that I have small notepads on tables here by phones that serve same purpose. Plus I use yellow Jr. legal pads that at end of each day, I write down what to do next day – calls, places I must go & times, etc….believe me, it works good for me.

  9. posted by Sky on

    I love index cards. They are the perfect size, fit in my wallet and are great for any type of note.

    I always get the white ones with lines….they’re great.

  10. posted by Nickolas Vannello on

    I, too, love index cards. I travel a lot and seem to always get my best ideas when electronics are verboten. Whip out an index card, jot the idea down, and I have a convenient way to remember it until I can transfer the idea.

    I started cutting my index cards in half. I found I was wasting too much white space on the card.

  11. posted by Another Deb on

    I use index cards with Post-It glue on the top edge. I can leave them stuck on the page of the calendar, location of the need, whatever. This was also a helpful strategy with my early genealogy efforts, since I wasn’t sure what format I would end up with on family history files and it made rearranging easy.

    I also use them in my classroom. If a student is doing something I want to document (blurting, etc) I can put their name, date and distraction on the card, lay it on their desk and move on without beginning a (distracting) conversation with them. Then I can add to the card if needed, tally marks or new issues. It is a sortable record that can help me identify patterns and document individuals.

    DawnF’s post inspired me to hybridize my to-do cards by sorting them into envelopes by day. Christmas Break is coming and I need to divide and conquer the list! Thanks!

  12. posted by Erika In VA on

    LOL – imagine my surprise when I read your post and realized you’d used my question! Thank you very much, this helps a lot and I’m going to try it with my work =)

  13. posted by ratwoman on

    Well, I hate paper *shrugs* it gets lost, cluttered, unreadable or fogotten in my pocket. I have to carry it around + a pen and have to check my inbox or set a reminder, it produces a lot of waste, I have to buy stuff … I don’t like it.

    I like digital solutions, because I can set them to remember me – I never have to look up my inbox or reorganize it, it reminds me itself just in the right time, I will never loose it, I have it with me all the time, I need no surface and I can note stuff outside in the rain if I want to – the result looks the same (no wet paper) and takes no space on my desk.

    I synchonize it with a Cloud-Service in my autostart, so I never have to check something. I cannot imagine using a paper calendar or paper notes and carry that stuff around all the time and look after it – seems out of date and a lot of manual work to me.

  14. posted by Marie A on

    Here’s a question for you: At the end of the day, on average, how many index cards do you have to process? Do you set a daily limit or does it happen naturally for you?

    My ADHD provides me with the double whammy of too many ideas (both in the sense of one-thing-leading-to-another as well as too many categories–the novel, the non-fiction book, the kids, myself, the husband, the pets, etc.), then even more thoughts when I’m processing my notes (while I’m doing that, I should also …). If I write down everything, I can easily end up with 50 cards at day’s end (and have), which then takes me far too long to process.

    The only thing that has really worked for me is the 3 Item To Do List and noting items on my calendar as they arise. Otherwise, I’m overwhelmed. Even since developing this habit, I struggle, but it’s working better than anything else.

    Any thoughts for those of us who are challenged would be lovely.

  15. posted by Martin in NYC on

    From a longtime subscriber inspired by this post to post first comment: Great ideas, Unclutterer. Impressed by how real-life and sensible they are. I will adopt and adapt it (without complicating it). The flimsiness of regular paper makes such notes problematic sometimes. The extra cost for index cards will be an investment with immediate and tangible returns. Possible twist: getting the packages of index cards that contain a variety of colors, which would make each note more memorable. This is unnecessary if you’re as disciplined as the Unclutterer and process/discard your cards at the end of each day, but if you do have cause to keep any, the color might help. I would not use the colors to create categories (do, buy, call, etc.) because that would complicate the process – mental clutter that would deter using the system. Thanks, Unclutterer (and commuters – you’re impressive too!).

  16. posted by Thrift Store Mama on

    This speaks to me.

    I’m a full-time mom, part-time administrative and government relations consultant, part-time civic activist, volunteer, well, you get the drill. I’m also generally with my kids in the afternoon and I prefer not to work when I’m with them.

    I find that when I’m at my client’s office, I’m thinking about the kids birthday party and vice versa. I’ve been making notes in the notepad on my phone, but the problem is that I don’t ever see them again unless I remember to look at them.

    This post has given me two ideas: to use my home office as my “hub” and to use index cards there. If I dedicate myself to spending 10-15 minutes in my “hub” at the end of each day, I can also transfer those notes off of my phone.

  17. posted by Marrena on

    You, my friend, need a hipster PDA. 🙂

  18. posted by purpleBee on

    Marie A,
    what you’ve got at the moment is a collection of lists that yiu then analyse.

    You may be able to make it easier by noting which ideas have a due date or have to be done soon, as you write them down.

    So, for example, put a TW in a circle beside everything that absolutely must be done this week. This is things with deadlines and must-dos – don’t allow youself to mark s big project like finishing your whole book as due this week.

    Also put another symbol by everything else with a due date.

    If you process the items with symbols you can then choose if you’re going to process everything else that night or collect a few days worth of brainstorming and process one large topic at a time

  19. posted by Tina in Whoville on

    Like Marie A, I could never keep up with all the Index Cards I’d create.
    Many many years ago as I worked diligently in my cube, my kind boss came around to chat with me. An organized engineer with a clean desk, he said in an exasperated voice as his eyes raked over my clutter:
    “what’s with all the pieces of paper everywhere?? Get rid of all these little pieces of paper!!”
    Indeed these were stuck on my monitor, on stacks, on the desk – just everywhere.
    So he showed me his ONE notebook, in which everything he did, thought, brainstormed, appointments, phone numbers…everything went. ONE notebook.
    To this day, I have my boss to thank. I use ONE notebook to write, in chronological sequence, anything I need to write down.
    Later if I need to categorize and capture similar thoughts, I can highlight such notes for entering into contacts or a project task list. Otherwise that record never gets lost. The notes are in sequential order – which believe it or not works the best for my finding them -[yea, it was the day I stayed late and went to Trader Joes – here’s the grocery list – oh there’s the phone number].
    Many years later, into the smartphone and Blackberry era, I was entering such thoughts in my daily paper calendar book – running massive projects across hundreds of people – Yea, I had massive project plans and endless meetings, but those scratchy notes of thoughts and to-dos were first captured in ‘notebook’.

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tina — I’m a one notebook person, too. I think the point in Dave’s post that is most important is to capture all those thoughts. Write it down. And use whatever method is best for you to do that.

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