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Discussion Forum > Index Card System

For years, I've heard Merlin Mann, David Allen and others preach the following:

One idea per Index Card

Yet I never understood the system... until now. I'm only a few days in, but the theory/benefits seems to be reflected in the practice.

For more on the theory (neuroscience, etc) and the system see pages 69 - 74 of:

Or a very brief overview (see #5) here:
August 23, 2014 at 20:56 | Registered Commenteravrum

The following is the system I used years ago. I still have the envelopes and laminated playing field, as I did like the format, tools, and ritual of it. It was fun, fast, and slightly addictive due to the gamification of organizing and planning. I enjoyed the format (GTD+R), but not the method (GTD).

If I was to return to GTD on paper, this is the only way I'd do so.


Video Demo:
August 24, 2014 at 8:35 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
I've read both your posts and followed all the links you give and I've still got no idea what this is all about.

Could one of you possibly explain it in simple terms? Thanks!
August 24, 2014 at 10:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark.

The system itself is rather "ho hum". The reasoning behind it is compelling. From memory, I'll try and recall the suggested steps. However the theory can be found on pages 69 - 74 of The Organized Mind (see my link in the post above). Of course, you'll need to purchase or borrow the book from your library.

Step 1: One index card per idea (project, task, thought, concern, etc)
Step 2: Depending on which productivity workflow you subscribe to, organize your cards first thing in the AM. To that end, I've been selecting cards that either:

a. need to be done today
b. creating emotional turbulence that is interfering with my life

Those cards stay with me throughout the day.

Step 3: Ensure you have a blank index card(s) ready to capture whatever is on your mind (I keep blank index cards in my wallet, by my bed and in the system itself)

Essentially that's it. But the theory informing the use of:

1. Index Cards
2. Analog over digital
3. One idea per card
4. Non linear/list system

makes a lot of sense.

My additions...

1. When I go through the cards, I ink stamp yesterday's cards with yesterday's date
2. I'm using Circa discs to hold/organize the cards
3. When some action has been taken on a card, I cross out the previous information, and update the card with either a Next Action, Thought, etc, and put it pack into the deck
4. Anything that is related to shopping/errands, goes direction into my wallet (I happen to own a Levenger Index Card wallet, so this hack works for me).

Any other questions, feel free to ask.
August 24, 2014 at 15:33 | Registered Commenteravrum

I experimented quite a lot with index cards in my early days of trying to develop a good time management system, and I can't say that I had much success with them. The sheer volume of them was too difficult to handle I found.

However one thing I do totally agree with is the superiority of handwritten over electronic lists when it comes to time management.
August 25, 2014 at 10:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

"The sheer volume of them was too difficult to handle I found."

Currently, this isn't a problem. Though it could become one. I'll keep you posted.
August 25, 2014 at 13:24 | Registered Commenteravrum
If you'd like to pull the book off the shelf and flip through some sample chapters, here's the link:

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin:
August 25, 2014 at 14:02 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Thanks for the new-book alert, avrum. I've downloaded the first-chapter sample from Amazon. I liked the author's previous book – _This Is Your Brain On Music_ – so I'll probably end up buying this one too.

I've used a one-index-card-per-task method before. The greatest thing about it was the joyous feeling you get from tearing a card in two when you finish a task – much more satisfying than the feel of checking a box or crossing out the line or any computer-based deletion/box-check click or gesture.
August 25, 2014 at 20:46 | Registered Commenterubi
Dr. Levitin's on the power of 3X5 cards:

"For the 3 x 5 card system to work best, the rule is one idea or task per card - this ensures that you can easily find it and dispose of it when it’s been dealt with. One piece of information per card allows for rapid sorting and re-sorting, and it provides random access, meaning that you can access any idea on its own, take it out of the stack without dislocating another idea, and put it adjacent in the stack to similar ideas. Over time your idea of what is similar or what binds different ideas together may change, and this system - because it is random and no sequential - allows for that flexibility."

I would add that my Circa discs not only allow for the above, but provide an effective binding and sorting element as well.
August 26, 2014 at 16:29 | Registered Commenteravrum
How many cards do you typically have in a stack?
August 31, 2014 at 0:11 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Levitin suggests only carrying what you plant to do today and the week. My stack isn't nearly as large as I thought it would be.
August 31, 2014 at 1:59 | Registered Commenteravrum

So how many cards are you using this week? Including this week's tasks, capturing next week's, capturing daily incoming tasks and extra cards?
August 31, 2014 at 3:09 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
21 index cards: A combination of tasks, projects, thoughts, new ideas, etc.

Held together by 3 Circa discs:
Ideas captured by a Bullet Space Pen:
Pen is held by the following...

Capturing ideas occurs on the back (blank) pages. The front of the system holds the cards I'm working on today, divided by a small tab, whereby the remaining weeks ideas/tasks remain.
August 31, 2014 at 21:13 | Registered Commenteravrum
I've mentioned a few hacks i.e. time stamping above. However, in my pursuit of adding meaning to my Weekly Review/Plan, I've started adding thoughts/feelings to the back of the cards. For example:

On the front of a card, it reads: Add drums to new track

Tomorrow morning, when I review my cards, I will jot down a thought or feeling about this card on the back i.e. I'm horrible at programming drums.

By the end of the week, I should have a nice collection of tasks, projects and thoughts with a running narrative of feelings/thinking.
August 31, 2014 at 22:32 | Registered Commenteravrum
Me too, I also always loved the idear of an index cards based system. However it didn't pan out for me.

1) I didn't like the handling of the stack:

- as others have mentioned, the bulk of the cards is too much to carry around
- the brittleness of the stack: one breeze and its all scattered. gave me too much of an unease feel. The same for most digital apps, btw. Compared to that my Moulescine feels like something you could use to beat somebody to death.
- I hated the fact that I ended up with a lot of cards used on one side. Re-using them seemed to add too much to the feeling of clutter.

2) After a while I wanted to have custom-printed forms on my cards. This, however, involved either scissory works of magic or the relatively laggy interaction with a printing shop. I now have a ringbook DIN A4 for every printed out form or checklist etc It just works. Even my book bag seems to be bmade for that format. Go figure.

However, what worked well for some time, was FV! Building the chain by pulling out cards while shuffling through the stack, very cool!

Also, as others mentioned, when I worked on a card I would enter the next line on that card. That way my FV stack also was simultaneously a GTD projects list.

I also enjoyed to scribble fancy icons and sketches on the cards. (For example you can have a toilet picture on the "cleaning the bathroom" card.)

The basic unit of the system was no longer a line but a card, this had a subtle effect on how notation of tasks went down. For instance I highlighted recurring tasks in red, since I had to write them down just once, unlike in a list, the highlighting didn't seem wasteful.

I would do more with cards if I could print them out directly from my computer, at least I could see me doing that.
September 12, 2014 at 15:14 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
If it's worth the hassle to you, it's possible to print cards from the computer. I do it all the time for party invites and membership cards. Check out Avery or your local big box stationery store. There are also several programs, both for the same thing on each card, and for something different on each card.
September 12, 2014 at 19:20 | Registered CommenterCricket
This system (index cards with one task per card) has been a game changer for me. It seems to be a 'data entry' system for my brain: tangential tasks I need to do (but are not on the front burner of my to do list) 'come to mind' easily. And I do not have so much resistance to doing them.
June 26, 2018 at 15:23 | Unregistered CommenterFlip