The Notecard System: Keep and Organize Everything

A notecard system box made of wood with index cards inside.
The author’s notes on the topic of economics. / © Robert Moszczynski

A notecard system is a system for storing and organizing knowledge. You can write individual knowledge units on notecards and keep them. This way, you create your own library that you can use to make decisions or getting inspiration.

Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

— Robert Darnton

We are learning all our lives. Unfortunately, we cannot keep everything. Our memory is fleeting, and we forget most of what we study.

It doesn’t get you anywhere reading books, listening to podcasts, and communicating with others if you can’t store the knowledge permanently.

You can use the best sources, but if you don’t have access to the knowledge to apply it, you are like Sisyphus, who has to start over and over again because his previous work is worth nothing.

The only way to keep knowledge is to write it down precisely. If you save your notes systematically, you will build a library of wisdom that you can always refer back to.

Valuable notes are a basis for better decisions, give inspiration in hard times, and share new knowledge.

A Long Tradition

The notecard system has a long tradition and is derived from the commonplace book. Already in the Middle Ages, people wrote marginalia, i.e., notes in the margin of the page. Later, the essence of knowledge was written down in the commonplace book to be permanently stored.

Some famous authors have used commonplace book. Marcus Aurelius had one, which later became the source of Meditations. Other authors and thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison also used commonplace book.

Modern authors like Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday also swear by it for a good reason. They use it to do all their research. Instead of a bound book, they use paper index cards. These have the advantage of being able to be easily sorted and grouped as needed.

What You Can Store in a Notecard System

You can’t think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

— Niklas Luhmann (German sociologist and inventor of the Zettelkasten)

In the very beginning, it’s important to understand that there is no right or wrong. The only goal is to make it work for you. Be inspired by others, adopt ideas if they are good but don’t be afraid to adapt the system to your needs.

I use physical index cards 4.1″x5.8″ (DIN A6). This is the optimal size for my purposes. I keep the index cards in a box. Paper index cards have many advantages. They can be written in any way and are easy to use. Paper is timeless. I’m not restricted to any software. A digital solution is not an option for me.

The system is straightforward. You proceed as follows.

Read and Mark

When you read a book and find an interesting statement, you mark it with a pencil and stick a sticker. Additionally, you can write something down in the margin if necessary.

Let It Rest

When you are done with the book, put it away for a while. A few days at least and do something else.

Write Cards

Then you come back to the book and look at the marked pages with a sticker and reread the marked parts. If you are still convinced that they are still valuable, you write them down on an index card. This is how you proceed with all the notes in the book.

On the index card, you should also write the source and page number to know where you found the information if you need to cite it or check it later.

You can also write the category in the upper right corner. If multiple categories fit, then you create multiple index cards for each category separately.

Robert Greene uses different colours for each category. This has the advantage that he can see by colour how many and how often, e.g., quotes or subjects occur in a stack.

If you need to write more text and need to use the back of the card, make an arrow on the bottom right of both sides, so you will know there is additional content on the other side.

It’s also absolutely OK to have a card with just one word. If it’s a new word you’d like to learn or use someday, do it.

It would be best if you didn’t spare flashcards. They are cheap, and the knowledge that you want to hold on to is much more valuable.

How to Take Notes From Audio and Video

If you are not reading a physical book, but for example, reading an article on the internet, listening to a podcast, or watching a video, then you should make the notes right away because otherwise, you will never find the passages again.

Do I Need a Notecard System When I Use a Bullet Journal?

Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.

— John Locke

A journal is different. It’s supposed to manage notes, appointments, todos in a time-based way. It’s not a library of timeless notes but a tool to organize your daily life and help you introspect. Take a look at The Bullet Journal from Ryder Carroll.

A notecard system is there to organize and store your knowledge forever, regardless of when you took it.

Start Right Away

In this way, you can build your personal library.

If you are looking for inspiration, take some cards and read them. If you want to write something, an article or a book, record a podcast, make a video, take some cards from the category, sort them, and get a base for the content.

Your library will grow faster than you think.