The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read
After the response to this recent LifeHacker piece, I thought I would explain the system I use to take notes, research books and keep track of anecdotes, stories and info I come across in my work.
This isn’t the perfect system. It might not work for you. All I can say is that since learning it about 7 years ago, it has totally transformed my process and drastically increased my creative output. It’s responsible for helping me publish three books in three years, (along with other books I’ve had the privilege of contributing to), write countless articles published in newspapers and websites, send out my reading recommendations every month, and make all sorts of other work and personal successes possible.
Now to be clear, this is not “my” notecard system. If anything, I use a perverted version of a system taught to me by the genius Robert Greene, when I was his research assistant. What he taught me was neat, clean and orderly. Mine is more of a mess. But it’s still be hugely helpful to me and I think I’m in a unique position to explain this method to people.
I hope it inspires your own method.
-It’s difficult to describe this in any linear way so I am just going to do this in kind a brain dump way. By the end of it, I promise the system will make sense.
-If I have a thought, I write it down on a 4×6 notecard and identify it with a theme–or if I am working on a specific project, where it would fit in the project. For instance, as I was preparing for my next book, The Obstacle is The Way, I filled out thousands of these cards for ideas and concepts that I wanted included in the book. Some examples:
“Don’t be the slave of circumstance.” (intro)
“We know objectively that we learn from failure, yet we spend all our time trying to avoid it. Why?” (intro)
“Gaman–the Japanese word for endurance” (Persistence)
“Our actions our constrained, our will is not. We always decide whether we continue or not.” (Will)
“Ulysses S. Grant–incident at Mathew Brady’s studio where glass fell on him and he didn’t move. Also, where he ran toward the explosion at City Point. See: Simpson’s bio” (Nerve)
So those are the kinds of notes I write to myself. Either sentences in my own writing, words I like, questions I have, or examples I think might fit somewhere and want to learn more about.
-Most of the time, what I write down are quotes (I used to put them on a blog instead but it was too unwieldy). They’re either famous quotes or quotes from the writer that I think are smart. It’s very important that you mark quotes properly so you never risk forgetting to attribute. To make this extra clear, I always put a circle around the first quotation mark. If I am quoting someone quoting someone else, I’ll usually write “qtd in.”
-If it’s a really long story or example, I will just jot down a few notes on the key points and then put something like: “For a story about _________ see: pg 14 in [insert book].”
Here are some quotes from my Strategy cards:
“It is better to see once than hear a hundred times.” – Gorbachev
Retort: “You may not be afraid to have your hand cut off, but your body will suffer.” – John D. Rockefeller
“Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.” – Schopenhauer pg 77
“Pursuit should be to the last breath of man and beast.” – (Prussian Maxim qtd in Knights Cross)
“All men work more zealously against their enemies than they cooperate with their friends.” – Caesar qtd in Schiff’s Cleopatra pg 19
“Find them! Fix them! Fight them! Finish them!” – Gen. Ridgway/military slogan in Korean War. qtd in Savior Generals.
So those are the kinds of quotes I grab for one particular topic. Most of the quotes are longer than that, but space is constrained here in this post so I won’t rewrite the longer ones for you. For longer quotes, I will type them out and print them. Then I cut them out and tape them to a notecard.
-I’ve talked about this before, but the key to this system is the ritual: Read a book or an article and diligently mark the passages and portions that stand out at you. If you have a thought, write it down on the page (this is called marginalia). Fold the bottom corner of the page where you’ve made a note or marked something (alternatively, use post-it flags).
-A few weeks after finishing the book, return to it and transfer those notes/thoughts on to the appropriate note cards. Why wait? Waiting helps you separate the wheat from the chaff. I promise that many of the pages you marked will not seem to important or noteworthy when you return to them. This is a good thing–it’s a form of editing.
-In the top right hand corner of each card, put a theme or category that this card belongs to. If a card can fit in multiple categories, just make a duplicate card. Robert uses color coded cards for an extra layer of organization.
Some categories I currently use:
*Life (General advice about life)
*The Narrative Fallacy (Something I’d like to write a book about one day)
*Strategy (Examples of strategic genius or wisdom)
*Post Ideas (Many cards here have been turned into articles you’ve read)
*Animals (Weird stories about animals. For instance, according to the book One Summer by Bill Bryson, the hotel that Babe Ruth lived in for most of his career had a live seal living in the lobby fountain)
*Trust Me, I’m Lying (Media manipulation)
*Writing (Wisdom about the craft)
*Education (Wisdom and ideas about learning)
-As you compile cards and study different things, it’s not uncommon to organically begin coming across unexpected themes. This is how new categories are born.
-If you are working on a book project where there are a limited amount of themes or you know exactly what they are, it makes sense to introduce a shorthand. For instance, with my last book Growth Hacker Marketing, I had 6 themes that roughly corresponded with the chapters and structure of the book:
2) Growth Hacking
3) Product Market Fit
4) Growth Hacks
6) Optimization and Retention
-If anyone hassles me about my sloppy handwriting in the photos, I swear to god…
-Originally I would do one set of note cards for a whole book (numbering the cards 1,2,3,4,5 etc–but I found that limited my ability to move the pieces around because unrelated but important ideas were wrongly joined together.
-I think it’s important that the notes are not just about work. In mine, my two most important categories are “Life” (which is mostly advice for myself) and another called “Me”, where I put things that I think are important criticisms or places for improvement in my own life. (By that I mean stuff about dealing with parents, relationships, etc. Just little reminders that help.)
Here are some cards from those sections:
“He’s detached about your pain, but God knows he takes his own pain more seriously than cancer… It finally dawned on me that my father, for all his protestations and lectures and writing about detachment, is a very, very needy man.” Margaret Salinger, qtd in Salinger pg 570 (Me)
These people don’t work hard enough for their opinions to matter to you. (Life)
“Just because you’re winning a game doesn’t mean it’s a good game.” Seth Godin, Icarus Deception (Life)
“Q: Ok, but what should I be most worried about here? A: Nothing should worry you” conversation with a friend (Me)
“Character is fate.” Heraclitus (Life)
“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” – Taleb
Don’t pick fights with members of your own team. (Life)
“You know workmen by the chips they leave.” – Old saying (Life)
-Don’t stress about filling up whole cards. I have hundreds that just have a ONE or TWO words on them. These might be cool new words that I’ve never heard before, words I think have a lot of meaning in them, reminders about topics I want to mention.
-Helpful tip: If you end up using the back of the card (I do it fairly often), put an arrow on the front side. Sometimes when you’re flipping through them, you miss the fact that there is text on the back.
-Get in the habit. If you have an idea, put it on a damn card. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. I can’t tell you how many times I saved my ass writing down a title idea or a thought, I otherwise would have forgotten. It’s a good thing when your own cards surprise you.
-When I go back through the cards, I’ll often remember other things from more recent reading or thinking and add to them. This is why, if you went through all mine, you’d see different colors of ink on the same card.
Other People Who Use This
-I want to be clear that I’m not the one who invented this. I didn’t even perfect it. I’m just explaining it because people asked.
-Here’s Robert explaining his system in an interview with Andrew Warner at Mixergy (he shows one of his boxes on camera if you feel like looking):
I read a book and I take, as I’m reading it, I underline it and put notes on the side and then I go back and put them on notecards. And I can gauge a good book will generate 20 to 31 notecards. A bad book will generate two or three notecards and I will find themes in this book and I will take a book that’s maybe not organized very well and I will do the organizing. On page 30 you talk about this and you talk about it on page 180, you should have put those two together but I’m going to put those two together. And I find the themes in there and I break the book down into the gist of it, the heart of it.
And, I categorize it later as I move into the process, I see these themes and patterns that you were talking about that an apprenticeship, creativity, working with a mentor, social intelligence. Slowly the chapters come to life and I’m now able to organize it in various chapters. Each part has the title of the book on it and is color coded, having different colors of cards, depending on the kind of subject that I’m dealing with. If it’s the arts, science, , politics, etc. It’s elaborate. You don’t want to know everything about it, but with this there now, if I’ve done all that work and I sit down to write, I have at my fingertips, all of this. If I want to do Leonardo da Vinci, I have 50 notecards that break him down from every possible angle. I can now, with that, write in a much fuller, deeper, dimensional way because I’ve taken all this information and I’ve organized it.
-Someone also asked him about it in his Reddit AMA. Here is that exchange with some info about the color coding:
user: Robert, I’m a big fan of yours. In one interview you mentioned your research method for your books (with index cards and shoe boxes). Could you provide some more detail on the process of your method?
[–]robertgreene I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards each card representing an important theme in the book. For instance, in Mastery, the theme of mirror neurons. After going through several dozen books, I might have three hundred cards, and from those cards I see patterns and themes that coalesce into hardcore chapters. I can then thumb through the cards and move them around at will. For many reasons I find this an incredible way to shape a book.
user: Ah–found it! Still curious about the colors, but I guess the obvious answer is that they would represent categories, topics, and the like. 🙂
[–]robertgreene The colors represent categories, you are correct. So, for instance, with the War book, blue cards would be about politics, yellow strictly war, green the arts and entertainment, pink cards on strategy, etc. I could use this in several ways. I could glance at the cards for one chapter and see no blue or green cards and realize a problem. I could also take out all the cards of one color to see which story I liked best, etc. It also made the shoebox look pretty cool.
user: That’s ingenious–so you’ve effectively created a relational database in a shoebox, because you can have many to many relationships between card colors and chapters. Your passion for organization is one of the (many) things that makes your work so incredibly fun to read and reference. Thank you for sharing some of that with us.
-It looks like the system is also very similar to Luhmann’s Zettelkasten. Though again, his discipline seems to exceed mine because I am a lot less ordered.
–Ronald Reagan also kept a similar system that apparently very few people knew about until he died. In his system, he used 3×5 notecards and kept them in a photo binder by theme. These note cards–which were mostly filled with quotes–have actually been turned into a book edited by the historian Douglas Brinkley. These were not only responsible for many of his speeches as president, but before office Reagan delivered hundreds of talks as part of his role at General Electric. There are about 50 years of practical wisdom in these cards. Far more than anything I’ve assembled–whatever you think of the guy. I highly recommend at least looking at it.
-It’s not totally dissimilar to the Dewey Decimal system and old library card catalogs.
-I’m sure there are other awesome people who use a similar system. If anyone has examples, send away!
What do you use these note cards for? Whatever I want! Recently I started tweeting quotes that I had taken note of. But that’s just a little thing. I use these notecards for my life. When I have a problem, I flip through them. When I am looking for material in my writing, I use them. For instance, I wrote this post exclusively off my notecards (if you couldn’t tell).
How do you know what to write down? You just write down whatever you want. Don’t stress about it. This is your system. We all have our own preferences. Personally, I look for actionable, small sized chunks.
Where do you put the cards? I have one big box that I used that’s actually meant for photos. It’s called a Cropper Hopper. But it took me a long time to acquire enough cards to need that. Before, I used the smallerVaultz 4×6 Index Card File boxes. There are also cheaper cardboard versions out there.
What do you do when a box gets full? If I am taking notes for a specific project, like a book, I give it it’s own box. For instance, my Cash Money book is just about at the stage where it can fill up a Vaultz box. After another hundred or so notecards, I’ll move it into it’s own Cropper Hopper.
Wouldn’t digital be easier? Yes. But I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and to go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for getting the structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I bump into stuff I had forgotten about, etc.
Isn’t it hard to carry around? Yeah, a little. But so what? It pays off so it’s worth it. Joking aside, what I tend to do is just take the section I am working on with me. If I am working on chapter 2–I take those cards. If I am writing a post about education, I’ll take the education cards with me. Very rarely do I find that I need the whole thing with me.
How do you remember it all? That’s why doing it physically is so important. I am invested in each one of these cards. I made them and arranged them with my own hands. This tactile relationship helps. As one reader put it, it helps make a “memory palace.” I don’t vaguely remember what I put on the note cards, but where I put it, what it’s connected to, what’s around it, when I did it, etc.
Do you review the cards? Absolutely. If I am lacking inspiration or just kicking something new off, I always try to flip back through them. It doesn’t have to be all of them either. Just grab a few. Another example: When I wrote the new foreword for Trust Me I’m Lying, I started by going back through the cards. When I starting prepping the paperback of Growth Hacker Marketing (out in 2014), I went through the cards and was able to find a place for some that I hadn’t used the first time.
But wouldn’t Evernote be better? Maybe for you but not for me. If that’s what you want to use then go for it. But I think there is something irreplaceable about the physical aspect. Physical books, physical notecards, that’s the best in my opinion.
What if something happened to your box? My house recently got robbed and I was so fucking terrified that someone took it, you have no idea. Thankfully they didn’t. I am actually thinking of using TaskRabbit to have someone create a digital backup. In the meantime, these boxes are what I’m running back into a fire for to pull out (in fact, I sometimes keep them in a fireproof safe).
Remember there is no right and wrong way to do this. The system that I have was taught to me by someone and I made my own modifications. His way works best for him, and I have a way that works better for me.
Make your own way. But I think you’ll love this system.
Want to learn more about writing habits? Check out WritingRoutines.com. You can also download the free PDF “12 Essential Writing Routines To Help You To Craft Your Own.”
This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.
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I’ve always felt overwhelming loss associated with reading because I never knew how to pin down all my favorite quotes / themes and what I thought about them…and in a way that I could quickly reference them again and again. I also often use “clutter” as a reason to take notes or pen down ideas on my computer — however, I often feel a loss there too what with the lack of intimacy when things go digital. The lack of intimacy makes things hard to remember too. I like this. I’m going to try this method for a few months — I imagine the ROI is life-changing. Thanks, Ryan.
Hey Ryan, thanks for this post. It’s gold and I’ve started using it. I also read your post that mentioned that these cards are the first thing you would grab in a fire. That being said, please, get an evernote account or something similar and transfer these cards and categories to it. If anything ever happened to them (flood, fire, robbery, etc.) you could recreate them. By hand if necessary. But you’d have them.
I saw a post about a similar system a while back, I believe it was from you Ryan! It has been a lifesaver, and really helped save my sanity. Reading this updated version has inspired me to upgrade my organization!
I got a Kindle roundabout Christmas 2011. I’ve read probably about 150 books since then and maybe 120 were on the Kindle. I read a lot more now that I have the Kindle (partly because of the portability and the ease of getting new books but also partly because I just make more time for reading than I used to) and I take a ton more notes than I used to (all digital).
But fuck, I’m starting to yearn for physical books again. The Kindle’s so convenient but after 150 books I just can’t help but feel like something’s missing. And I WISH I’d put more time in over the last few years to create a better note-taking system like the one you describe here – my Evernote is bulging with book quotes but I almost never review them and I have my doubts that it’s really paid me back for the time I’ve invested into it. If I’d read 10% less books since 2011 but made better notes, I think that would have been a better time investment.
Part of my problem though (and I know this isn’t an excuse, I’m just saying) is that I LOVE reading books but don’t enjoy making notes for its own sake. If I have a spare half hour, I always prefer cracking open a new book than going back over an old one – the first feels like play, the latter feels like work. Do you or did you ever feel the same way? It is something you just suck up and deal with because it’s worth it (like e.g. the pain of exercise), or do you enjoy it for its own sake?
I like my Kindle (I’m on my 3rd one!) but I do miss the physical notes in a book.
I’m going to add some index cards to my Kindle – and start benefiting from the simplicity of this. I’ve tried using underlining in the e-text, but I just can’t remember which book has the good stuff in it.
I’m a reasonably intelligent person but I’m sorry but I was lost after the first two sentences. Can you simplify this process? If you only had 30 seconds to tell someone (Cliff Notes-style) how to do it before the elevator got to your stop, what would you say Ryan?
I wouldn’t. Because it’s not my job to compensate for other people’s laziness. I can already tell that this notecard system is not for you.
It’s not laziness if you’re making it too complex. Geniuses (which I’d classify you as) are able to take something complex and make it simple. Look at what you did with Trust Me I’m Lying. You were able to show how to manipulate the current media to get what you want in a step-by-step process. Find a low hanging fruit blog that a larger blog often hyperlinks/validates to, then go up the ladder to a mid-sized blog then work your way up to the nationals. That’s what I’m asking you here. How would you explain this process to a 5-year-old?
It’s not too complex. It’s too complex for YOU.
Other people are implementing it, and it works for Ryan. So if there’s an issue here, it’s you, not the system.
This article rang for me, because I’ve personally found something very similar to have been very helpful to me for many years. Though I took some amazing tips from it, and will implement them.
Jamie, you may find it helpful to re-read Ryan’s post and think of two words “marginalia” and “commonplace.”
– Read, and whilst reading annotate, highlight, write in the margins if you own the book, if not then certainly take loose notes and page number them.
– Set the book aside, get note cards, and create a personally meaningful system of categories that reflects your own goals and interests.
– Categorize each card. Transcribe quotes or facts from the places in the book you highlighted or left margin notes, per the card’s theme.
-Struggle and own the method, adapt it to you rown needs, RESIST the urge to ask for explanations because your own elegant solutions will come as you struggle with it.
Read up on Commonplace Books It’s a modern form of Commonplace booking. What Ryan is doing is pretty much straight out of the tradition of classical rhetoric. He compiles topics, tropes, themes, and uses them in the process of “invention” in coming up with topics.
This process is a process of discovering new knowledge, from combinations of existing knowledge.
This is a powerful process, to ask Ryan to simplify it in a nutshell is almost, in a sense, to insult him and the process.
Trust yourself, trust the freaking process, just start doing it and make it right for you and your needs. If you pause or freeze up due to its perceived complexity then work through it. By working through it you gain proficiency and competence.
Extremely interesting system!
Out of (slightly weird) curiosity – what is your posture when doing the majority of your reading? I’m interested in knowing whether this process has you arched over a desk, or sitting relaxed in your favorite chair.
Always moving around
Do you read all your books on physical copies or do you use a kindle(or ipad)?
Any criteria that dictates which you choose?
This is an awesome post, but for those of us that are visually orientated why don’t you create a video of the process and how you use this to create and write books.
I am curious as to why you don’t make a customized note card. I used to use vertical 3x5s from Levinger quite a bit. I wanted to change the layout a bit so I went to a printer and had my own made. I used a simple design and I had three “boxes” or sections at the top to write in to help me categorize my cards. I also had the printer use a heavier card stock that seemed to hold up much better than a normal note card. It was surprisingly inexpensive. The pluses are that the cards are now your own. The heavier stock doesn’t seem like it would matter much but it did. My thoughts just seemed more important on a nicer card.
If you are going to go through your process then spend a couple bucks and do it on a custom made Ryan Holiday card and then tell me if you didn’t think its worth it.
Because I have zero complains about 4×6 cards after several years of using them?
I had zero complaints about riding my bike until I got my drivers license.
So they stop making index cards tomorrow. You go to the printer and tell him I want a red line on top and then blue lines the rest of the way down on thin enough paper so they curl up on me.
I love you Ryan, DON’T EVER CHANGE!
I have been thinking about putting this system into place for my own writing. I first came across it whilst reading ‘Lila’ by Robert Pirsig.
Thank you for the article it has given me the push I needed.
Keep up the great work.
According to his biographer, Michael Keene, General Patton used to use a similar system:
“He read every treatise on warfare ever written. He would take copious notes on 4-by-6 index cards for every book that he ever read. It was that immense knowledge of history that he had that he could bring to battle. So he could almost anticipate what the enemy was going to do next.”
Oh shit, what book is this from?
It’s from Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer by Michael Keene. I haven’t had a chance to really dig into it yet, but it explores how Patton’s personality and spiritual beliefs shaped his decisions, as opposed to just another recounting of his military exploits.
Thank you for sharing this system with us, I really appreciate you attention to detail and your no-nonsense step by step explanation of the method.
One quick question – Do you prefer to underline/write in the book/tag etc. the entire book BEFORE writing onto note cards or do you transcribe ideas onto the note cards simultaneously? (In the article you mention that when you have a thought, you write it down on your 4 x 6 cards, and yet you also mention re-visiting books a few weeks after they’ve been read)
Thanks for clarifying, keep up the inspiring work and enjoy your weekend!
I actually finish the book and revisit in 2-3 weeks to take the notes.
I was watching a show about Joan Rivers and she had a 3 x 5 index card system of her jokes and categorized them by type. She had them filed in metal card files and there were lots of drawers of them. She kept them from the beginning of her career.
I bet it’s a pain in the ass to carry these around with you if you get sick of working from home.
Someone on reddit just told me to google you to read about the system. 🙂 I like it! It’s inspired me to tie up some loose ends, I have linger with my system…which is very similar. Just this year I made a gmail account, just for me to send myself creative ideas, interesting quotes, and write down moving experiences. I also send myself articles that I like and it’s nice to be able to write my thoughts or key words to go with it. Then the email can be organized into folders for the different themes. 🙂 It’s a really easy way to bring it all with me and to never feel like I have to wait to record an idea.
I am now inspired to do this constantly and to use them.
Very much enjoyed your RealVisionTV interview. I came to your site to learn more and had the feeling of being “on the same team” when I saw your article on Meditations.
Darwin had a similar system of organizing information. He collected facts and notes in different portfolios based on the subject matter. He further maintained an index for each of these portfolios and so was able to efficiently reference his accumulated knowledge of any topic. See point three in the link below if interested:
Thank you for the great article. I’m going to implement this in my own life. Just curious do you find it easier to read an entire book through, mark the important pages and then return to put the info on the note cards or do you prefer to do it while reading, or a bit of both? It seems from the post you do it after reading, hence the book markers but I wasn’t exactly sure.
By the way, thanks for all the great work you put out. Just finished Trust Me, I’m Lying, great read!
Just saw an earlier post which answered my question, sorry for the duplication.
Heaven sent. Kismet. And all of that. I am an academic (professor) and loathe that I might find the process so satisfying. thank you for sharing so generously. I also have read your Ego text, your Daily Stoic text, and I treasure both. I just read an interview you gave on another website — and it was simply divine. Thank you for modeling stoicism for us all. Not sure if you have seen the novel, A Gentleman in Moscow — but it seems as if the Count in novel is reading the Daily Stoic for 32 years in Moscow… Cheers.
I was searching for notecard systems after reading Will and Ariel Durant’s dual autobiography and not having much luck. The book talks a lot about his writing and the use of “classification slips” to cover the depth of material, especially for The Story of Civilization series they did.
And then by chance I came across this post! Super super helpful. Thanks for sharing this!
PS: Heard your podcast on Ferriss a while back. Your post was a good reminder to order your two books. Done!
Thanks much for sharing. I use a similar note-taking system using Evernote. I take my notes ‘live’ while reading, or at least at the end of every reading session. Ebook notation just isn’t there yet, and you can’t mark up the library books, LOL
I have one evernote “note” for each book, with category tags denoting the type of book. Within each note, I have sections: How I came across the book. Where I got it. The dates I completed reading it. The Book Notes themselves. And a Review for cut/paste into amazon or goodreads.
Like you, I go back later and review, but I review my notes and not the book. You are correct that some of what I found interesting on the first readthrough was not as remarkable on the second pass. The initial note taking is for getting the important info out, like turning the book into a pamphlet or cliff notes, the second pass really helps me to clean up and clarify the practical takeaways, and that’s when I usually realize interesting ties to other books/ideas.
Another thing I’ve found useful is to try to put the author’s arguments into the classical logic format. Premise One + Premise Two = Conclusion One. (Sorry, B.A. in Philosophy. Can’t turn it off!) But it is amazing how often the premises are assumed to be true, or conclusion does not necessarily follow.
Keep up the great work, Ryan!
I use the “Notepad” in my various electronic devices but often run into the challenge of actually looking back on them. I believe this to be not because I don’t remember to but actually because they aren’t something physical for me to see.
As much as technology advances our species, somethings are better left to tradition. \
Thanks ! I wonder why not MS One note or Mindmap softwares are used
This is just what I needed! After reading a book, I usually pull few quotes out for IG and Twitter, but I’m not left with much for my blogs (or future books). I love writing but the digital method of note taking just hasn’t worked for me. I’m seeing that writing things down builds a better memory connection with what I’m noting down. Thanks so much for sharing this!