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. The System -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: *Stoicism *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) *Misc (Naturally) -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 … Continue reading The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read