How to structure, lay out, and solve problems in our minds using an index card system?

How many thoughts float in and out of your head without your stopping to identify them? How many ideas and insights have escaped because you forgot to pay attention? How many decisions or judgments have you made without realizing how or why you made them, driven by some internal default settings of whose existence you’re only vaguely, if at all, aware? How many days have gone by where you suddenly wonder what exactly you did and how you got to where you are? Mastermind  –  Maria Konnikova.

Tracking information in our digital age. When  we commit ourselves  to do something , our brain should also keep track of that action. Having too many commitments open, without a structural action program, we won’t be able to understand which one should be processed first. Our mind is stuck in reminding  ourselves that we hold many things in a queue , rather than thinking which will be our next actionable step.

Assuming you have decided you had to do two things, you’ve created a loop between them, a part of your brain will always repeat the same thing “Do that, Do that”. But if you fail to accomplish them, you will feel guilt and frustration. This problem comes from absorbing too much information.

Writing things down will close these loops. Your brain will be able to experience a different way of thinking , letting you more time to think. This should be the main reason why you need to externalize memory and extend your brain processing capacity.

Here is Daniel Levitin on why we should externalize memory:

The relevance to organizational systems is that the more we can externalize memory through physical records out-there-in-the-world, the less we must rely on our overconfident, underprecise memory. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Daniel Levitin)

How to structure your mind using an index card system? As we can see, holding non finished actionable thoughts in our memory is a bad habit, our brain will unconsciously loop through them by exhausting our focus and blurring each action we need to take. So how do we externalize memory?

Here is the system I use:

Step1. Dump each information I encounter in a centralized repository “My inbox”. What do you mean each information you encounter?

I mean the notes from books I read, particular phrases or passages clipped from the web, important notes from my daily work, scanned receipts, documents I receive by mail, ideas and everything else I have on my mind. I also use voice recordings in some situations.

Step2. Classify everything by labeling it. I tag the file with words which are the most commonly related to the content and then store it under a specific category.

Here are some categories I use:
Personal – I use this category  for my personal diary.
Life – Advices on life and lessons collected from books .
Work –  All the information related to work.
Recipes – All scanned recipes.
Documents – All my personal documents.
Projects – Information which may help me with a specific project.
Blog – Articles I write for blogs.
Questions – All good questions here.
Quotes – The best quote collection.

Step3. Using a spaced repetition flow. Being aware of the forgetting curve  I revisit this content often and on regular basis. Whenever I open a specific file I also add a timestamp at the beginning just to remember myself the last time it was revisited.

Here is an example of information I store in my Notebook :

@Economics Revisited October 21, 2014
Stumbling on Happiness (Daniel Gilbert)
In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth.
Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.

@Life Revisited  Feb 23,  2015
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott on  Perfectionism
Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived

@Regret Revisited December 15, 2015
Choose Yourself! on Page 51  (Altucher, James)

Most people obsess on regrets in their past or anxieties in their future. I call this “time traveling.” The past and future don’t exist. They are memories and speculation, neither of which you have any control over. You don’t need to time travel anymore. You can live right now

@To myself Revisited  November 14, 2015
Marcus Aurelius Book 1: Debts and Lessons
To love my family, truth and justice .

@Life Revisited   February 4, 2016
Marcus Aurelius Book 7
Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.

@Questions  Revisited December 15, 2015
What is the single most illuminating question I can ask someone? Am I learning and building for tomorrow’s world or for today’s? What can I do right now to help others instead of wasting time regretting the past or worrying about the future?

@Productivity Revisited 5 Apr 5,  2015
David Allen A New Practice for a New Reality
Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.

@To myself Revisited May 22, 2015
Quoted from Anna Vital
If you take action, you are ahead of the vast majority of people, who talk about  but never build anything.

Physical records vs digital

Although there are people who prefer keeping a physical notecard, I prefer using a digital tool. It doesn’t matter how you are doing it, what matters is using an approach in which you are comfortable.

Deng Xiaoping famously said that:

It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

If you are interested in externalizing memory through physical records I recommend you the system used by Ryan Holiday. Give also a glimpse at BulletJournal.

Tools I use.

Things to know before using tools:

  1. You have to be able to recall and get the information you are storing even if the application you are using doesn’t work anymore.
  2. You have to manage tools and not being managed by them. Use tools for your productive tasks but also remember to be in charge of them.

Pros: It’s the best tool to be used for Notecards, it’s cross-platform and has all feature you need to collect , store and classify.
Cons: Mac users cannot store notebooks locally, even if they subscribe for business version.
One drive doesn’t synchronize notebooks  to your computer it only links them.
You have only cached data offline. (A good marketing strategy, Thank you Microsoft)

Pros: All feature of one note + an artificial intelligence which helps you classify data.
Export all your data in their original file format and use your notes without the need of tools.
Cons: The editor isn’t so friendly and simple.
This software is only for Mac users.

Pros: Simple, minimal and cross platform Mac/Pc/Mobile
You can download all your data offline.
Cons: Becomes unmanageable when you have a lot of data files.

An optimal software will be a combination of features from OneNote and DEVONthink which is available on all devices, able to synchronize all data and giving you the opportunity to export files offline in their original format. It must also give you the possibility to choose what to hold in cloud and what to store offline. This means that a part of file synchronization must occur using a wireless connection while trusting clouds for public documents only.

I’m afraid it still has to be developed unless Microsoft unlocks his marketing strategy over OneNote.

I deposit my confidential and work data in DEVONthink while my notecards are both stored in OneNote and DEVONthink. Occasionally I use Simplenote because of its simplicity but the less tools I use the less time I spend to have a lean centralized repository.

Only the paranoid survive. I use to backup my data and keep always a copy on external devices, especially those documents which I’m too paranoid to put in a cloud. I may have no need of those backups but this is just a proactive routine. Just in case…

Who else have used a commonplace book?

Michel de Montaigne , Marcus Aurelius, Benjamin Franklin , Ronald Reagan are also some famous people who kept a commonplace book.

The importance of carefully sorting knowledge.

Here is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

How do you externalize data? What’s your strategy?

Constantin Minov

A Hardcore reader | Thinker | Explorer | Problem solver | Communicator | Analyst | Organizer | Minimalist