13 Ways of Looking at an Index Card

Ah, the lowly index card. So basic, so common, so cheap — so useful. Index cards are one of the most versatile parts of the productive person’s toolkit — small enough to travel anywhere, cheap enough to keep hundreds or even thousands on hand at all times, and basic enough that one never hesitates to mark up, scribble on, cut up, or otherwise torture them.

The number of uses for index cards is limitless, but my time and typing ability are not, so I thought I’d keep myself to 13 really good ways to use index cards. There are some traditional productivity tips here, but also some rather unusual ones — and hopefully something you can do with that stack of index cards you’ve got stashed in the back of your supply cabinet.

1. Capture ideas anywhere

Index cards are perfect for capturing ideas on the go, wherever you are. Small enough to fit easily in your pocket or purse, tucked into the pocket of a Moleskine, alongside every phone and PC in your home and office, and just about anywhere else inspiration might strike, index cards are always handy. And they fit easily in the palm of your hand for jotting down whatever you need to, whenever you need to. A pack of 100 is around a dollar, so there’s no excuse for not having a few at hand wherever you go.

2. Move Big Rocks

Because they’re so portable, index cards make great reminders, too. Their small size and always-with-you portability make them great for jotting down three or four Most Important Tasks (MITs) and referring to them throughout the day. MITs are the “big rocks” in your schedule, the three or four big things that are most crucial for you to get done today. Some people write down their MITs first thing in the morning, others last thing the night before (or at the end of the working day) — either way, the idea is to write down and do a small number of things that, once done, will let you look on your day as a productive one.

3. Dry erase board

Cover an index card with a little packing tape, and you’ve got yourself an instant, pocket-sized dry-erase board. Keep one handy while you’re working to jot down ideas as they occur to you, so you can stay focused on the task at hand. When you’re done, you transfer them into your project files, to-do list, or wherever else they belong.

Other uses:

  • Put one at your cubicle entrance to tell visitors where you are throughout the day.
  • Write down an “inspirational quote of the day/week/whenever”.
  • Use as a brainstorming tool, or to sketch out ideas quickly

Check out a variation on this theme on my post, Index Card Hacks.

4. Build a habit

Have a goal you’re trying to reach, like going to the gym every day or quitting smoking? Try Tony Steward’s habit-building hack. Tony puts his goals down on the front of an index card, writing something like “For the next 30 days, I will…: and a list of his goals. On the back, he writes up a calendar of the next 30 days, and checks each day off as he successfully meets his goal. It’s a good way to keep track of your progress and to stay motivated while you work on adapting behaviors that don’t come naturally to you — or kicking ones that come all too naturally.

5. Perfect white balance

If you’ve ever taken a photograph indoors at night, you’ve experienced one of the mysteries of the human eye — though everything looks fine when you’re looking through the viewfinder, when you download your pictures later everything has a green, yellow, orange, or blue cast to it. You’d think you’d have noticed if the world was orange, wouldn’t you?

As it happens, you don’t notice — the eye adjusts to color casts from various forms of artificial light in an instant. But the camera’s “eye” — its sensor or film — doesn’t adapt at all. So pictures under incandescent lights look orange, ones taken under fluorescent lights look green or yellow, and daytime pictures can come out bluish. Your camera has settings that attempt to automatically correct for this, but if your camera is even moderately good, it also has the ability for you to set the white balance, as it’s called, yourself. You just activate the custom white balance function, point the camera at something white, and hit “set”, and the camera will figure out how to compensate for the exact lighting conditions you’re currently in.

The problem is having something you know is white to set the white balance against. If you throw an index card in your bag, you’ll always have a known white to take a reading from.

Fancier photographers will want something even more specific for their higher-end equipment: rather than adjust against white, they use an exact shade of gray called “18% gray”. You can buy an 18% gray card at a photo supply store — or you can print one out yourself on an index card. Leslie Russell has posted an 18% gray graphic you can print out on an index card, perfect for your camera bag or even tucked away in your Moleskine.

6. Bounce a flash

Here’s another handy tip for the photographers out there. If you have an SLR camera with a pop-up flash, an index card makes an interesting combo flash bounce and diffuser. Cut a couple slits in the card to line up with the sides of your flash’s support, and slide it on at a 45-degree angle. The white card will bounce most of the flash towards the ceiling, giving a nice indirect light that won’t be so harsh against your subjects — and won’t throw sharp shadows behind them. Since the card isn’t completely opaque, though, a little light will come straight out, diffused through the card, giving an even lighting across your frame. Great for portraits and snapshots at night time parties — worth it just to avoid the “for-head” effect you get when your dark-haired buddies’ heads throw round black shadows against the wall behind them.

7. Team up with your Moleskine

Combine the convenience and disposability of index cards with the majesty that is a Moleskine pocket notebook with this hack from Instructables. Using a hold punch, punch two holes at the top of your Moleskine’s front cover, about 2″ apart. Punch matching holes in a stack of index cards, on the short edge. Using 1/2″ binder rings, attach the index cards inside the front cover of the Moleskine. Now you’ve got a set of “hot-swappable” index cards — print out some reference cards, keep your to-do list, or whatever else strikes your fancy — at hand in the sturdier and better-suited-to-long-writing notebook. Plus, you can flip them around the front of the Moleskine for a handy, palm-sized clipboard effect.

8. The ultimate bookmark

Index cards make great bookmarks — you can write notes about the book as you go and always have them handy. When you finish the book, drop the index card into a file box and have an ongoing record of your reading — a kind of instant reading journal.

One of my regular writing gigs is as a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly so I’m always closely reading something that I need to remember well. In addition to writing thoughts on the index card, I stick a small stack of 6 or so small sticky notes on the back, so I can always pull one off and mark passages I want to return to later. If I use up both sides of an index card before I finish the book, I either leave the first one in place wherever I filled it and start a second, or I paperclip a second card in front of the first.

9. One card to rule them all

20090410-justoneclubcard-screenshot*Sigh*

Yesterday I bought a pair of shoes, and was offered yet another club card to add to my growing collection. I keep a business card binder in my car’s console compartment with all the club cards I rarely use in it, but what about all the ones do use regularly? There are a couple of grocery stores nearby, a public library, a gas station, and a bookstore I frequent that all use club cards. Getting rid of 5 cards could certainly slim down my wallet!

That’s what the creator of Just One Club Card thought, too — so he/she/they created a solution. Enter in the barcode numbers from the back of your cards, and the web app will produce a single index card-sized page with the barcodes for each of them neatly listed. Most stores are pre-formatted — just select which store your card is for from the dropdown menu. If your store is not listed, you can use the Advanced function to test various encoding types until the barcode looks like the one on your card.

You can put up to 4 barcodes on a side, and cut and paste the printouts to an index card for extra sturdiness. Perfect for Frequent flyer cards, too!

10. A paper wiki?

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann was something of a virtuoso of the index card, creating over the course of his lifetime a 10-meter stack of cross-referenced, thematically-indexed, hypertext-like index cards using a notation system of his own devising. Basically, cards are numbered sequentially as he has an idea he wants to write down. So he starts card 71/1 — the first card in the 71st idea. If he needs another card, it becomes 71/2, and so on.

But if, as he’s writing card 71/2 he decides that an idea or concept in the card merits further examination, he creates a “sub-node”, card 71/2a — and as he continues to develop that concept, he can add card 71/2a2 and 71/2a3 and create new sub-nodes like 71/2c4a, and so on. Cards could then be “linked” to other cards by annotating them with the reference number of cards in other nodes, creating a vast, wiki-like structure of interconnected and, more importantly, interlinked ideas.

Read this post at Taking Note for more information about Luhmann’s idiosyncratic system.

11. Plan presentations with style

You have a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation to create, but think best with pencil and paper? Try laying out your presentation on index cards, one slide per card. You can easily shuffle cards around to get the order just right, and of course you can keep right on creating wherever you happen to find yourself. If you want to get really fancy, you could even print up (or have printed professionally) cards with your company’s standard template, so you can get a better idea of how your completed presentation will look.

12. Assist your tickler

Use an index card to expand the power of your tickler file. Write down all the month’s birthdays and anniversaries on an index card, one for each month, and place them in the appropriate monthly folders. At the beginning of each month, simply place the card in the folder for the day of the first upcoming event (be sure to add “buy gift for so-and-so” to your to-do list if needed, or “plan party” or any other next action you might have for each event). As each event arrives, simply drop the card into the folder for the day of the next event. At the end of the month, drop it back into the folder for that month, to be reminded again next year.

13. Find yourself

Amazing advances in technology have allowed a fully-functioning GPS system to be embedded in a single index card, and printed from any standard inkjet or laser printer. Amazing, I know! Simply download the image lined to below, print it on an index card, and hold it at arm’s length any time you want to know where, exactly, you are. The system is remarkably accurate, often within a meter of your actual location (most GPS’s are only accurate within 30 meters or so). And best of all, it’s a totally free technology.

Right-click and select “save as” to download: Index Card GPS

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