Index Card Hacks

I love index cards. I’d like to blame Merlin Mann and his hipster PDA for this obsession, but I don’t use a hipster PDA and still I find myself unable to pass the index card rack at Office Depot without stopping for a look.

Index cards provide a sturdier alternative to notepad paper, making them ideal for “throwaway” notes like directions or phone numbers — notes I’ll need to carry around a bit but won’t need to keep permanently. They’re also useful for note-taking for any task where you’ll need to re-order the notes later — I use them a lot in my research to record quotes and reference information. And if you’ve never indexed a book (and who has?) you might not realize that they’re pretty useful for indexing, which I think might have something to do with why they’re called “index cards”.

How to make vertical index cards

The manufacturers of index cards seem intent on frustrating me in my quest for vertically-aligned index cards. It’s as if a secret cabal of paper goods producers has gotten together and decided that nobody could ever possibly want cards in profile layout (3″ wide by 5″ tall). They do love to tease, though — Post-It has sticky-backed index cards in with a profile layout, but they’ve decided to make them a non-standard 3″ x 4″, which is useful only for mocking me.

So I make my own. First I got one of those cheap plastic paper cutters designed for scrapbookers and other crafters, and later I found an old-fashioned guillotine-style cutter at a garage sale for $5, with a cast-iron cutting arm and a blade that’s seen better days but works well enough. Then I picked up a bulk package (500 cards) of 5″ x 8″ index cards. Then I got cutting! Here’s what I do:

  1. First, set up the cutter. You can, of course, use the cutter’s ruler to measure each cut, but that’s a) slow and b) sometimes inaccurate. Instead, I use a guide — another index card to measure my cuts against, so I end up with standard-sized cards. On the guillotine-style cutter, I tape a card up against the cutting edge, and feed the big cards in from the outside; on the paper trimmer, I do the opposite, so the card hangs over the outside edge.
    This is what the paper cutters look like after setting them up to make vertical index cards
  2. Line up the big cards, a few at a time, with the guide card. You have to experiment a little to see how many you can cut at once. On the trimmer, I can only do two at a time; on the guillotine, I can do 4 or 5 at once (I could probably do more if the blade was sharper). Make sure the cards are stacked together evenly, and are pressed solidly against the guide rail.
    Using the guillotine cutter
    Using the trimmer
  3. Cut once, then re-align for a second cut: The first cut leaves a 5″ x 5″ square. Move it forward and line the new edge up with the guide card.
    Using the guillotine cutter to make the second cut
  4. Cut again. The second cut will leave you with a stack of 2″ x 5″ leftover strips. If you’re a big reader (like I am), congratulations — you’ve just solved your bookmark problem! If you’re not a reader, I’m sure you can find another use for your card strips — or give them to your kids (if you have any) and see what they come up with.
  5. Enjoy your upright index cards. Each 5″ x 8″ card makes two 3″ x 5″ cards, whose layout roughly matches that of regular letter or A4 notebook paper. I find this layout easier to work with — a stack fits in the hand better, and is easier to write on. And there’s more room for lists (I could put them in two columns on “wide” cards, but that doesn’t scan well).

How to make dry-erase index cards

The dry-erase index card hack

Vertical index cards are great for checklists, and I wanted to make a weekly task checklist I could slip into my Moleskine, so I wouldn’t have to copy recurring tasks into my next actions list every week. That means it has to be something reusable (it’s no use moving these tasks out of my Moleskine if I’m going to have to rewrite the list every week anyway) and something I can keep with my current tasks as I move forward through the notebook.

This is what I came up with:

  1. Write your list. Write down your list, leaving at least 3/4″ between the left edge of the card and your list items. Within that margin, (about 3/8″ from the left edge) draw a small checkbox for each task. I’ve done a weekly task checklist, but anything you do where you need to make sure you do each step would be appropriate.
  2. Comparison of tapes as dry-erase surface

    Put a piece of clear sticky tape along the left edge, covering the checkboxes. This is your dry-erase surface. Line it up flush with the left edge. For best results, use the shiny kind (with the glossy finish); the matte- or satin-finish tape (sometime called “invisible” tape) will not erase as well.

  3. Trim if needed. Any overhang will be annoying and will gather lint in your pocket or bag and dry-erase ink when you erase.
  4. Use a thin dry-erase marker to check things off. Yes, it’s one more thing to carry, but I always have a bag with me anyway so it’s no big deal.
  5. When you’re ready to start the list over, just erase your checkmarks. Use a tissue, paper towel, whiteboard eraser, your finger, or even your shirt if you don’t mind having marks on your clothes. Erase from right to left, so the ink doesn’t smear onto the unprotected paper part of the card.

True, you could just write your list in ink and make your checks in pencil, but a) pencil rarely erases entirely, and b) rubber erasers degrade the surface of the paper.

If you really like the idea of a portable dry-erase board you can fit in the back pocket of your Moleskine (or just tuck into the pages), try covering the surface of a card with 3″ packing tape. This could be used to make any index card template from DIY Planner reusable — I can see this being useful for the mind-map template, if you’re the kind of person who likes to make mind-maps. Treat cards with dry-erase ink on them carefully — direct contact shouldn’t hurt them, but anything that rubs across them will take ink with it.

What other index card hacks have people come up with? How do you get through the whole pack of cards? What possible use are 4″ x 6″ cards? Let us know in the comments.

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