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13 Ways of Looking at an Index Card

13 Ways of Looking at an Index Card

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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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      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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      Last Updated on July 8, 2020

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

      This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

      Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

      When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

      This is why setting priorities is so important.

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      3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

      There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

      1. Eat a Frog

      There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

      Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

      When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

      2. Move Big Rocks

      Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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      You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

      If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

      For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

      To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

      In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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      3. Covey Quadrants

      If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

      Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

      1. Important and Urgent
      2. Important and Not Urgent
      3. Not Important but Urgent
      4. Not Important and Not Urgent

        The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

        Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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        You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

        Getting to Know You

        Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

        In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

        These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

        More Tips for Effective Prioritization

        Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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