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Index Card Hacks

Index Card Hacks
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”.

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    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:

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    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
      • 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
          • 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
            • 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.
            • 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:

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              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.

                • Trim if needed. Any overhang will be annoying and will gather lint in your pocket or bag and dry-erase ink when you erase.
                • 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.
                • 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.

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                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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                Last Updated on August 20, 2019

                Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

                Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

                Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

                This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

                The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

                Curiosity

                Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

                People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

                Patience

                Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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                When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

                Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

                A Feeling for Connectedness

                This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

                A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

                The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

                With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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                1. Research

                Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

                Learning the Basics

                Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

                Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

                What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

                Hitting the Books

                Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

                Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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                Long-Term Reference

                While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

                My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

                2. Practice

                Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

                A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

                Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

                3. Network

                One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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                These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

                Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

                4. Schedule

                For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

                Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

                Final Thoughts

                In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

                If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

                At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

                More About Self-Learning

                Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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