Get to the Point with Notecards

This article began a few years ago, starting with several random notes: a Mark Twain quote, a factoid about Nabokov, and a short description I wrote to myself about the filmmaker's creative process.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Notecards: keep it short and make it count. Notecards (sticky notes and index cards) aren't often brought up as tools to improve your thinking, but like any tool it depends on how it's being used.

The Physical Space of the Sticky Note Only Allows for the Essential

  • Use notecards because short and sweet is easy to remember.
  • Notecards force you to be concise.
  • They help you retain key facts and points.
  • Bullet points help deconstruct dense ideas for better understanding.
  • Each bullet point triggers a flood of memories.

Unpacking a Labeled Box of Ideas

Single lines, words, and phrases trigger much longer thoughts. Less details allow for flexibility, allowing for new connections. Cleverness is quick and to the point, brevity forces cleverness. Limitation forces clarity and impact.

Memory as a Sensory Experience

Notecards allow you to visualize, write, and touch your train of thoughts. You can also rearrange them to improve better flow and understanding. Holding an idea on a card anchors the thought to emotions and sensory experience. You deep learn.

Chunking and Stacking

Sometimes a note you take will relate to a note you took months earlier. If so, cluster these notes by theme. (Like a hashtag.) Create order out of chaos. Over time, you get better at separating the useful from the noise. Your pattern recognition will improve. It's a way of having a powerful conversation with your past self. This catalog does not only exists on paper; writing, filing, and referencing improves your memory without any added effort to do so.

Twitter is the world's indexing system. It's an external brain that allows you to access other people's note system. You can add to their sticky notes, which intertwines thoughts and creates longer conversations. Succinctness becomes an art form. You can also follow hashtags to see the world's conversation around a topic. It's a market place for discovery. However, like the curious cat, prepare yourself for the realities of what you might discover. Otherwise, do not become a thought detective.

Mark Twain Received This Telegram From a Publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

Twain replied:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

Twain was highlighting the difficulty of clarity and brevity, but when done right, like in this telegram, it can't be said any clearer.

It's an Incremental Process

Vladamir Nabokov started all of his novels; including Lolita, from a series of notecards. A common practice in TV, movies, and theater. (Annie Dillard, Stephen Colbert, Rebecca Skloot, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers all used notecards.) Sometimes the confines of space make the unwitty witty. It's an art.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief...
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I sometimes write the same note in different iterations. It's a way to practice an idea until it is crystal clear. It may seem an award-winning filmmaker came out of nowhere, but he or she may have worked on the same concept beginning as a child—whether short stories, drawings, home movies, student films, until it was finally ready for their first motion picture. It didn't come out of a vacuum (nothing ever does); it was a long time coming. Thousands of hours of practice goes into the final product. Refine it until its quality can't be denied by the world.

Mental Flexibility

Conciseness gives you an ability to expand in a way that matches the situation you are in. Since it's the bare nuts and bolts, the way you would expand on it today may be different from the way you would have expanded on it yesterday. As you change, your thoughts need room to grow.

Our minds work in this way, short blurbs. We can recall experiences and string them together to form longer memories. Much easier to preserve than a single long narrative. Notecards model how our brains work naturally.

Long-Form Helps Flesh Out Ideas, Short-Form Helps Create Better Ideas

This article began a few years ago, starting with several random notes: a Mark Twain quote, a factoid about Nabokov, and a short description I wrote to myself about the filmmaker's creative process.

Summary

Things such as sticky notes and index cards pack big ideas into a few words. It is up to our minds to unpack these thoughts. Indirectly, you get better at chunking thoughts, stacking similar ideas, and slowly building several bodies of work. This can improve expressiveness, productivity, clarity, but also retention. The people with the best memories have notecards for brains.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • What started out as notecards became Nabokov's acclaimed Lolita
  • Hamlet - William Shakespeare
  • Screenwriter John August on the effective use of index cards
  • New York Times columnist and reporter Nick Bilton on the revolution and drama of Twitter
  • Writer Austin Kleon on index cards
  • Ryan Holiday's notecard system
  • Ways to improve your memory with chunking
  • Stanford social scientist BJ Fogg gives an incredibly informative TEDx talk on stacking for habits
  • Everything you need to know about finance in an index card