Sticky Notes and Notecards: Get to the Point

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

Sticky notes: keep it short and make it count. Sticky notes aren't often brought up as a tool to improve your writing and thoughts, but like any tool it depends on how it's being used. I personally go through several pads a month.

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

  • As a child, I began to use sticky notes because short and sweet was easy to remember.
  • Sticky notes force me to be concise.
  • In school, this helped me retain key facts and points.
  • The effects weren't temporary, I can still remember the essential.
  • Bullet points help me deconstruct dense ideas for better understanding.
  • Each bullet point triggers a flood of memories along with new thoughts.
  • Writing a note about a subject improves understanding and retention.
  • Sharing notes with others helps me improve my thoughts; if it makes sense to them, it will also make sense to my future self, as well.
  • There's nothing worse than indecipherable notes.

Unpacking a Labeled Box of Ideas

Single lines, words, or phrases would trigger much longer and deeper thoughts. Less details allowed for flexibility, allowing for new connections. Cleverness is quick to the point and brevity forces cleverness out of me. I became more expressive, clearer — my writing more forceful.

Memory as a Sensory Experience

Sticky notes allowed me to visualize my train of thought, touch it, and write on it. I could also rearrange them to improve flow. Holding an idea on a card anchored these thoughts to emotions and sensory experiences. It made my learning deeper.

Chunking and Stacking

Sometimes I would write something that would relate to a note I wrote months earlier. I would then cluster these notes by themes. (Like a hashtag.) Creating order out of chaos. You get better at separating the useful from the noise. Your pattern recognition improves. It's a way of having a powerful conversation with your past self and your current self.

The catalogue does not only exists on paper, it also exists in my mind. Writing, filing, and referencing improves my memory without any added effort to memorize.

Twitter was an external brain that allowed me to access other people's sticky notes. I could add sticky notes to their sticky notes, intertwining thoughts and creating a longer conversation. Succinctness became an art form. I would follow hashtags to see the world's conversation around topics — an economy of discovery.

Mark Twain Received This Telegram From a Publisher:


Twain replied:


Twain was highlighting the difficulty of clarity and brevity, but when done right, like in this telegram, it couldn'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.) It's an art form and sometimes the confines of space make the unwitty witty.

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. Practice, until the idea was crystal clear. It may seem an award-winning filmmaker came out of nowhere, but they may have worked on the same concept beginning as children; in the form of short stories, drawings, home movies, student films, until it was finally ready in 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.

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.

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.


Things such as sticky notes pack big ideas into a few words. It is up to our minds to unpack these thoughts. The ability to pack and unpack ideas are skills in themselves. 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 memory have index card systems 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