I used author Ryan Holiday's notecard system when I was writing a blog post about David Epstein's Range. It worked so well for me that I wanted to write this post to encourage you to give the system a try as well. I'll first summarize the system and then discuss the main advantages of it.

The notecard system starts out by underlining important passages and writing marginalia as you read through your book. When you underline or mark anything in the book, you also attach a post-it to that page in order to flag your markings and find them faster later on. I personally ripped my post-its to smaller strips to make them last longer and not take so much space inside the book.

After you have finished reading the book, and waited for a few weeks, you can start going through your markings. For this stage you need 10 to 50 index cards depending on the amount of markings (I ended up using around 30 index cards for Range). Transfer your underlines and thoughts to the index cards: First, write down a quote, a note, or whatever that captures the idea of your marking. After that, categorize the card by writing the theme or the category of the card in the top right hand corner of the index card. It's up to you to come up with your own categories but here are some categories I used with my Range notes:

  • Learning: strategies and practices for learning new things
  • Validation: the art of testing your hypotheses and ideas
  • Organizations: knowledge and ideas related to communal work
  • Me: advice and areas of improvement in my own life (I copied this category from Ryan Holiday)

Finally, store your index cards and return to them whenever you need inspiration or advice.

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I used my index cards to write my blog post about Range. In practice, this meant that I spread out my index cards on the table and started outlining my post with them. It felt so intuitive and effortless to move physical cards around to structure my writing that I actually started preparing for an upcoming presentation using the same method.

However, you don't need to write in order to get benefits from the system. Here are some other things I found extremely valuable:

  • Writing notes based on your reading requires you to also reflect your reading more. It might take you more time to finish a book with a notecard system. But you will also engage more with the text and hopefully retain more of it.
  • Waiting for a few weeks before coming back to a book introduces some automatic pre-editing when it comes to your notetaking. Some of the underlines or marginalia that seemed really important at the moment don't actually seem that relevant anymore after some time has passed.
  • It's often not enough to make a note on a page in order to remember an important idea or concept later if it's something you can't make part of your everyday life immediately. Compiling knowledge into a commonplace book, whether it's in a form of index cards, electronic notes, or an actual book, is an age-old practice that's worth trying out.

Additional notes

You can find Ryan Holiday's more in-depth description of his system here: The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read