Monday, February 23, 2015

Reader question: Index cards/ "Hipster PDA"

I received a request from a reader today to put out the call to people who use an index card system (aka "Hipster PDA), especially anyone who has used this method for a long time. She would like info and advice.

Personally I've never used an index card system, but I've seen them around online and some people have a lot of success using them.

Do you have any advice on using an index card system? Please post a comment, and thanks in advance!


  1. I gave it a try years ago. My biggest problem was packing them around and not loosing them. There are probably some great ideas on how to carry them around now. I think it would be great for GTD, write on a card and throw in your "in" basket.

  2. I don't know what an "official" index card system would be, but for awhile I was using my own system of writing down my various lists on index cards and carrying them around in a small, flexible, plastic photo album I bought at a dollar store. The cards fit perfectly inside the one-photo- slot-per-page. I had a card as my grocery list, a To Do card, a card for Calls to make...things like that. It weighed nothing and was the size of a wallet. I loved most things about this system, except I think I stopped using it because I didn't like having to slide the cards in and out of the clear plastic photo slots every time I wanted to write something. But it could work for someone!

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  4. The good thing about the index card system: it is flexible. You can do whatever you want with it and adapt it to whatever you need. I started using index cards 6 years ago actively, and went basically from using loose index papers as daily to-do-lists, to a combination of the GTD-list-system with index cards, to now the mind-papers from X17. It is a kind of small leather case where you can insert your index cards and close it with a pen loop (best idea ever!). I use an A7 size in dark brown. It looks very sophisticated compared to the previous ‘paper collection’ in my pocket, and I have always a pen at hand. As rivka said earlier I use it as well to organise my personal life. I have check lists, like my morning routine to get my day started efficiently on one index card. A create daily a to-do list for the day. I have another index card for my budget, so when I spend money, I quickly jot it down. I use it also as an idea collector on the way. Something comes to my mind, I write it quickly down. When I am lazy I put my ID, credit card and driver’s licence into it. Then I’ve my mobile in one pocket and the mind-papers in the other, no wallet. During the night I organise the system and review what happened today. I think it is outstanding, and its different from what others use. Here the link: (I just saw, the do not have an English website (I’m German), but check the pictures and the YouTube video).
    Basically, there are a million ways to use index cards. What would you need to organise? Then I (or we) could suggest more specific ways to use an index card system.

  5. Hi, I use the MindPapers, too, but as an `Inbox` together with my planer, in the A8 size in a very nice bright yellow (cards and cover colors matching perfectly). A8 because it´s easy to put the cards in the pockets of my planer if needed. You can check them out at, they come in all DIN A -Sizes from A8 to A5, in different colors, very nice leather (you have to smell it ;-)) and are quite well made. The famous pen-loop- or ´Sloop`- comes in different sizes, too, so it can accommodate your choice of pen. I can imagine building a complete organizing system with index cards. e.g. different colors for different categories, different sizes.....
    @Roman: do you use all your cards in the same color or different ones?
    I think the company will publish a book about time/self- management, with index cards but it might be only in german....

    1. I use different colours :) Well, per theme a different colour so I can grab them easily. So, for example, blue (my favourite colour) for the morning-routine check list (I’m currently trying to establish this habit), white (just simple) for the daily to do list, green (to remind me to buy more healthy stuff) for the groceries list, yellow/beige (the standard colour..) for general notes, and so on.

  6. Rivka, I think the "official" system was invented by Merlin Mann, of 43 folders and he called it a Hipster PDA. Have you used index cards in this way?

    Roman, Thanks so much for responding. I basically want to organize work tasks, household chores, eating healthy and exercising...pretty much all aspects of my life.
    I have to admit, those MindPapers look very nice...but I really think all I need are a stack of index cards, categorized by my GTD contexts, such as home, work, computer, cell. I'm a bit of a no-frills person, although I live from my paper calendar. I just want a more portable and flexible system.
    Grab the pile...and go. Any suggestions? I'd also enjoy hearing how you use specific cards from you MindPapers to manage different areas in your life.

    Sari, I'd also enjoy hearing how you manage different projects and tasks in your life.

    Laurie, thanks so much for posting this :)


    1. (I have to split up my reply, because its too long and the system won't take it..)
      The system of all index card users, I think, is the same at the core. (Well, actually, of all personal organisation tools, also in Business): Put similar tasks/activities/projects in one area to structure it. Many call this list-system GTD, because well, David Allen made it famous,.. but it is just putting similar parts/tasks in life on one ‘list’. He just gave it a cool name. I think we organize ourselves all in similar ways, and depending on the needs we use different tools.
      For example, I use for my personal life the mind-papers of X17, and for business/work-activities several note books from them and a personal organiser from its partner X47.

      For the personal life, index cards can be outstanding! For me, at least :) Also, I use it for EXACTLY the same reasons you mention. It is portable, you can adapt it however you want, its easy and simple to use, its small, fits in your pocket, you just take it and go wherever you need to go. One suggestion though, I’ve seen that actually all index card system users I know will use at one point a portable case. Because the index cards will fold in your pocket or bag.. and I haaated that. Like Catherine for example her ‘Passport case’, I use the mind-papers. They are just tools to cover the index cards. I love mine, because I can take it out anywhere, have always a pen and it doesn’t look too strange. And I just like this ‘dark brown leather look’ (but X17 has I think all kind of colours).

      Talking about my organization and some ideas for you:

      I use different coloured index cards for each category so I can grab them easily. Let me just repeat my reply to Sari:
      So, for example, blue (my favourite colour) for the morning-routine check list (I’m currently trying to establish this habit), white (just simple) for the daily to do list, green (to remind me to buy more healthy stuff) for the groceries list, yellow/beige (the standard colour..) for general notes, and so on with a to call list, at desk to do list, at computer to do list.
      So, basically, I put what I have to do or to buy on one index card.. check it off when I am done and throw it away. The daily to do list gets thrown away daily. The grocery list 1-2 per week. The morning routine checklist is also written daily, sometimes just on the back of the previous one. The other lists whenever they are full.

      I am a big fan of check lists. You just check off the tasks like a pilot before he starts the plane. I used it at one point to establish an exercise sequence, until I knew it by heart.

      I studied for exams with index cards, I learned some languages.. You just put the index cards for the day into the case, and during the day when you have some spare minutes, waiting in line or something, you take it out and ‘study’.

      I used index cards as well to plan for example a party. Brainstorming all activities on one index card and then organising the tasks by chronology on another card. I did that, I think, in the waiting room at my dentist one time. Then I put it in my mind-papers case and just carry it around with me. When I need it, I take it out, have a look and put it back. Obviously, the index cards system’s advantage of its simplicity is also its disadvantage for complex several month projects. For one huge project you could use it (for example one colour of the index cards) but beyond it basically reaches its limits. Then the system becomes a big collection of papers..

    2. (2)
      A suggestion for organizing yourself:
      Know which areas you have in life. Exactly. And design an index card, or a group of index cards for each category. NO intermediate categories. These will kill the whole system. Be very very clear. I like to divide the categories by colours, because it gives me a visual representation of what is where. I worked also with white index cards. It worked pretty much the same. It is just a personal visual preference and reinforces the separation between the categories.

      Also, where would you need to keep your index cards? You mention that you would take them anywhere you go. So, in your pockets, or do you have always a bag with you? There are index cards in every size, for example A5, A6, A7 or even A8. A6 is fantastic. A5 is already huuge. It is the size of a classical personal organizer, but if you have the space, why not? A8 is handy, because it’s the same size like credit cards or the ID and it is nice to carry around in your pockets. Like I said, I use the A7 size. It fits in my pocket and the index cards are large enough to write a lot :)

      Additionally, where do you want to keep your pen? You will want to write something down, make changes on the index cards, or check something off, or you get an idea.. you don’t want this to happen and then don’t have a pen at hand…. Believe me, it is realllly annoying. Some keep it in their pocket or in their bags. It doesn’t work for me. I love how X17 solved it with the pen loop. Like this I have my pen always with my index cards.

      You say you organise yourself currently mainly with your paper calendar?
      X17 actually produces personal organisers. So, you could get a mini-booklet-calendar in the size of the mind-paper case. I used that for some time, but I did not have too many time-bounded activities for the calendar. But if I would have, it is really handy to have a complete calendar always with you together with your index cards. What I use now is a fanfold year calendar with the 12 months. It came with the calendar and I do rarely have more than 1-2 appointments a day.

      I think I paid around 15€ for the whole mind-papers set. But I am not sure. And they came with the case, the pen loop ‘sloop’, a pen, index cards, and a trial booklet in the size of the case. It was one of the best investments I ever made. I really love using them. The calendar was 9,90€, with 2 booklets, each 6 months and the fanfold year calendar per month. Really nice idea, I just don’t need a full calendar ^^ I don’t know if you watched the video on their website, but there they show the booklet. It was really interesting for me to see such a tiny calendar.

      I also want to say.. I mention mind-papers a lot, but well this is the tool I use and I think the whole system is extremely well-thought-out and the quality is amazing. It is just really convenient, you have everything in one place.

      Furthermore, you seem to have similar things to organise like I do. If you want, try first working with index cards and see if it is something for you. If you really stick with it for some time and organise yourself with index cards, I think you will not get around to at least trying out the mind-papers.

      Do you have more questions, or did I formulate something unclearly?

    3. Roman,

      You have certainly given me a lot of great insight--THANK YOU :)

      I will certainly consider the Mind Papers at some point in the future. However, I'm in the US, and I have a lot of the typical planning tools lying around...unused. I want to experiment with actually USING the index cards, to see if it works. I can always invest in the Mind Papers system. However, I have done things completely backwards--bought the planner system BEFORE figuring out what I've needed. I want to try this, investing a few dollars, and see if it works. But I admit...the system is elegant and simple. I love that! And the sloop is brilliant, too.

      As to the reason it needs to be portable: I'm a teacher and working with wee ones, I am rarely at my desk. I always wear trousers or slacks, so I really will be pocketing everything. That way, if I'm by the sink in the back of the room, and little Johnny does something to earn a demerit, I can pull out the stack of cards (secured by a hair tie with a pen around my neck [I got a few at our local book fair and they work fabulously!]), make a note of it and deal with it during my conference or lunch. I don't think children would be as apt to swipe a stack of cards over a leather gizmo. Think about it, that's a curiosity for them! On the off chance I leave it lying somewhere (and I can't tell you how many times we've played the game 'go find the teacher's list'), I am more interested in creating the system...and then adding in the fancy at the end :)

      I also tend to write fairly large, so I'm thinking if I got around the A6 size, and fold them in half. I could stick to writing on the front of one side, but if an idea expands, it's handy to have one larger card, then 5 smaller cards. (Teacher writing on the big board!)

      As to my calendar, my appointments are 3-5 a week. It's more important that I accomplish tasks, instead. I tend to write out a weekly spread anyhow, so I can see what I have going for that week. I rarely need to plan more than a week ahead.

      Roman, if you have a blog, I'd love to stay connected! Thank you so much for all your help!


    4. Roman,

      I almost forgot--thank you for pointing out, what I think, is the key to this system. Like actions in one spot!

      I love using the color coordinating for the different areas of life. Thank you :)

    5. You are welcome! I hope you will benefit from these ideas soon as well in action! Like you said, just try it, work with it,.. and then on the go you will see what works and what not. Then later, buy the tools that make the stuff, which works for you, even easier or more convenient.
      Also, I do not have a blog. Maaaybe one day.. Currently, I just read around. And I like to help, if I see a topic where I think I am quite experienced. :)

      Maybe one more suggestion. In order not to lose your index cards, create an 'IN'-Box. Really just a small basket on the table and resist to put your index cards anywhere else. Its really hard in the beginning, but once you have got the habit you will never ever lose anything. I have got for example at work one basket. My on-the-way basket is my pocket. At home I have actually three. One at the nightstand, on in the kitchen/eating area and well the other is my jacket pocket. If I don’t find it I just walk around the house, and at one of them they are. The same I do for example for my keys; before that,.. it was horrible. Actually you (and everyone else) probably does something similar, with your cutlery for example. They are always at the same place. You need a spoon, you look always at the same place. Just do the same for your index cards.

      Success with that!

    6. Roman,
      That's a great idea! I have students turn all their papers into one basket--I need to impose that "rule" on myself.
      Thank you so much!

    7. Roman,
      That's a great idea! I have students turn all their papers into one basket--I need to impose that "rule" on myself.
      Thank you so much!

  7. I use index cards all the time. I started out some years ago after I first heard of hipster PDA... Actually, that's wrong. My husband has used file cards in all the years I've known him. When he buys new shirts they have to have two front pockets because one will have a small block of cards and a blue felt-tip pen in it. As a former librarian his cards are old library index cards that were thrown out when the system was computerised. He uses them for notes and shopping lists, and the box in the attic contains a lifetime's supply. But his have writing on one side, although he's repurposing and recycling, and occasionally the book mentioned on the other side has some meaning.

    Back to me. I use plain white 3 x 5" cards which I now buy by the 1000. I get plain ones because I write notes or lists using the cards in portrait layout (so I don't want lines going the other way), and sometimes I mind-map or draw little pictures.

    In my workroom, on my bedside table, and next to my armchair I have a neat container which contains about 100 cards with a small pen (Fisher bullet pen). In any of these locations I can reach out and pick up a fresh card and write on it. Most days I write at least one to do list. The container is a little glass jewellery tray 11cm x 16cm looking just like these but a smaller size.

    For the full hipster PDA thing, I use a block of 3 x 5 white cards with a piece of cardboard backing (the brown card that comes with each fresh block of cards) and an elastic band around it. I've used different coloured cards as dividers to indicate the different sections. I'm not totally happy with just tucking a pen through the elastic band, so I got a cheap passport case like this one (mine is khaki green and has a pen loop). I can keep a block of fresh cards in one side and put the filled-in cards on the other. It doesn't hold all that many cards though, so it's not too good as a full PDA, but it's great to have a stash of cards in my handbag. And then I discovered that I could put a small Field Notes notebook in the passport case, have a thin stack of cards on the other side, with a pen in the loop and that's been my handbag system for the last few years.

    I love my index card system. On my desk I have a memo holder with a clip, like these so I can clip today's to do list in it and have it in front of me. I've got a few extra ones for when I'm working on something and need a range of facts in front of me.

    I'm surprised at how strongly I feel abou this. I've been feeling a bit meh about book planners for a while now, but I'm passionate about my index cards.

    I hadn't seen mind-papers before and I think I may be in love. On the other hand, just last weekend I was on a leatherworking course and I've got lots of pieces of vegetable tanned leather. I think I may make my own.

    1. I did the same in the past :D I mean, building my own organiser. It gave me always a feeling of personalization (or I don’t know how to describe it) to use a tool you build yourself. I just was never able to get the pen loop right, it always looked like a 5-year-old built it…. and the mind-papers solved that pretty smart for me with the ‘Sloop’.

    2. By the way, thank you for the idea with the memo holder! I think I will get one (or some) of these as well. Really interesting. I never even considered the idea of using one.

    3. Catherine,

      Thank you also for your insights. I LOVE the idea of having notecards set out handy in the spots where you may need them--I wouldn't have thought of that!

      Also, do you follow a GTD style or are you more loose-flowing...write it down and then choose the action for it later?

      Also, if you happen to be in the US, I'd love the link to the bulk index card buy :)

      It looks like someone needs to start a FB index card appreciate group, huh???

      Thank you again!


  8. Here are some templates for index cards:

    1. Ray,

      Thank you--headed over to check them out!

  9. I used the Hipster PDA "system" a while ago and recently designed and used my own GTD-based system on 3x5 inch index cards. I've used this system since the beginning of the year to replace an A5 Filofax GTD system. As I'm now "retired" from full-time consulting this smaller system suits me better. Full details of my index card (and A5 Filofax) system can be found at

    1. Thanks, The Editor! I'm going to check it out!

  10. I have been using index cards for...sheesh...about four decades! My main use has been as a tickler file. I started off with a hanging-file based tickler, but found that an index-card tickler was far more efficient (for me). Anything I needed to keep track of that was bigger than an index card got a card placed in my tickler with a pointer to where the real object was. Much easier! My tickler file was now portable! When I was working, it traveled daily from home to work and back again in a little recipe-type box. My whole life was (is) in there! Now that I'm retired, it stays at home, unless we travel somewhere for more than a day or two. And, this all started loooong before GTD and David Allen's book - even before the 'Sidetracked Home Executive'. Contrary to popular belief, neither of them were the inventors of the '43 folders' concept. :)

    What I carry around with me daily has changed over the years. I am much like the author of this site, trying everything and anything. I stuck with Franklin Planners for quite a long time, and then with Circa disc-bound systems for a few years, then with Moleskine-type bound books. Lots of experimentation in-between, too - like FiloFax, Midori, HipsterPDA, and tons of electronic gadgets. I've tried all sizes, too. The one thing that they all had in common was that they all had a bunch of index cards stuffed in them, which travelled back and forth to my tickler file.

    Having never found the 'perfect' daily-carry product out there, I decided to make my own. It's just a flap of quality leather with an elastic band, constructed much like a Midori Traveler's Notebook, but in my own custom size - 4"x6" and 1 1/2" thick, with two leather pen loops. This lets me load it with five or so 3.5x5.5 notebooks, like Field Notes or Moleskine Cahiers (actually, since I'm a fountain pen user, I often make my own with better quality paper - but I can mix and match). And, I've made custom pockets to hold index cards, credit cards, cash, and other bits that let me get rid of my wallet. So this one little package is my wallet, day planner, sketchbook, journal, note taker, and inspiration catcher all in one. I can even slip my iPhone under the elastic and have a phone, reading library, and alarm clock added as well! The whole thing is smaller than a typical paperback book, but is so perfect for me that it goes everywhere I do.

  11. Jim Lee,
    Thanks for posting! I responded awhile back to this comment, but apparently it didn't take.
    Maybe you could offer to write a guest post (with photos!) for Laurie on this site!