December 20, 2006

3×5’s As A Capture Tool…

Posted in GTD, Lifehacks at 8:52 am by a11en

Merlin today has a great post that you may have noticed a while ago at Lifehacker about Merl Reagle’s capture tools. Merl is the creator of the Old Grey Lady‘s Cross-word Puzzles. [Regardless of what you think of the NYTimes, you must respect a puzzle-maker. πŸ˜‰ ]

Merl uses soft reporter books as well as 3×5’s or perhaps they’re 4×6’s as a capture tool. He explains how he’ll get inspirations at the oddest moments and doesn’t want to loose those inspirations by forgetting to jot them down. Hence, the need for an anytime-anywhere capture tool. Enter the hPDA.

What is interesting to me about the lowly 3×5 is that it seems that every old guy I meet has a stack of these in their breast-pocket. My landlord, great guy BTW, always has a stack in his pocket, as well as some more in his minivan. Frequently he can be seen rummaging through them to find a piece of info he needs. I even had a professor give me the suggestion that I needed some place to jot down notes/organize myself, and out popped a pen and a 3×5 stack. He saw me smile, and I don’t know if he know why I did or not, but already in my backpocket was my Levenger Ballistic Shirt Pocket briefcase with a set of 3×5’s already in place. I was tempted to ask: “Do you know GTD?” πŸ˜‰ I doubt he did, but one thing is for sure, he’s successful and my guess is his 3×5’s get good use. [Another kind fellow, BTW.] Aside:Holy Cow- the BSPB is no longer available at Levenger. EEEK. The world has stopped spinning? Their leather versions are nice, but they are missing a third pocket.

The thing that intrigues me about the 3×5’s is what in particular makes them easy to use? Personally, I think it’s the ease of the search/sort ability, as well as the size. That probably boils it down right there. Now, while I like the hPDA, I don’t print out many cards myself, mainly because it takes time. I just can’t bring myself to print my own card blanks. I can however snag 10 off the blank stack and shove them in the middle of my briefcase. But, I think that there are some issues with the 3×5’s, and potentially all paper capture tools that are inherently difficult.

The one section of that talk with Merl that I’d love to have seen, is how in the world does he use his captured thoughts? In the video snippet, we hear Merl talk about a particular puzzle he didn’t use for years. Looking at the captured thoughts and their seemingly randomness (it’s ok, mine are often random), I practically screamed at the video: “And then what?! And then what?!” How do you use those stacks? My theory? Like many musicians, when inspiration is needed they go back to a pretty disorganized slew of notes. Rummage in there, and out pops inspiration. A huge tickler/inspiration file. Not particularly an organized ordered “need to do this:” type stack. A slew of ideas jotted down for future work.

I found this next step to be the critical pathway to an idea which either stays an idea, gets lost in the stack of ideas (for me ideas are a dime a dozen at times), or gets acted upon. This is where the physical capture tool of the 3×5 starts to break down. Organization and subsequent use. Those 3×5’s are good for a day, perhaps a week… but then, what happens? How do *you* use them?

What I’ve tended to do, and it’s not working so well right now (a need to redo this process is much needed- but must wait until this Christmas break), is to peruse these cards for data every week or so. I also keep a running “Inbox” 3×5 card which gets filled slowly from top to bottom with action items. These Inbox cards get looked at with high frequency, as well as get combined/whittled down about once a week.

Now, this works to some extent, but there are some serious flaws in it. For one, the tasks aren’t put into context as they should be at this present time… they’re not that bad, but they’re just glorified ToDo lists at the moment. The primary reason this is the case, is that the 3×5’s are easy to use, but not easy to organize. Not to mention they’re not easy to search contextually like on a computer. I’ve heard some folks have luck scanning in all their 3×5’s and using meta tags etc., to help them locate info on them. Wonderful idea, I may try it sometime, but wow- what a lot of work.

So, if you use 3×5’s, and if you have similar problems, or want to share how you overcome them, let me know below in the comments. I’d love to chat about this more, time allowing. Either the end of the 3×5’s usefulness, or the lo-fi/hi-fi disconnection are also wonderful discussion points.

Finally, a comment about the venerable notebook. I love blank notebooks. Lordy do I have enough of them. πŸ˜‰ Being a fountain-pen user, I tend towards the soft-back Miquelrius notebook. I’m intrigued right now by the cloth-bound Clairfontaines, and hope to have a few purchased soon. Smythson is also intirguing due to their feather-weight paper and fountain-pen friendly quality- but, well, I’d have to sell a small kingdom to buy them, and honestly, I suspect that their product is priced mostly because it’s a new “fashion” accessory these days. Somewhat like Burberry’s fall from outdoorman’s fame with the adoption of the Chav-hat. Hell, Burberry used to outfit Shackleton and Amundsen. Anyways, I digress… The benefit of a notebook is that it keeps everything in order. You could imagine a big table-of-contents at the beginning of the notebook and numbered pages marking each important thought upon weekly review. This to me screams future usefulness. Perhaps I’d only need to input my table-of-contents for each book I have and search this when I’m looking for info. I guess a similar approach could be done with 3×5’s, but the very nature of them mean that they are very very easy to disorganize. [BTW, I’m quite gifted at that last word.] Problem with the notebook- 1) too thick to keep in the back-pocket, 2) brain-farts carry equal worth to nobel prize winners, 3) inability to pitch/sort/organize on the fly- inboxes inside notebook generally require constant re-writing, 4) same issues with action sorting into contexts as 3×5’s.

Interesting stuff none-the-less. Almost every old guy I meet (I’m fast becoming one) has a stack of 3×5’s surrounded by a rubber band and a pencil/pen hanging out somewhere on him. I think this shows that this method of capture spans the generations and is inherently useful. I’m intrigued by the possible breakdown of use of these tools on a higher organizational level much like the disconnection between ToDo’s and NextActionContext lists. But, in the end, it’s about being able to put pen to paper anywhere you are. For that, the 3×5 has been a God-send.

Here’s wishing you a fantastic Christmas! Perhaps Santa will have a stack of 3×5’s under the tree for you! πŸ˜‰

A little gem I just found:Β  Merlin as “That Phone Guy”


  1. Greeting – Great article By the way – as usual good information. I too use 3×5 quite a bit in my daily activities. I have the leather version of the shirt pocket briefcase from Levengers but I always have on hand is the International Shirt Pocket Briefcase.

    I like this version better in some instances because it has a pocket to fit my daily use fountain pen inside and protect it and a place for my drivers license and money (When I have any).

    I also bought the Levenger Index Cards – I find them better quality then he dime store variety But they work just as well also.

    I too had a hard time organizing them. I use a old wooden cigar box for my “Current” cards and have a longer storage box from Office Depot/Max that I use for Long Term Storage.

    When I am placing my cards away I will mark the card with a Topic and Number. I then store them alphabetically in the trays by the Topic & Number. Any really important facts or info I know I might need to remember I write it down on the index card index card πŸ™‚ that I have stored in the front of the tray – Thus I can quickly (Well sorta) find a past topic. Plus this gives me a way to place the card back into it correct spot when the time comes. I will usually do this once every week or so as not to get too many cards out of place but they are fairly easy to put back into order no matter what.

    My local Big Lots store has the plastic dividers I use in the boxes for about $1.50 I like these better then the ones from Office Depot as the are all the same color and the letter is easier to read. Actually I bought sever sets – I put my own TAGS or labels on them (I have one for each of my clients or major projects that I am working on) That way when I mark the card I can put it in that Tagged section and make it the next number. For cards that don’t have a “Divider” I put them into the alphabet dividers by letter. So notes I took about a particular pipe tobacco would be under P and the number would be then next number in the P section ex. P112. And If I thought this was something important as mentioned above I would put:

    Pipe Tobacco (Haddo’s Delight) – P112

    on the index card index. I have one card for each letter in index. This helps keep my index cards in order Right now I have Several cards for each letter. These are easier to go thru then going though each and every card all the time.

    But I have to admit there are times like you mentioned that I just flip and scan though all the cards just to get some inspiration. Depending on what I am writing and note taking – I will either use the index cards or my notebook. The notebook for me is more for info that I want to store long term and want to have easy access to as when I leave to go to a job or client I have that with me in my backpack / work kit. And I alway in the front of my notebook carry a few extra index cards. That way if the info in not as important I write it on the cards. I also keep a couple with my Name and Email/phone number printed on to give notes to a client. I find this quite effective as it keeps my info with them without them having to write down my name and email address.

    Merlin – DigitalAlan

  2. pooks said,

    Check this out —

    How to organize/index your moleskine (or other notebook) as a blog.

    I’m almost finished with my first moleskine and plan to set my next one up this way, I’m pretty sure.

    Here is what my current moleskine is like here:

    and here:

    Thanks for bringing this subject up!

  3. a11en said,

    Pooks! I’m sorry I didn’t reply earlier! Thanks so much for your post, and these great articles! I appreciate you posting them! Quite interesting.

    I’m looking at a crazy New Year with tons of work, and need to get my head around my system again so that I can get it to work for me. Lots of revamping, lots of project planning etc.!

    I hope your new year (and yours too Alan) is just fantastic! My best to you both!!

  4. Bill said,

    Am I looking in the right place for a 3×5 front shirt pocket note book with refills and a smaller note book inside it? Thanks

  5. a11en said,

    Hey Bill!

    Hmm… I haven’t seen what you’re talking about yet. I’ll try and keep my eyes open for you and post a link here if I can find it. If you subscribe to the comments RSS you won’t miss my comment post if I find it.

    Do you know if it was a levenger product or a franklin-covey etc., that you’re thinking of?

    Thanks for dropping in, BTW!

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