How to Start Your Own Notecard System

This Week’s BIG Idea

I’ve been thinking about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system for quite some time. The idea behind the system is to remember, organize, and use everything you read. There are three simple steps to using the system:

  • How you should read: read physical books, highlight them, and take down notes.
  • How you should organize what you read: write thoughts, ideas, quotes, and concepts in 4×6 notecards. Identify them with a theme, category, or project at the top so that you can find them more easily later on. Ryan Holiday takes down notes as he reads, but he waits a few weeks before transcribing them.
  • How to use what you read: Holiday stores all the notes in a commonplace book. He calls this a “backup hard drive of your brain” and the culmination of this compilation of ideas can be a book or a series of blog posts.

For more information about the system, here’s how Ryan Holiday explains it in his own words in his personal blog. Note that the author was able to publish ten books in the past decade using this very system, so it’s hard to argue with its results. Also, while Holiday borrowed the system from Robert Greene and adapted it, the creator of the notecard system is a German sociologist called Niklas Luhmann who named it the Zettelkasten and it’s somehow called “the slip-box”. You can read a detailed summary of the Zettelkasten in the book How to Take Smart Notes here.

What I’m Working on

Since I now have some stationary, I finally started planning and organizing my new bullet journal. I’m glad I compiled many resources about the topic because starting a bullet journal from scratch can be overwhelming. My YouTube Watch Later list is filled with videos from Amanda Rach Lee, Ali Abdaal, Nathaniel Drew, and Picking Up Limes. I’d like to point people towards one specific resource, but since the bullet journal is all about customizing everything to your heart’s content, you have to do your own research. Personally, I’m choosing function over form, so the simpler, the better. My idea is not to use the journal to express myself artistically but to find the mental clarity I need. I’ll share more on this topic soon.

What I’m Listening to

I’m excited to listen to this episode of Deep Dive with Ali Abdaal where he interviews content creator Kharma Medic. For those unfamiliar, Kharma Medic started his YouTube career while he was studying medical school and has since amassed a big following on the platform. His trajectory is quite similar to Ali Abdaal’s since they both have created videos about productivity, study techniques, having a second brain, and note-taking.

What I’m Reading

Back when I was in college, I used to visit Lifehacker on a daily basis and my favorite posts were the ones in the “This Is How I Work” series where a professional introduced him or herself and explained how they worked. By reading these articles you could learn about the equipment or tools they used, but also the process. Interestingly, while I was doing research about the notecard system, I found an old article where Ryan Holiday explained, among other things, his notecard system. Although I missed this article back when it came out, I’m glad I can go back to it now.

What I’m Watching

Since I brought up Ryan Holiday’s three-step note system above, here’s a video where he explains exactly what he does.

This Week’s Quote

“The only exercise most people get is jumping to conclusions, running down their friends, sidestepping responsibility, and pushing their luck.”


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