Clearing out my old office, in anticipation of the move to our new farm, I found a box of my speeches from around 2002-2005. Forgive the dust and the cat hair, here are some photos of my “filing and writing system” from the pre-Evernote days!

My system included recycling the scrap paper, cutting it up to A5 size to use as cards. I’d always have a small pile of A5, recycled, cut up paper on my desk. If I had an idea I’d jot it down and pop it in the box. Every now and then I’d clear out the box, throw out useless ideas, round up all the duplicates, and I’d be ready to write my next speech.

I still use note pads, post it notes and recycled paper to make notes, and plenty of other people still use cards and scrap paper to capture ideas, it’s fast and flexible. The downsides, of course, are that you end up with boxes full of cat-haired notes, not organised and difficult to search. Also, the notes / cards are only in one place – usually the place you aren’t when you need them!

Ryan Holiday uses a note card system to write, and wrote his book, The Obstacle is the Way, using this very card system – though much more orderly than my system. He uses the index cards in an actual index box, sans cat hair! He attributes the idea to his mentor, Robert Green. If you’ve never read a Robert Green book, spank yourself and go buy one now! He acknowledges that there are other ways – techie ways – but this works for him. Hey, who can argue with 5 bestselling books?

Ultimately it’s not the system that writes the book or the speech or the thesis – it’s you. So you need to find what works for you, stick to it while it’s working and be prepared to change if it’s not. You might use a combination approach, like me:

  1. Capture Thoughts – paper, notepads, recycled cards, the back of till receipts, Evernote clippings, cards. Whatever you need to do.
  2. Organise Ideas – then I pause, round up all the ideas and put them into my agile author system ready for writing. I discard ideas, move my cards around and create a flexible plan that works for me. The cards can be reused in multiple projects and I can access them from any of my devices. I can also share them with other people for their feedback.
  3. Then it’s down to the easy part of writing!

What methods do you use for capturing your thoughts, and then organising your ideas? Are you an old school pen and paper person? Or the most technologically up to date? Do you have a great app you always use? Tell me in the comments below…