Study Hacks Blog

Deep Habits: Create an Idea Index

October 23rd, 2014 · 82 comments


Brain Picking

I’m a professional non-fiction writer which makes me by default also a professional reader of sorts (the photo above shows my nightstand). I read (most of) five to ten books per month on average in addition to quite a few articles.

One thing that has often frustrated me in this undertaking is the inefficiency of my notetaking. My standard strategy when reading a physical book is to mark interesting passages with a pencil and then put a check on the upper right corner so I can later skip quickly past non-annotated pages.

The problem with this strategy is that if time passes after I read a book the only way to recreate what I learned or find a useful quote is to skim through all the marked pages.

This is why I was excited the other day to learn a better way.

The Idea Index

The source of this insight was an interview on the Tim Ferris Show with Brain Pickings’s Maria Popova, who is one of the world’s most prolific readers (fifteen books per week!?) and hardest working bloggers (three long posts per day!?).

Around thirty-one minutes into the interview, Popova explains how she takes notes on books:

  1. As she reads, she creates an index at the front of the book that lists its most interesting ideas.
  2. Every time she encounters a passage relevant to one of these ideas she adds the page to the relevant line in the index. If its a new idea, she creates a new line for it.
  3. As she reads more, the index grows.

Here’s what’s great about this idea index method: When you pick up a book read long ago, you can quickly recall what it has to offer by glancing at the index. Then, if you want to grab some quotes about one of these ideas, the index tells you exactly where to look (no more reading every annotation!).

I haven’t had a chance to try this habit yet, but I look forward to deploying it the next time I dive into an idea-dense title.

82 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Create an Idea Index

  1. Jeff says:

    This works pretty well for scientific papers as well. I keep a notebook with titles/brief descriptions of particularly interesting papers at the front that reference pages later in the notebook where I explain a little bit about why the paper was interesting/useful. It helps in tho