The Art of Personal Indexing: The Complete Guide to Indexing Your Paper Notes

18 minute read


Why This Article?
One of the biggest advantage of electronic documents has always been that they're easy to search. Good ol' Ctrl-F has probably saved millions of hours since its invention. But what if you'd rather have something on paper, but you still need to be able to search it? I don't have a keyboard and a little display in the front of my notebooks, but I do have an index, and in a large number of cases it works nearly as well.

The index seems like a lost art nowadays with so many references moving online. Maybe that's not so surprising: making a generally good index is quite difficult and historically has been a profession, and there's actually an organization called the American Society of Indexers. But if you just want to help yourself find stuff when you put it away in your notebook or binder, it couldn't be easier to start an index. In fact, you're the best-qualified person to make an index for yourself, because you know how you relate ideas way better than anyone else.

I've found a surprising lack of resources on the Web relating to this idea, so I'm writing my own. While I've designed this guide for notebooks because that's how I use it, most of the techniques should apply to binders as well, or maybe even filing systems with a little bit of adaptation.

(As a side note, the plural of index as used in this article is indexes. Indices is a more Latin form nowadays used only in mathematical contexts.)

You might prefer to look at these once you've read some of this guide, but if I put them at the end you might not know I had them here until you finished. I'll refer to them later on. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

A journal index:

A dream index:

A quote index:

A Topic Book index (ideas, thoughts):

Influences on This Technique
What got me interested in making my own indexes in the first place was an article by Lion Kimbro in the book Mindhacker, as previously mentioned way down in the middle of this article. He also wrote a book, How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which gave me a few more ideas. Many of the techniques are borrowed from one or both of these books, but I've added some of my own experience and provided a bit more description.

My favorite idea from there, and one that I'll repeat several times here, is this: "There are no binder police." (I'll say notebook for better consistency with this article.) It's great to look at other people's techniques and learn their rules. It's also great to make up your own rules. Organization makes things more consistent and more useful. But sometimes stepping outside the lines is even better, and here, if you do, nobody is going to tell you you did something wrong. Don't wonder whether you can draw an arrow in your index if I didn't tell you to. Do it! Here's a secret: if you like, you can even do something "wrong" just because you can. It feels pretty good sometimes.

What an Index is Not
An index, as described in this article, is not a sequential list of the contents of your notebook. This article talks about the indexes the author uses, which consist of writing a page number next to the title of an entry with no particular order. While I don't doubt this works for the author, personally I wouldn't call it an index—it's much more like a traditional book's table of contents than an index. The problem with that approach, at least for me, is that, while it's a little bit easier to create, you have to scan the entire thing to find what you're looking for, which takes away a good part of the efficiency (and, frankly, the fun) of using an index in the first place.

An index is not a list of titles. You want to extract words or concepts from your content and provide multiple ways to access it, because that's the way your brain works.

An index is not an exhaustive list of every possible word you might relate to a page in your notebook. Don't hesitate to add useful keywords to the index, but only add ones you honestly think you might use to get back to that point.

Finally, and most importantly, even after those rules, an index is not something that gets created only according to rules that are set in stone. Remember, there are no notebook police. If you want to write a note next to one of your entries, do it. If you want to flip the order of two entries, draw a big arrow on the page. If you want to add something that's not even in this notebook, do it!

Numbering Your Pages
This is both a boring topic and a boring task, but it's a topic that cannot be avoided. If you don't have any page numbers, you can't have an index. Unless you're really lucky, your notebook probably won't come with page numbers in it, and if you're using a binder and loose-leaf, it definitely won't.

If you're going to use your notebook completely linearly, from front to back, you can get away with numbering pages as you use them. I personally prefer to go ahead and do it all at the beginning anyway even though it's a boring job just because I'd rather not deal with it later, but you may feel differently. If you're splitting the book into multiple sections or using some other organizational system, though, you're going to have to bite the bullet and number every page at the beginning.You can get lazy if you like and only number every other page (either numbering with only odd numbers on the right side or using every number and using .5's for the left side). However, if you're picky like me, you'll probably want to number all of them. If you do go for numbering all of them, number all the right-hand or left-hand pages first, then go back and do the others—it's much faster since you don't have to move your writing hand back and forth.

Update 2013/06/28: There's one other option, sometimes called the "quadrant method." See the appropriately named section on this Moleskine/GTD fan page.

In any case, make sure you're turning the pages carefully so you don't skip any accidentally. If you do miss a page, that's not the end of the world either—the notebook police aren't going to fine you for being clumsy. Just number the pages in between with decimals or fractions (I have at least one notebook that goes 86 – 86⅓ – 86⅔ – 87). And if you accidentally skip a number, you'll just be missing a page number—it doesn't matter.

If you're picky and paranoid about screwing up the numbering, you can do 20–50 pages on one side, then go backwards doing the facing pages, checking your work as you go along. That way you'll catch it easier and have fewer pages to correct if you decide to change them.

You can put your page numbers anywhere on the page you like. Personally, I've gotten used to using the outside bottom corners, but there is not even a guideline for this, much less a rule.

If you're using a binder, you have the ability to add pages in the middle of already existing pages. You can do whatever you like for numbering added pages, but I recommend using decimals between the existing pages. So if you insert a sheet between page 24 and page 25, number the front side 24.3 and the back 24.7. If you later add something between 24.7 and 25, number it 24.8 and 24.9, and so on. If you prefer integers, you can start by numbering by tens (if you're old and geeky enough to remember programming in BASIC, you'll be familiar with this technique).

With a binder, you can't number only one side of the pages, because if you insert a page in the middle later, one of the pages will suddenly have a different (implied) number. However, if you trust yourself to remember to add the missing number every time you add a page in the middle, you might be able to get away with it.

Making an Index
Your index should go at one end of the notebook. Most books have an index in the back, but feel free to put it at the front if you prefer—that's what I usually do. Don't put it in the middle, though, because the very front and very back pages are by far the easiest to find.

For a 240-page journal-size notebook, I use five pages. For an 80-page notebook, I use two. Those are the only sizes I've experimented with extensively, so I can't offer advice on others, but give scaling it a shot and see what you find out. You're going for the most information in the fewest number of pages without making it messy or difficult to read. (I write multiple entries per line, usually 2–3, letters about 2mm tall; see the examples.)

Then write big letters along the left side of the page (preferably in a different color than you intend to write in the index with). Some letters need more space than others. In a 240-page ruled notebook with 30 lines, I use five or six as a baseline number and add, subtract, or combine letters as needed.

  • C usually takes up more space than any other letter. Give it at least one-third more space than a baseline amount.
  • I takes up somewhat less space than average.
  • J and K can be combined effectively into JK, using an average amount of space together.
  • N and O can be combined into NO, using an average amount of space together.
  • Q needs almost no space, as one would expect. I prefer to not combine it with either P or R, since they are average space-users, but rather to write it on its own, giving it only one or two lines.
  • S needs more space than average.
  • T does too.
  • U and V can be combined into UV and still use slightly less space than average.
  • W takes the most space of any of the end-of-the-alphabet letters, but can still use slightly less than average.
  • XYZ123 can be just one section and still look empty most of the time. (123 indicates entries that start with a number, like 3-ring binder or 911.)
(The above assumes that you're using English for your notes; if you're using a different language, you'll need a different letter distribution.)

You can plan out the letter distribution ahead of time if you like: multiply the number of lines per page by the number of pages, divide it by the number of entries (you can do 26 if you like, but as shown above, you probably want to combine some of them), then add and subtract from each letter to adjust the distribution, making sure the total number always remains the same. The one catch with this system is that you probably don't want to split a letter over multiple pages, so you have to deal with also grouping the letters into sets of the number of lines on a page as well.

Using an Index
Whenever you add some notes to your system, whether by writing them, copying them, filing them, or punching and binding them, add some entries to the index. Good keywords

  • are not the title of the page (we're not going for a list of contents).
  • do not apply to very many other notes (a keyword that has 15 page numbers is annoying since you have to look up many of them).
  • are things you would think of when trying to find these notes (that seems obvious, but sometimes I find myself putting keywords in the index that are related to the notes but I couldn't possibly expect myself to use when looking something up).
  • if in doubt, should be the first things you think of, because those are probably the same keywords you'll think of when you're looking for it again.

You can take a look at my example indexes for some ideas for keywords. If you don't understand what one is, that's good—it means it's personal.

I prefer to write names as Lastname, Firstname, but sometimes I have to skip out of this pattern when I don't know somebody's last name. If I'm afraid I might forget someone's last name, I'll often enter it in my standard format, then add an entry "Firstname, see Lastname". In the end, it doesn't really matter how you prefer to do it as long as you're relatively consistent.

Try to roughly alphabetize the entries within each letter. It doesn't have to be perfect, and it won't be, since you can't predict what entries you'll use next, but at least you can have items whose second letter is a at the beginning and ones with u's near the end. I'm still working on learning second-letter distributions for different letters; for instance, nearly half of words that start with c start with co, and most of those start with com or con. But don't worry about these minutiae at the beginning, just try to get the entries roughly in order.

I start with two columns, the first roughly A-L and the second M-Z; if one of them fills up and you still need to add more to the letters in that column, you can squeeze some entries in between, use some of the space from an adjacent letter, or put the entry somewhere else where there's space and draw a line to the place where it should go. I've done this several times in the first example index.

A final note here: be careful with the index pages! One of my notebooks recently split apart at the first page because I turn to that page so much and probably don't do it too carefully (you can sort of see the damage in the final example). If you're using loose-leaf paper, put those little reinforcement stickers around the holes (if you don't have any, you can imitate them by taping over the holes on both sides and then re-punching the paper through the tape). If you're using a notebook, be gentle when you turn to the index so you don't rip the index pages out or wear through the binding.

The Index is Never Finished
It's frustrating to have a nicely designed and maintained index, flip to the index, and be unable to find what you were looking for. It's even more frustrating to do this twice. So if you can't find something, don't just page through the notebook and find it and then continue on your merry way. Find the place, but then add it to the index under all the keywords you tried to find it under. That way, next time, you won't have to do the same thing.Similarly, if you do find something in the index but only after you've thought of several different keywords, add the ones you were originally thinking of. And if you're reading some notes and suddenly think of a brilliant keyword you didn't think of before, go ahead and add it (just be prepared to find that you have, in fact, already written that one in the index—it will happen).

Advanced Topics
If you've never made an index before, don't worry about these things now. But if you're looking for more, here are some other advanced ideas that I've found useful.

Sometimes you might want to reference some other notes somewhere else. If they're in the same notebook or binder, you can just write the page number (I always write references in green ink, but I'm particular like that and I write with a four-color pen). If they're in a different notebook, though, you're going to have fun writing things like "that yellow spiral-bound notebook" or "the one I currently keep in my pocket." So it's better to start numbering your notebooks/binders and classify them if you have different kinds. I have the following system:

  • TB (Topic Book) – Ideas, things that don't really go anywhere else.
  • CB (Chrono Book) – More conventionally known as a journal, but "journal book" sounds really dumb.
  • DB (Dream Book) – What it sounds like.
  • PB (Pocket Book) – A little tiny green notebook that I squeeze random ideas into and then put somewhere else.
  • QB (Quote Book) – Another pocket-sized notebook with quotes from stuff I'm reading.

Each set has a volume number, and every volume has page numbers, so I can write, for example, TB1.53. This reference is easy to write inline in other notes or in an index. Someday I'm hoping to make an index that covers many notebooks, but right now I don't have enough notes to make it necessary or worthwhile.

Internal Non-Page Numbering
Sometimes it might be easier or more useful to index by a numbering system other than pages. For instance, in my dream journal, I number each entry and use that for my index. It may be less precise, since one entry can span multiple pages, but it's more useful for finding what happened where.

You don't need to adapt your index in any special way, you just have to remember that the numbers aren't page numbers. If you don't number the pages, that won't be hard to remember, but if you're picky like me (are you seeing a pattern yet?) you might want to number the pages anyway and include a table of contents in the back that maps your internal numbering system to pages, or use the pages for some other thing.

It's useful to add a second set of page numbers at the other end of the page (top if you numbered pages at the bottom, or bottom if you numbered pages at the top, or either if you didn't number pages at all, or on the side if you like to break the rules, or on the back of the page if you're just weird) that match the internal numbering, in a way similar to the guide words in a dictionary. Thus if you find that you want to look up #459, you can just flip through the book at that corner until you see the number 459.

Multiple Pagination Systems
In my Topic Books, I have a separate section at the back for quick notes. Some of these later get made into full pages or sections, some of them don't. In any case, I like to index them. The information density is so high, however, that it's not useful to give the number of the page—there could be twenty completely different ideas on the same page. So I number these ideas separately.

Page numbers then get written in black next to keywords in the index, and quick note numbers get written in blue. If you don't have multiple colors, you can put page numbers for one of the systems in parentheses, or precede them with a B or a smiley-face, or whatever you fancy.

The Index Game
This isn't really a technique, but it can be fun all the same. If I look at the index of one of my journals, I can instantly remember a bunch of the stuff that happened during that time just from reading the entries—indexes actually serve as a decent summary.

The Index Game, then, is to look at an index (preferably one you haven't used in a moderate amount of time) and try to see how much you can remember about the notes that correspond to each entry without turning to that page. For every one you succeed on, you'll probably strike out on several more, but it's amazing how much you can remember about some of them even when they're extremely random.

One trick is to look at the page number, then scan the rest of the index for other items with the same page number or a nearby one; hopefully another one will help you remember.