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Deep Habits: Create an Idea Index


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. 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 those moments where you know you’ve read something relevant to what you’re working on but can’t remember the specific details enough to find it again.

  2. Fantastic idea! I have had a similar experience. I am reading a book on algorithms and it is extremely hard to remember 200 pages down, the concepts discussed in the beginning without going through the highlighted sections. I am going to use this way of learning immediately.


  3. Great tip. I have always found it helpful to outline an article (including page numbers) as I read it rather than make notes in the margin. This helps me retain what I read and the outline also helps me recall the article months or years later. However, this method is time-consuming and does not necessarily capture the big ideas. I think this approach might be faster and still help me retain the important points. I’ll give it a try.

    In addition to big ideas, I suggest noting meta data about the article. For example, article type (e.g., editorial/position paper, concept paper, econometric analysis, empirical study, book review, etc.), methodology (quantitative, qualitative, mixed), novel approaches to data collection or analysis, findings, and suggestions for future research. Key works cited might also be worth noting.

  4. Hi. I know this is off-the-topic but i have a question about time managment and since I’m new to this blog I’m still not sure where should i post it. So sorry in advance.
    The question is simple: If i’m waking up 6 am; go to univercity at 7 am; at univercity at 9 am and after that at home at 5 pm; does it mean that I can’t apply time-managment scheme? 🙁

    And sorry about bad grammar. >_<

  5. Cal, this sounds much like your annotated source method for research papers, which has worked well for me in the past. It should be just as effective for books.

  6. I actually did this for a book I read about 2 months ago, it worked great. I still struggle with sometimes adding too many ideas, but I guess that’s better than missing something.

    Not so great if it’s a library book though. For those, I use sticky notes to mark interesting ideas, then compile them in Workflowy to have notes in outline form.

    • Kevin, I’m a Workflowy fan too and am using it in combo with Mendeley to take interactive and then “citable” notes (Peg Single’s method outlined in Demystifying the Dissertation). Single types her notes into Endnote and creates a template for viewing the succinct citable notes from all readings. So far I can’t see how to do this in Mendeley (the longer interactive notes can go in the source’s Notes area) and always find Workflowy a much lower barrier approach. Long story short, it would be great to see a screenshot/explanation of how you structure your reading notes in Workflowy, tagging, etc.

      And re this main thread, the index approach seems like a great way to handle the “can’t mark up library books and post its get insane” problem.

  7. I’ve actually been using a very similar system for indexing both my book annotations, and my own personal journals (which are more than journals — but really journal/spark file/day planner/to do lists/logbooks).

    Got the idea from this Lifehacker post — it has worked AMAZINGLY well. I’ve been struggling with this for years, and this is the first real solution that has worked.

  8. I like this concept for quick ideas and notes. I like to use Evernote (or similar program) to outline books with the information thats relevant and most important. Or to just take quick notes. That way its all in one place, instead of having to dig out old books to fin the index.


    • I read three or four at a time…and carve out time to do so (usually after the kid is in bed). I sometimes also take an hour here and there during the work week and read some more on weekends or during travel. I also listen to quite a bit on tape since I live 35 minutes from my office…

  9. The “idea index” was something I picked up at boarding school. We had to purchase all of our books. I owned them, and could write in them. Every book I’ve read since 7th grade has an index of the core concepts, including a page number and the general concept discussed on that page. It’s never really occurred to me to read something without taking notes in this manner.

    The hard part is figuring out what’s important and what’s not. I’m trying to find the time to go back through every book and get the information into a useable format…Like Evernote.

  10. Cal,

    I saw Maria’s interview and was astonished to learn more about her writing rate. Your initial method is the beginning of my method. I notate pages and then during down time or after the book is complete document the pages using Scrivener. Maybe you know the software, but it allows you to index all in one window and search the ideas from many books all together.


  11. Cal, I happen to be reading Rise of Theodore Roosevelt as well. Now, there’s someone who did a great amount deep work in his lifetime!

    I have been collecting ideas on 3″x5″ index cards and I cycle through them to refresh my memory. Problem is, I keep accumulating more and more of them and it takes longer and longer to cycle through. I don’t have any real basis of organization for my idea collection.

    Your post got me thinking about how to improve this system. I appreciate the post and, more so, this blog overall. “How can I be more productive?” and “how can I accomplish something meaningful?” are very fundamental questions. This is the best place I know of to find new ideas on the subject rather than the hackneyed time-management concepts abounding elsewhere.

    • I’m obsessed! He’s fascinating (shows what’s possible when you have huge energy, intellectual ambition, and the resources to support you and prevent the need to spend most of your time making a living…I think I’d be a good 19th century gentleman…)

  12. Digressing a bit — how cautious do we need to be about advice from “fakes”?

    I trust Cal and have no reason to not trust Maria. Outside of them, I’ve noticed that ghost-writing is probably more common than most of us expect. It’s fascinating to read interviews with professional writers who readily admit that they often write “expert” articles on topics they have little experience with. I’m curious if Cal has encountered this in his own research of what helps people become successful — is it very prevalent?

  13. just for clarification, it’s Ferriss who creates an index at the beginning and Maria does hers at the end. Here is another link, the subject at hand is at the 40:00 mark.

  14. What’s delta in doing this on, say, Evernote, or OneNote? The trade off, I think, is that putting it in a database gives you a big xref index. But it makes the process slower and more awkward.

    Too much of a disincentive?

  15. Shane Parrish at also has a section on the side of his website called “How to Read”. He is a prolific reader, and so he has written articles on notetaking and retaining information from reading.

    Most of his work comes from the the book, “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, which I highly recommend anyone and everyone to read. I’ve read it a few times myself, and it’s a thorough, comprehensive book on how to tackle various types of literature in order to get most the most out of them. If you want to get more out of reading time, this book will immensely help, and it details the types of notes one should make and areas to highlight while reading certain types of literature.

  16. Cal,

    I a long-time reader of your blog. I have a quick question for you.

    If you read about 5-10 books a week for the past 10 years then have you read roughly 2,600-5,200 books. Do you think this is a fair estimate of how many books you have read in your life so far?

  17. As I read a book in a Kindle app, I can yellow highlight and annotate (write in the margins) sections of the book. I then go to my Kindle account on Amazon and then cut-n-paste all my highlights/notes into OneNote/Evernote. Finally, I do a high level summary of the book as well as a list of (3) key takeaways from reading the book.

    Thus I create my ‘front of the book index’ digitally, available on any device that I have OneNote/Evernote on. Also, there are links in the highlights/notes that take you straight to that portion of the book via your kindle app!!!

    M A G I C

    “Barry James” Folsom, SV Gadget Guru

    • I use the highlighting feature in iBooks and then create a document out of the highlights which I place in the Notebooks app in a book called Florilegium.

  18. Thanks for this wonderful summary of how to make an idea index! I love to read (although am nowhere near as prolific a reader as Maria Popova – she is a book-devouring monster!) 🙂 The margins of my books are littered with scribbled notes, and my kindle books are highlighted and annotated – but I admit too that these notes can easily get lost once I finish the book. I’m looking forward to listening to the interview, and checking out more of your blog. Katie. X

  19. I think this idea is wonderful! ive been trying to find a way to better annotate different ideas and from sticky-noting the page to trying to use different colored pens to represent different ideas but i still have to rummage through all the pages! so glad i found this!

  20. The kindle reader on my iPad handles my note taking, especially now that it allows for copying and pasting of text. It also has multicolor markers and a favourites button. All the notes stay tied to the book.

  21. In reading, I find it most difficult and time consuming to elicit the argument behind the idea; that is, the reasoning, data or what have you which leads the author to believe what (s)he does.

    Does anyone have any tips on doing this effectively, or how to incorporate it into Miss Popov’s index system?

  22. This “idea index concept” looks a lot like taking notes with mindmaps – the method that I use. Process looks like the same – you see new idea and create new branch, you see related ideas and create new subbranch. You can do it by hand (I did it in the beginning), but there are a lot of software for this and it is more usefuul to do it on computer.
    1) You can close and open different branches which helps you understand “book as a whole” and dig deeper in exact topic
    2) You can rearrange information. E.g., you understand that this fact was not about topic A, but about topic B – you just drag and drop
    3) You create scheme for topic (not for a book), so, when you read several books in a row about the same topic, you just add new branches in one mindmap
    4) This helps you refresh your knowledge when you pick new book for old topic.

        • I started off with XMind Free to get a feel but did not find it intuitive; that could have been me being unfamiliar with this type of software. I then tried FreePlane (fork of FreeMind), and started to quite like what I saw & how to use it. But when I came across MindMaple I fell in love & went for it. It is really great & very customisable. The only concern: the latest version is dated 2014. But the devs have assured me a new version will be coming out, integrating the Lite (=free) & Pro versions.
          I use MM to make notes about the book, and also about any subject I need to get into deeper. Electronic note-taking beats handwritten note-taking in terms of search & find capabilities.

  23. When reading non-fiction the primary goal should be to understand the major argument(s) and the overall structure without getting bogged down in the detail. I like Popova’s ideas because it focuses on capturing the most important ideas.

    Some ideas are so critical/fascinating that we want to spend time on the detail and absorb the material at a deep level: That’s meditation, not reading.

    • I agree. Some non-fictions books that come along are packed with insight from cover to cover. Most are a big idea worked out in many different ways, and these latter types don’t require a close read of ever page.

  24. I thought this post was insight full. I have never imagined or thought of creating an Idea index at the front of a book or research journal or any other typ of academic paper. As I read this post I could see how this would work in my mind and how easy it would be to find important quotes or information.

  25. Hello,

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    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  26. Great tip, Cal – thanks!
    I’ve been making notes while reading non-fiction books for a few years (since I realised my memory was NOT as good as i thought it was). Initially I was writing down stuff in a notebook, almost creating another book, so I’ve come up with the current ‘system’. I write my notes on coloured sticky or plain small pieces of paper, one colour per book, jotting down key ideas/tips as I read.
    The fact that these are really small pieces of paper and I try to fit at least 1 idea/tip per sheet, means I need to be consise, but the organising of my notes reflects the structure of the book (chapters etc.) and it’s still too much to go back to/over when needed.

    I like Maria’s method – it makes a lot of sense! I’m going to implement it.

  27. Hey Cal,

    A Fizzler shared your post with me and I must say, it’s very helpful. Never heard of the Index approach before.

    I now mainly read on my Kindle app. At the frustration of not being able to easily export my snippets and notes, I created an iOS app that does just that.

    I don’t want to spam your site so I won’t post a link to it but if it’s something that may interest you or your readers please let me know and I’ll share it with you or post it here.

    Keep up the great work that you do!

  28. Other people’s ideas (like those of the writer of the book you read) are only useful if you can build on them on connect/link them in order to generate your own ideas. Solution: set up & use a so-called Zettelkasten. To get started on this concept go to Brilliant posts in there from a very capable young man.

  29. I’ve been creating idea indexes in notebooks for years for many things including books. I recently discovered WorkFlowy ( as a means of tracking ideas, projects, and a myriad of other things. It’s brilliant!

  30. Thanks for sharing this wonderful idea! I also struggled with organizing my notes in a way that doesn’t interfere with my reading but now with this Idea Index I catalog my notes from different books with page numbers for quick reference and generate writing ideas while I am reading with the supporting notes. I used this idea for 3-4 books so far and it works great!

  31. I think this is a great tip, It has potential to really improve note taking habits. In my study of religious texts, I have put something just like this to use, but I can see how this method would be very effective at adding a dimension to my own studies of more secular texts. I hadn’t considered putting this to use in that part of my studies.


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