A Simple Index Card GTD System

Date: Monday, April 28, 2008 by GTD Times Staff

Editors Note: This great piece has been contributed by GTD Community Member Joe Ely who was kind enough to offer to share his personal GTD system with us in the following post.

A bit about Joe: Joe Ely is the Director of Operations at Cook Biotech, Inc, a medical device manufacturing company in West Lafayette, Indiana. He writes the blog Learning About Lean, a study of Lean Manufacturing. In his spare time he enjoys distance running and the Chicago Cubs, both avocations requiring great endurance.

By Joe Ely joeely618 at gmail.com

Coach Kelly Forrister recently blogged on what makes a good GTD list manager? One of the beauties of GTD is its flexibility; as such, the “best system” will vary for each individual. Being a systems geek myself, however, I’ve been working for sometime to find what works for me. Kelly and Oliver invited me to share my decidedly low-tech system which, for me, meets all of Kelly’s criteria…

I learned of GTD about six years ago via a blogging buddy in the manufacturing world. I devoured “Getting Things Done” and tried to apply it. I saw some success yet struggled to find a list manager to capture all the “stuff” coming my way.

My first try was with a PDA, linked to my PCs at work and at home. It worked reasonably well, especially when I was connected to my PC. Direct entry of list items into the PDA while I was in the field or on the shop floor, however, was clunky.

A job change four years ago sent the PDA packing, for a variety of reasons. I sifted through a series of web-based list managers. Again, they were useful when I was at my computer at work or at home. Yet much of my job in manufacturing management happens NOT in front of a PC but on the shop floor or in a meeting.

Further, the system didn’t accommodate my weekends. I get ideas about work at a ball game or a concert or church; I get ideas about personal projects at odd times during the work week. How could I capture these in a system I could trust and get on with my weekend or my job responsibilities? I actually spent a lot of time pondering this.

A key event came in the fall of 2006 when our company president required all of our mangers to take a full day of personal planning. I devoted half of that day to re-reading “Getting Things Done” and hammering out a new system. And what I came up with that afternoon has worked and continues to work.

The system is simple. I use a small stack of colored 3 inch by 5 inch index cards, held together with a small bulldog clip. During the week, the stack resides in my shirt pocket; on the weekends, it moves effortlessly to my jeans or shorts.

The system works on three simple premises. First, the color of the card indicates the context of the list. I realized virtually all of my actions fell in one of these seven contexts:
• Work-computer
• Work-errands
• Work-projects
• Home-computer
• Home-errands
• Home-projects
• Someday/Maybe

So, with seven different card colors, I have the seven contexts for everything I do. The impact of color on how we sort things in our brain is amazing. Now, when I realize there is something I need to pick up at the store for a weekend project, I instinctively reach for my white card, which holds my “home errand” list. When I realize I need to email a vendor on a supply issue, I zip to the blue card, holding all my work computer tasks.

The second premise addresses the language of each item on the list. I write each next action in the form verb the noun with the object, as described by Merlin Mann. Always. Every time. That discipline forces me to call the action what it really is.

The third premise is the notation of the action’s status. As I write a task, I precede it with a dash. From that humble beginning, the list stays neat using this key:

It is incredibly simple. The dash means it is still to do. Adding another mark makes it done, delegated, waiting, moved or canceled. No messy crossing out of the entire item. One mark…I’m done.

This marking system is not original; I first saw it on a link from a link from 43 Folders, but I can no longer locate the originator. If someone knows of it and can let me know, I’ll like to give full credit.

This “Dash Plus” notation system is not original; I found it via this link to Patrick Rhone in 2006.  It was so simply elegant, like GTD itself, I adopted it immediately.  Patrick recently posted this update on Dash/Plus in Action.

Putting this all together, I end up with a compact card deck of tasks, neatly labeled, in my own handwriting, in my shirt or jeans pocket. For example, here’s my current home computer list.

I have found I can fit two columns of tasks on one card, giving me space for about 20 actions on one card. Yeah, my handwriting is not that great but I can read it. Note most of these items are done. The simple plus sign in front of the item tells my mind it is no longer of any interest. I simply no longer see it.

One further use of this method. When I need more detail, I can point to a further list. Note the last item– “Write David Allen blog (over).” This item is undone (at least as I write this!). To organize my thoughts, though, I wrote a brief outline of this post on the back of the same card


Note here I broke down the task to several subtasks. I actually wrote this list during a dull portion of a work meeting last week…the ideas hit me, I wrote them quickly, then reengaged with the business meeting, knowing I had secured the ideas.

So how does this system hold up to Kelly’s requirements for a good GTD list manager? Let’s look, step by step.

Key features to look for:
* Sorting lists by context – many programs have a “category” feature that will easily support this.
>>>Yep…color calls out the context.

* Ability to assign a due date – not forcing it on all of them, but allowing it for those that need it.
>>>Yep…I just write down the date, if needed.

* Portable for on the go access – can be synched to a handheld or printed.
>>>Portable, yes. Synched, no. For me, this is not an issue; I found with my earlier experiments that synching really didn’t mean that much. I am happy to trade off network synchronization for portability.

* Easily accessible – less than 60 seconds to get something in/out.
>>>Big time…I reach into my pocket and have the full deck in less than 3 seconds. A quick five-second glance to the right color and I’m at the context list.

* More attractive to you than repelling – you’ve got to like the system you’re entrusting your brain to.
>>>If you can’t tell already, I find this system VERY attractive to me…it is compelling; it is congruous to the way I think and work.

* Doesn’t force priority codes – if you know GTD, you know that forcing priority codes is old news and rarely accurate anyway.
>>>No problem on this one.

* Place to capture additional notes – attached to an item to capture relevant info related to the item.
>>>Yep…I flip the card over and write on the blank side.

* Ability to search and sort in various ways.
>>>My lists are short and the contexts are clear. The marking system keeps, typically, less than six open items on any card at any time. This is adequate for me.

* Robust enough to handle all of your stuff.
>>>This is the key…and this system handles ALL my stuff.

Recently, this all came together for me in a funny way. I went on a weekend fishing trip with some buddies. As I sat in a small rented bass boat in a sheltered cove on a big lake in remote southern Indiana where none of us had any cell phone connections, I had an idea about going fishing with my twin grandsons in the next couple of years. I reached in my pocket, sorted to my “someday/maybe” list, wrote the idea down and resumed my conversation with my friend.

If you’d like a paper-based system, I hope these ideas trigger your thinking.

26 Responses to “A Simple Index Card GTD System”

  1. DaveR says:

    Great stuff…

    Does anyone use two systems?… For me, the PDA/Palm Desktop is fantastic at work but I think the index system would work better for me at home.

    Any opinions?…

  2. AW says:

    You probably got the status notation system from Patrick Rhone, who published his (slightly different) system here:

  3. Yep. That would be my system. Thanks for mentioning it and glad to see you getting good use from it.

  4. slothbear says:

    Thanks for this post — it helped me along. I was wondering what your seven colors are? And that would make a nice colorful picture too. I like high-quality index cards, which I have found in yellow, red, green, purple, and blue from Oxford. White makes six. Maybe seven is orange? Where do you get them? Am I obsessing over the system instead of actually doing things? I’m just attracted to 3×5 cards!

  5. Mark Seal says:


    I have struggled many years with my GTD system and your 3X5 card process was the answer I have been seeking. This is hot! One question how do you manage your projects? Thank you for your great 3X5 card process.

  6. Trish says:

    where can you get 7 different card colours ?
    thanks for this I think it will suit my husband very well.

  7. slothbear says:

    Back again, to thank you ten more times for this article. In some ways, it seems like common sense. My friends say, “Oh, I get it, you write *lists* on *paper*. You’re so smart!” On the other hand, like Zig Ziglar says, “We don’t need to be told, but sometimes we do need to be reminded.”

    And you’ll congratulate me (I hope) on abandoning the search for the perfectly colored cards. I have some colors. If I need more, I swipe a highlighter across one or more edges of a card. As long as it looks different from the others, it looks like a different context. 10 more thanks.

  8. Pankaj says:

    Thanks for this.
    Very good suggestion and very minimalistic.
    True to the spirit,I reduced my contexts to 3.
    The suggestion of verb-noun-object was the most helpful.


  9. John McDougle says:

    A great post. I have started to use this system immediately and found it a great addition to my GTD’ing. I have a couple of suggestions to add. If you have the need to put items on hold you can use the dash plus dots above and below (divide symbol), which easily converts into + when you get round to doing the item. Second, instead of the cards, I use a single sheet of letter paper folded into 6, which conveniently fits into a jacket/trouser pocket and gives me 6 contexts (Office, Computer, Calls, House, Errands, Outside) that fit my life


  10. Wow. I gotta tell you. This sort of system has was looking more and more appealing to me since the iphone 2.0 debacle and my frustrations with OmniFocus for iPhone being less than ready from primetime when it launched. I have spent countless hours on the computer dealing with the above. The index cards would obviate all of that. As a therapist who also does something along the lines of GTD coaching it is also nice to have a very standard way to work with folks who either don’t want or just can’t afford the quality GTD programs. Very useful post. Thank you.

  11. Wow. I gotta tell you. This sort of system has was looking more and more appealing to me since the iphone 2.0 debacle and my frustrations with OmniFocus for iPhone being less than ready from primetime when it launched. I have spent countless hours on the computer dealing with the above. The index cards would obviate all of that. As a therapist who also does something along the lines of GTD coaching it is also nice to have a very standard way to work with folks who either don’t want or just can’t afford the quality GTD programs. Very useful post. Thank you.

  12. JasonM says:

    This is a brilliant, low-tech solution. I left a management job 2.5 years ago and then went back to the same job 3 months ago, in the meantime discovered GTD and achieved a reasonable level of mastery. I was really excited about implementing my new GTD systems in the job, but I still lacked a good mobile system. I found this blog entry about 3 days before I started the job and it’s been amazing, it was the missing piece of the puzzle. I strongly recommend this system to anyone who has ever forgotten anything or has to track more than one next action at a time.

    Coworkers refer to it as my ‘blackberry’.

    Thanks Joe.

  13. Michel says:

    Hi, how are you?
    Learning this post I found myself doing this with TODO notes on my desktop, the only thing that I don’t do is to put the dash in front of.
    I’ll try to put the dash and update it with the status, the only status that I used is “OK”.

    Nice post.

  14. aurora says:

    Its 1/1/09, I woke up determined to sort thru info on “systems” for gtd, check internet, come up with ONE by end of day, and chuck the rest.I’m an old lady, with a book almost done, I NEED TO MAKE 09 my “done before I die” year!!

    This is just right! I already am addicted to index cards anyway and even have used a less thought through system and various colors. So I’m on the wavelength. [You can’t get hooked one exact colors, any shade of peach is peach. I also appreciate thought of using colored pens if necessary and use up your hundreds (my hundreds I should say!) of white cards first. Economy!

    My aim today is NOT TO BUY ANY NEW OFFICE SUPPLIES–leads me astray. I have all I need here including an ugly black tickler file for 43 folders, if necessary. But will try to subsist entirely on index cards.

    I get new materials (reward) after one month if I’ve been good and done what I’m promising today.


  15. Sheila says:

    One suggestion for keeping cards together is to punch a hole (or 2) in the cards and connect with 1 (or 2) small “Loose-Leaf Metal Ring(s).” [for those of us who drop things alot]
    I do think I will try your specific system for the “running to-do list” I’ve seen recommended for ADD.
    I have a similar way to manage the multiple repairs & projects in our fixer-upper multi-family house in Massachusetts… color coding for each area or project on 5×8 cards. I can ‘prioritize’ by bringing the most pressing issue to the front of the stack.
    Thank you for your clear explanation of your system!

  16. digitap says:

    Curious, how do you handle projects? I was honestly at a loss for a good tracking system. I had spent hours getting Outlook configured, but it just didn’t work the way I wanted. I have setup your card system, but having a challenge incorporating projects into it.

  17. Simo says:

    @digitap: Usual GTD advice is not to worry about linking projects to next actions. Trust your brain to handle the connection between project and actions.

  18. Mark says:

    I like the index card method but went with some nice templates from http://www.diyplanner.com. I only use a few including some for tasks (one card for each context) one for waiting for and a card for each project. When I enter an action on the project card I do something like this.

    Project: Buy new car tires
    – Call Jim to get number for tire place @calls
    – Research tire brands @computer
    – Schedule appointment for tire change

    You’ll notice the first two items have a context with the @ symbol and the last doesn’t. I have index cards for “calls” and “computer” and will list these items.

    When I’m mobile, I don’t carry all the project cards, just the context ones. You will have to do a weekly review to close any open loops but this is recommended by David Allen as critical anyway. With index cards, I can go through all my projects in less than an hour. It sounds like a lot, but will help keep you clear and focused and not leave any open loops.

  19. Julie says:

    In regards to the original post and some other comments I share this:

    I was searching to see if anyone still even uses index cards and was surprised to learn that you are still out there!

    I started a new sales position with Omaha Steaks and I am anywhere in DFW Metroplex on any given day. Because of this I need to be able to access my contacts just in case I want to stop by and see if Susie Steak-eater needs more sirloin.

    I was advised by numerous people to use an online database or something more ‘current’ and here are the disadvantages of anything technology related:

    1- Lost time. The time spent searching for contacts or in front of the computer is never what you think it will be. I have been teaching online courses for almost 10 years and it is so very difficult to not get lost reading something else that is posted on World News Daily. The last thing I want is to take more time on the computer than necessary.
    2- Transportability. I can take my index cards with me. Yes I can take my laptop with me too; however, I can find a client’s name and be en route before my computer has even started up.
    3- Organization ability. I have my contacts separated by color. North Dallas is pink, West Dallas is green, East Dallas is orange, and South Dallas is yellow. If I am going to be in South Dallas then I know what color of contacts I will be searching for. I use the city as the starting point so anything north of dallas, etc. etc. I have white cards that I will use for business accounts and I put stickers on the top left corner to signify what part of the metroplex the business is located. I have them alphabetical and easy to see.
    4-Ease of use. I can pull a card and on the front I have vital information; name, anniversary, birthday etc. On the top right I have the date of last purchase with the date to contact next. So it looks like: June/August. When I look at the customer card I can see who is next in line to be called based upon that. On the back of the card I have their last purchase so I know what they may or may not want along with their needs for special events etc. I put a label sticker over the date as it needs to be updated so if I can’t get it to peel off I just put another one over it. It never gets out of hand with too many stickers because I can just start with a new card.
    5- No loss of information during sync. I don’t have extra steps involved that I would with any technology. I just add the information and I am done. No batteries. No syncing and then later realizing it’s on my laptop and not my palm or something like this.

    So far this has worked great for me. Some call it old school while I call it efficient. Technology is there to make life easier; however, the time spent and what it requires in regards to use is more time than I want to give.

    I needed something that would keep me organized, efficient, and not glued to my computer-this does everything for less than 10 bucks!

    I hope this helps.

    For those of you who want more colors of index cards and you can’t find them just go buy some card stock paper in the size you want and take it to the business area of Office Max (cheaper than Depot) and have them cut it for you. Custom index cards in a matter of seconds. It will cost more and they won’t be lined but in the end you will probably have many more and they will be customized for your needs.

  20. Digitap says:

    I have implemented this method of GTD, but in a small notebook instead of index cards. The notebook I have now is comparable to a Moleskin but larger than what I want. It was something I had lying around. Originally, I thought I would need a big notebook with a bunch of pages per category (@work, @phone, @computer, etc). But I found I didn’t, so when I have worn this out, I’m going to invest in a smaller Moleskin notebook that’s more mobile. How I have my system formatted is pretty simple. To quickly write down some information, I have a Post-It Note flag at the beginning and at each category. The first flag is for infomration that I don’t immediately have a category for. For example, a name and phone number or information about a new project. Most of the time, though, I know what category it goes into so I turn right to it using the flag. The book is nice because I can throw little pieces of paper into it and process it later into my system. If I can’t carry it with me, I have a couple of scraps of paper in my pocket and one of those space pens. The pens write anywhere, are small and sometimes I get so busy I have to write upside down! To be honest, the only REAL problem with my system is remembering to look AT my system. When I have down time, I forget to look @phone or @computer. When I go by the office, I forget to review @office before I leave to. Hope my suggestions help.

  21. brett says:

    HI all,

    Just started using this method. I’ve been trying out different things since coming into contact with GTD.

    By far, this is the most intuitive and useful config yet.

    Thanks a bunch!


  22. Jason says:

    at office depot I found 100pk of 5 color, muted. and 300pk of neon colors. along with graph white that gives me 10 colors. I use a half junior legal as a capture pad with microperf for ‘in’ and notes. these notes as i tear them off and my 3x5cards conveniently fit under the pads paper. this is my no compromise in pocket 100% system so far. hope this helps others.

  23. Michel says:

    I wonder if you still use this.

  24. Rachel says:

    It’s great to find this post! I picked up a small, lightweight photo album (4×6, 18 pages, $2 at Target.) Small or medium index cards slide nicely into the photo pockets, and I can use the plastic cover as a reuseable capture pad with a wet-erase marker (remember overhead transparencies?) I suppose I could make post-it tabs, too, but the pages are easy enough to flip through. Fits in my purse or a wider pocket.

  25. Michael from Shreveport says:

    How can it be that nowhere on this page that there is any mention of the now-famous “Hipster PDA” GTD index card system that went somewhat viral in 2004, became very well known in the GTD fanbase, and is still posted on the 43 Folders website? NIH syndrome?

  26. Paul Garth says:

    I’m still using a paper-based binder for my GTD System, which continues to work well for me.

    It’s fun to watch something go from my “committed” list to a “list” to “Someday/Maybe”. My mind is awesome for creating new, bright, baubly and currently undoable stuff.

    As for the PDA Hipster, I did flirt with the idea of that and then went into a restaurant about a year ago. They had these very cool mini-menus that were a trimmed down version of their menu, had maps, contact info and looked like a great marketing tool.

    I got to thinking that something like this could show up in the my GTD world. I rummaged through the Internet looking for mini-book templates and found a couple. The basic premise is to fill out the sheet and then do a quick “Origami” routine on it to condense the paper (originally letter-sized) into something the size of a large business card.

    Anyways, I’m now looking at a larger-sized business card mini-book that fits easily in my pocket and offers 8 pages to either hand-write or enter on computer and print-out.

    For what kind of data? Checklists, maybe? You decide.

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