3×5 Cards

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in EDA, Rules of Thumb, Tools for Startups

Always carry 3×5 cards with you wherever you go. I keep a handful in my shirt pocket and jot down those sudden inspirations or solutions to small problems that I would otherwise quickly forget.

3×5 Cards

“Write down the thoughts of the moment.
Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.”
Francis Bacon

Here are some other uses I often put them to

  • At least once a week I meet someone who has forgotten or run out of business cards, and I jot down their coordinates on one (this also avoids the “business card roulette problem” where you give away one of your business cards that you had used to write the contact info for someone else on).
  • I take notes on conversations: I am forced to focus on essentials in one fifth the space (15 square in. vs. perhaps 75 in an 8-1/2 x 11 piece of paper with 1/2″ all around).
  • I record the license plates, make and model of cars with their lights on, this allows me to leave the card with a receptionist or hostess.
  • I annoy my friends with PDA’s with my embrace of obsolete technology.

I Started Using 3×5 Cards At My First Large Company Job

I picked up this trick shortly after I started work at Monolithic Memories (original PAL company, later acquired by AMD) in February of 1984. I was hired for a new team chartered to help MMI get into the gate array business, initially by offering a “PAL Integrator.”

Although this was my fourth job, all of my earlier ones had been at small companies, and MMI was spread across three buildings that included a semiconductor fab. My first few weeks were spent with another recent hire in an 8×8 cube in an office area of the fab waiting for a new building to be completed. I was amazed at one point when the fire alarm went off and people dropped everything and ran out of the building. I was used to alarms being tests or false: no one had taken them seriously. Milling about in the parking lot I asked someone “what’s the big deal?” He explained that there were a number of gases and liquids in the fab that you didn’t really want to come into contact with–for example arsine gas, which was both flammable and highly toxic–and the fire alarm did double duty as a gas leak indicator.

Between two in a cube and the newly realized possibility of sudden death I wasn’t sure that I had made the right career move. But things got better when a new co-worker transferred in from product engineering: Tom Tierney. Tom had been recruited by the director to help our newly formed CAD group–all of us new hires except for him–take advantage of the existing knowledge inside the company. In hindsight this was a very clever move, it gave us someone who had wide access inside the company, and it gave Tom a chance to learn a lot about software tools and design flows (this was 1984: MMI was using CALMA workstations, light tables to check chip connectivity, and hand drawn schematics).

Product engineers are trouble shooters and Tom did a lot of business on the go, questioning employees and vendors both to piece together the root cause of a particular problem and to locate one or more folks who might have the expertise to help us solve it. I noticed he always carried these blank three by five cards with him, to take notes and jot down ideas and observations.

3×5 Cards Complement a Notebook

I was carrying a lab notebook, but as I watched Tom in a conversation with a third party, I realized that taking quick notes on a few 3×5 cards didn’t create the psychological distance that whipping out an 8-1/2 x 11″ lab notebook did. And taking notes encouraged people to talk and to think through what they were telling him because he was not just paying attention, he was taking notes. A lot of these conversations were conducted in a hallway, over a cup of coffee, at a lunch break, or many times over a beer. He could easily carry a dozen 3×5 cards in his upper shirt pocket and quickly make a few key notes (or refer to them if he needed to refresh his memory).

After a few months I started to carry 3×5’s, but where Tom had preferred white cards that were blank on both sides, I would by the packs that had four colors and lines so that I could assign a color to a project or a period of time (and I found it easier to write on the lines, now that the graph paper versions of 3×5 cards are available, I use them almost exclusively).

Merlin Mann has suggested you clip a number of 3×5 cards together and carry them in your back (hip) pocket. But I am not as enthusiastic about that approach, compared to the front shirt pocket. I carry my wallet in my front pants pocket so that I don’t sit on it, and I have much less back trouble.

Notecards and Pens
I don’t actually carry my portable computer everywhere, but I always carry my notecards and at least two pens. People laugh at me for looking like a geek with my notecards and pencils in my breast pocket—but I’ve noticed that nobody who’s laughed has ever written a book. My goal is never to be more than five seconds away from being able to capture a fine phrase or intelligent idea.
Gerald Weinberg in “Weinberg on Writing: the Fieldstone Method

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Comments (18)

  • Sean Murphy

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    I guess I wouldn’t characterize it as reluctance, but it may just be a difference in perspective. I used to carry a daytimer when I wore suits, the leather notebook fit easily in the jacket pocket. What comes after the PDA? From your perspective it’s inevitable I will use a PDA. From mine, it doesn’t bother me to skip a generation or three. We should talk again in 22 years–which is how old this story is–and see what you are using.

    Details as they warp and shimmer like the bar-coded license plates on an InfoBahn dragster as it fishtails past you, driven by a pre-teen hacker giving you a “Look Ma, No Hands” look while his knuckles whiten, spasmodically clutching at the virtual steering wheel.

    Reply

  • Jeremy Ralph

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    I guess I wouldn’t characterize it as reluctance, but it may just be a difference in perspective.

    I for one would be interested in hearing more on your perspective and technology adoption principals, perhaps this would make for a good blog posting.

    What comes after the PDA? From your perspective it’s inevitable I will use a PDA. From mine, it doesn’t bother me to skip a generation or three.

    One to three generations from now, when / if you transition from your 3×5 cards… and adopt the grand handy device (GHD). What would it be? What would it take for you to abandon the mighty 3x5s? Could it be that whipping out 3×5 cards will some day create a psychological distance?

    We should talk again in 22 years and see how you look at technology.

    When we revisit this in 22 years, I wonder if I’ll be saying: “How could this GHD not be some grandchild of what I once referred to as the PDA? Yes, it’s thin, flexible, and fits in a pocket like your 3×5 cards, but who would have imagined how limited we are by the bio-mechanical man machine interface. I only wish I could speak thought-code better like those kids. Hey where did you get those pens, I didn’t know you could still buy them.”

    Or perhaps: “Curse those damn kids with their sky-skates, strange music, and pea-pods. My wife got me this GHD for Christmas and I never use it – I prefer the ole Treo. I love to annoy my friends with GHDs with my embrace of obsolete technology.”

    Details as they warp and shimmer like the bar-coded license plates on an InfoBahn dragster as it fishtails past you, driven by a pre-teen hacker giving you a “Look Ma, No Hands” look while his knuckles whiten, spasmodically clutching at the virtual steering wheel.

    Brilliant. Too bad Macaulay Culkin is so old now or he could play the pre-teen hacker?

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » You Need to Be a Little Crazy

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    […] Theresa heard a radio interview with Barry Moltz in 2003 and suggested that I get his book. In December 2003 I purchased a copy of You Need to Be a Little Crazy and when it arrived from Amazon I put it on my to-be-read pile where it languished until early this morning when I read it in one setting, making notes in the margin and jotting down page numbers for quotes I was going to harvest for later re-use on a 3×5 card as I read. […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy ? Thinking About Your Business Goals for 2007

    |

    […] We went through a brief planning exercise with our clients, and some prospective clients, that several found useful. Since it’s not not too late to do some planning for 2007, here are a few questions that should answer on a single piece of paper (perhaps even a 3×5 card you can carry with you) […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » Nuts, Bolts and Jolts by Richard Moran

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    […] This is excellent advice. I carry 3×5 cards during the day and keep a pen and pad of paper on my nightstand. More than once it’s happened that I have been wrestling with challenging project or problem and either awakened in the middle of the night or a few minutes before the morning alarm went off with a solution clear in my mind. It’s amazing how fast an insight or solution can dissipate if you don’t get at least a fragment of it written down.  […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » Nuts, Bolts and Jolts by Richard Moran

    |

    […] This is excellent advice. I carry 3×5 cards during the day and keep a pen and pad of paper on my nightstand. More than once it’s happened that I have been wrestling with challenging project or problem and either awakened in the middle of the night or a few minutes before the morning alarm went off with a solution clear in my mind. It’s amazing how fast an insight or solution can dissipate if you don’t get at least a fragment of it written down. […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » Thinking About Your Business Goals for 2007

    |

    […] We went through a brief planning exercise with our clients, and some prospective clients, that several found useful. Since it’s not not too late to do some planning for 2007, here are a few questions that should answer on a single piece of paper (perhaps even a 3×5 card you can carry with you) […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » You Need to Be a Little Crazy

    |

    […] Theresa heard a radio interview with Barry Moltz in 2003 and suggested that I get his book. In December 2003 I purchased a copy of You Need to Be a Little Crazy and when it arrived from Amazon I put it on my to-be-read pile where it languished until early this morning when I read it in one setting, making notes in the margin and jotting down page numbers for quotes I was going to harvest for later re-use on a 3×5 card as I read. […]

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » I Always Google Too Late

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    […] Triggered by “Google Me This, Batman” I will try and make some different points. I don’t know how many times I have come back from an meeting (or event or trade show) with business cards or notes on my 3×5 cards and run the people and company names through Google to discover things that would have helped me if I had known them a few hours earlier. […]

    Reply

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