File under F for Filing


shovel ready
A few posts ago, I described how I jump-start my creativity with quotes and articles from others. I wrote that whenever I need to prepare a new book, lesson, article, or sermon, the first thing I do is pull all of my files on the topic. I’ve spoken and written about this a lot. But I always get a follow-up question:

How do I CREATE the files?

Just the other day, Paul Peterson (@paulpeterson) sent me this Tweet:

“Could you write a blog post in which you share your system for filing what you read for future purposes? Thanks a ton!”

For Paul, and you if you’ve been wondering, here is how I’ve been collecting quotes and articles for over 30 years:

Where I file:

I have two main systems for filing away the quotes and materials I collect: index cards and lateral files.

Index cards are filed alphabetically in card boxes. They contain quotes, written or taped to the front and back, with sources included whenever I know them. As soon as a card on a topic fills up, I just start a new card. I have hundreds of quotes for some subjects, and just a few for others. For example, I have quite a few cards for “delegation,” and not quite as many for “management.”

Lateral files are stuffed with folders in hanging files, arranged alphabetically by subject. Each subject folder contains larger pieces, like magazine or newspaper articles. If a manila folder gets too full, I just start another one which I file behind it.

Trivia Question: How many 5×8 cards (front and back) do you think I’ve filed in the course of 30+ years? **look for answer later in the article

Important note: I get asked all the time for the list of topics I use. Here’s my answer: My list doesn’t matter. Don’t create a list of topics and try to fill them. Instead, create your topics as you find material that you want to file. You know what you speak or write about, and this will give you a personalized filing system that’s easy for you to search through and use.

How I read:

Books: I mark them up as I read. I put brackets around sentences and paragraphs that contain ideas, quotes and illustrations that stand out. In the margin next to each I write the subject under which I want it filed. Then for each item, I turn to the inside of the front cover and write down the page number and subject. I do this throughout the book. Really good books will end up with dozens of passages listed inside the front cover.

Articles: I cut or tear the entire article out, writing the subject and source at the top. (I staple multiple pages together.)

How my staff files for me:

(Because you know I delegated this task as soon as I had someone to delegate it to.)

Quotes: With a marked-up book, a staff member uses the list at the front of the book to find the passages I want to collect. They make copies of all of those pages. Then they cut each passage to size, attach it to a 5×8 index card under the appropriate subject, and write in the source. After so many years of collecting, at least one card probably exists for almost every subject I want to file. If not, my staffer just creates one.

**I have approximately 4,000 individual cards filed away.

Articles: These are filed in their entirety in manila folders under the subject noted. My office contains hundreds of article files in multiple lateral file cabinets.

Using my files.

These are the files I draw from. Whatever I’m writing, my first step is always to pull all the files and cards on that subject and have them on my desk beside my legal pad, scissors and scotch tape. (I also carry these supplies in my briefcase at all times.)

My one nod to technology in my office is a copier. On it I make duplicates of any quote I want to use, since I don’t want to cut up my cards. (I still have all of my original cards, going back 30+ years.)

I start writing on my legal pad. Then whenever I want to use a quote or article, I cut out the passage from the photocopy and tape it right into my outline (writing in the source). If it’s from a card, I mark the original card to indicate the audience I’m using it for. That way I can avoid delivering the same illustrations to the same group of people.

Share your tips!

I hope this is helpful to you. I’m sure some of you might have systems that are even better than mine. You might even use [shudder] your computer!

Please share with us in the comments: What would you add? How do you structure your files? If you do it on computer, what programs do you use? Let’s help each other improve.

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  1. 1
    Kent Shaffer says:

    Do you think you will ever digitize your files?

  2. 2
    Josh Pauley says:

    I use Evernote.com. It makes everything accessible from anywhere and is search-able.

  3. 3
    Michael says:

    just wanted to second the evernote.com recommendation. I save interesting bits of text, emails, photos…really anything on a computer.

    You can put items in notebooks (I have notebooks for sermon illustrations, series ideas, leadership and about 5 more). The best feature is tagging. You can tag notes and search through tags later.

    And if you have an iPhone, there’s an iPhone app that keeps everything synced…so I can access my notes from anywhere. Finally, there’s a great voice recorder option. Record a voice note on the iPhone and it’s synced with my computer automatically.

    And there are great keyboard shortcuts.


  4. 4
    Herns says:

    Great stuff!! For an intern Youth Pastor this is valuable information! Keep em coming! I have never done this, but I will start doing it now! Thanks for the post Pastor John!

  5. 5
    jasondbarr says:

    Thirding the Evernote recommendation. It’s pretty much a digital version of this off-line process, and it can search handwriting, words in photos, etc. Truly outstanding product.

  6. 6
    MJ Weigelt says:

    Very cool about using evernote.com Now I know what to do with all those notes from John’s books and cd’s.

  7. 7
    Donald says:

    Years ago I used this type of rip and file method, using both filing cabinets and 4 x 5 cards.

    After I got my first computer, I created a searchable index to find topic and location of all the things I had filed. The trick is not saving the information, it’s finding it later.

    I don’t save and file like I used to anymore… Google does it for me. So much of what I used to clip is now online. Evernote is great for collecting it.

  8. 8
    Jay brock says:

    I used to type everything into my Crackberry… I still have 312 files on it. Then I got carpal tunnel in my wrists.

    So, while I await my operation, I simply write on the back of receipts and stuff them in my wallet. When I get home, I type them up on my laptop and file them on my portable hard drive.

    This is them my “pot o’ inspiration” when I go to write blog posts, messages, and someday…books!

    It’s organized madness I say!

  9. 9
    Marva Lisa says:

    I certainly, hope my files never get to this point! I do my best to keep it simple as possible. I am allergic to paperwork. After a while I weed out somethings just to keep it fresh..I love your quotes John and I appreciate the work you’ve put in to give them out! Bless the man of God!

  10. 10
    Nick Blevins says:

    It would be great if you could have it stored digitally and sell it (if that’s legal). You would have to offer a significant discount since it’s probably worth it’s weight in gold :)

  11. 11
    Tony B says:

    That picture looks like the inside of my head :)

  12. 12
    Lucas Nel says:

    I recently started running out of physical space in my office for adding yet another filing cabinet and finally made a commitment to pursue a “paperless office”. For this solution, I use PaperPort (version 11) and two scanners. The first scanner is from Neat Works with a document feeder for articles, documents and receipts and the second a flatbed scanner for books etc. which I do not want to cut up. I also use Microsoft’s OneNote for electronic notes, but I may replace that with Evernote beacuse of it’s inegration with my iPhone.

  13. 13

    Poor Tony, my bookshelf looks like that (though its much smaller). Great tips from every one, iv got this stack of notes and quotes all over the place, now i know what to do with them. Thanks John

  14. 14
    Jeremy K says:

    I have been using Google Reader for a while now to keep up with the many blogs I read (like this one). Whenever I see a post that I like and want to remember I just hit the “email” button in Google reader under that entry and e-mail it to myself. Then I simply put that email in a folder called “Things to Remember.” Eventually, I’ll copy and paste the contents of that email into a word doc. and store on my computer. With regards to books, I mark the heck out of them. I underline all the stuff I think is great and star next to the really good stuff. I like the idea of making an index in the front cover of where stuff is – I’ll have to start doing that. Also, I don’t know what evernote is, but enough people are endorsing it, I’ll check it out today. Thanks everyone!

  15. 15
    Allen Power says:


    This is a great blog entry. So helpful for you to share with such specificity…this is blogging at its best.

    Thanks! We miss you in Atlanta!
    Allen Power

  16. 16

    I am all about quotes… as a matter of fact I did a post today about quotes. One of my favorite quote books is your little blue book ‘The Choice Is Yours!”

    I have a similar process to yours relative to reading books; however I use evernote for most of the other areas. Evernote has a great iPhone app. as well.

  17. 17
    Diana Shores says:

    Just bought a new Macbook and the filing system is great. Can file by subject and each file allows for search words so I can search for the article later and actually find it. I’m drowning in paperwork, so am even trying to scan old articles/documents into the computer in addition to new ones. It’s hard to let go of the hard copies, tho!

  18. 18
    Adam Faughn says:

    Great list of ideas. One thing I have found helpful (that may be obvious) is to have a list of my files on my computer and printed out. I keep it as the first thing in my first file drawer. It has helped as the number of files has expanded, since some topics are quite similar.

    I’m linking to this article on my blog today, as it has encouraged me to do better. Thanks.

  19. 19
    paul says:

    Dr. Maxwell!

    First of all, you’ve made me the envy of all my friends. “Did you see that John Maxwell quoted you?” Thank you for humoring me.

    More importantly, thank you for this wonderfully helpful post and thank you for listening to the questions of “Joe Normal Guy.” You sir are amazing and are, to quote the natives, “smoking what you’re selling.” Thank you.


  20. 20
    Guy Walker says:

    Hey John
    I recomend Microsoft OneNote for filing.

    It will allow you to still categorize your thoughts and quotes (much neater and easier to navigate than evernote)

    you can search throughout the document and quickly find a #quote (as long as you hash tag all quotes with #quote)

    here is a link for more info


    P.S. Evernote is great. I use it to file random things I find on the internet, but OneNote works better for writing/filling. If you can use both you would be unstopable.

  21. 21
    Jennifer says:

    This is great stuff, thank you! I can’t believe you still use a “paper” filing system. And yet you are far more organized than I am with my computer.

    Basically, I have a bunch of random documents saved with titles like “quotes.” Pretty ineffective! Thanks for the evernote and onenote recommendations, I’m off to check those out.

    I just found your blog, John and am glad I did. Your books have been immensely helpful to my business and personal life.

  22. 22
    Bob says:

    I created a very simple FileMaker database with two fields: Subject and Content.

    In the Subject field I type every possible subject from the quotation or story that I can think of. And, of course, that field is searchable.

    The Content field is automatically expandable to hold everything from a single sentence to several pages of a book that I’ve scanned in — or a web page that I’ve copied and pasted in. And, of course, this field is also fully searchable.

  23. 23
    Gord says:

    I also recommend onenote. you pay for it but I think its a better program than ever note

  24. 24
    Bruce Fraser says:

    I use “Bible Illustrator for Windows, version 3.” It’s from Parsons Technology, which is now gone. But you can still buy it various places online.

    1) Enter an item, then give it one or more categories.
    2) Later, you can search by topic, content, and/or Bible passage.

    Note: QuickVerse bought the rights to Sermon Illustrator, “upgraded” and renamed it “Sermon Builder.” Don’t buy it. It’s useless. Go for the original.

  25. 25
    Luis Kianez says:

    Thanks! Great ideas.

  26. 26

    I was heartened, John, that you still have the old-fashioned notes thing happening. My system has c ouple of components:

    1. An Access database that my clever wife built for me. This allows multiple subject references for each illustration (which the card and file method struggles with, at least interms of time taken to write the quote/illustration on several subject cards). This is great for electronic items, book page references, etc.

    2. An old system of numbered hard-copy articles with a notepad index.

    3. Folders holding hard-copy illustrations and stories for current book projects, based on chapter.

    4. A tall, toppling, ever-increasing, somewhat daunting pile of notes, articles, newspaper clippings and hand-written jottings that don’t fit in any of the above.

    I need a personal assistant :)

  27. 27
    John Chan says:

    I started using Mac about two years ago. Last year, I came across this program called DevonThink. It can file away every conceivable kind of documents, emails and snippets. It has a wonderful artificial intellegence to help finding the information or closedly related articles, so one does not need to remember exactly where the article was files. The company even offers the product free to pastors, or a very nominal charge for their flagship product Devonthink Pro Office. DTPO can turn scanned PDF files into searchable text files as well. I am very delighted with the product so far in my ministry.

  28. 28

    John, I have followed you for years, read many of your books and even taught many of your principles on my job to my supervisors. I always wondered how you kept track of all this information. Thank you for this post.

    Josh Pauley, Thanks for the Evernote plug. I downloaded to my laptop and PDA, and I absolutely love it. I have stacks of legal pads with data and clippings, of course not as much as John, but enough to be overwhelmed. Now I am enjoying a tool that allows me to finally get organized.

  29. 29
    Tom Goodman says:

    Wow, this was timely. I have entered thousands and thousands of illustrations on the old Parsons Technology Bible Illustrator but that program’s not supported anymore and one day it will quit working with no recourse to 20 years of data entry! I was knocking about trying to find alternatives. I will try Evernote, OneNote, and creating an Access database after all these suggestions. I agree with John that a good storage and retrieval system for illustrations and thought-starters is essential for any communicator.

  30. 30

    Great stuff!

    I used to use index cards, but I have pretty much settled on Microsoft One Note as the best tool for the job. I love the program for lots of things!

  31. 31
    David S says:

    One word: InfoSelect. I’ve used InfoSelect (www.miclog.com) since I got my first computer back in ’91. It’s an exceedingly simple, lightning fast, free-form database designed to give instant access to random information. It is also a very capable word processor, calendar and much more. If I owned only one piece of software, it would be InfoSelect. It’s a little pricey, but well worth it and is regularly updated.

  32. 32
    Audrey Liaw says:

    Hi Pastor John, I am Audrey Liaw from Malaysia. I am not a pastor but I am a youth leader in my church His Sanctuary of Glory. At the same time I am personally coaching a few young people. Thank you so much for this post. This can really help me get organised and start to build my resouces.

  33. 33
    Dr. Danny Simon says:

    Hi! I started filing over 2 years ago after listnening into one of Maxwell’s leadership tapes. NEver used evernote before but I m gonna give it a try.
    I save every thing on my laptop, I have lots of articles, quotes, sermons, illustrations, stories. I try to create a folder and save the file with the title I think is most appropriate. FOr example for leadership, I have a leadership folder and in it goes leadership articles. I have another folder for quotes.
    Believe it or not, I have a folder separately just for John Maxwell!!!
    I like Vista now especially since they give you a search option, that way when you are preapring sermons; all you have to do is to enter the word in the search engine and vista searches it out for you!
    Like I said I m going to see how evernote works out tho!

  34. 34
    Dr. Joel C. Mitchell says:

    This has been one of the most useful practices I have learned over the years. John- I remember getting this bit of advice from you 12 years ago standing in your home office in San Diego. I created my first file that evening (“relationships”), and have drawn from these for writing projects, speaking engagements, and academic lectures since that time. Thank you for adding this value to my life.

  35. 35

    […] Tady se můžete podívat jak to dělá jeden z největších expertů na leadership, John C. Maxwell. […]

  36. 36

    These comments are almost as incredible as the posting itself!! Pastor John…i am so happy i that i found your blog!..This is AWESOME :)

  37. 37
    David K says:

    Thanks John and Bloggers for such a practicle discussion.
    By sympifying our lives and using smarter systems we can achieve more.

    Please remember to create ‘backups’, 2 years work is frustrating to loose, I think we would all hear the scream if 30 years of notes were ‘lost’.

    Who would believe catching a few minutes of Hour of Power this morning would have me pouring over Johns web site the rest of the day.

  38. 38
    David M. Bernardino says:


    Good day!
    I know that this is a “comment section” and I’m not even sure if you really do read these comments. Anyway sir, I’m David M. Bernardino, from the Phillipines and I’m a fan of yours. Sir, I’m a student leader in our college (Bicol University College of Education, Philippines) and I was assigned to be the executive chairman of a leadership summit… I know that this is quite grand, a grand dream actually which I greatly pray to be granted. Sir, my great wish is that you will send us a VTR, a short message (even a 3min message for the student leaders of our college particularly the college of Education) which will inspire us to be committed and good leaders of our generation. Sir, I greatly hope you will respond positively in this great wish of mine. It will mean alot for us. Sir, if you will grant our wish, you can send the vtr to my email ad: gershom_david@yahoo.com. Thank you Sir and God bless.

  39. 39
    David M. Bernardino says:


    Can you please help me by suggesting topics that will really help student leaders in all aspects of leadership? Thank you. God bless you Sir. I hope I will receive an email from you one of these days.. :)