“Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.” – Thoreau
In January of 2014 I left my home in Seattle to travel to Peru to volunteer for four months with at risk children. I hopped on a plane with my rusty Spanish skills and expected smooth sailing from there. I was not prepared for what was to come, but that is why it worked out perfectly. Honestly, if I had known I would be speaking fully in Spanish, planning and managing a summer camp for 40 kids, teaching math and science in a foreign language and working ten hour days, I probably would not have gone.Advertising
It was through being challenged everyday, and questioning if I would make it through my volunteer commitment that I was able to grow and take so much away from my time.
I was constantly humbled, frustrated, and exhausted, but full of joy. As I left Seattle, I was nervous about what my volunteering experience would be in Peru. And as I left Peru, I was full of excitement to be going home, but that same nervous feeling came back to me. I was going back to a familiar place, but I felt different. My life had not been changed in any drastic way, but there were small things I had taken away from my time in Peru that I wanted to incorporate into my life at home.Advertising
In the big scheme of things, four months is a blink of an eye. It is nowhere near the over two-year commitment that Peace Corp volunteers make or what some other volunteer programs require. But those four months allowed me to step out of the life I had led for 22 years and gain important perspective.
The main theme that stood out to me was simplicity. We can get by with so little. This does not mean we need to deny ourselves what brings us joy, but it does mean that we are obligated to be conscious of what we consume and how the choices we make affect not only ourselves, but the world we share with other humans and other creatures.Advertising
Before I left Peru, I wrote seven things in my journal that I planned to hold myself accountable to as I jumped back into where I had left off in the USA.
- Do what you want!
- Do not worry about other people because chances are they are too busy thinking about themselves to care
- When you are happy you make others happy- so do what makes you happy!
- Life is too short to do things out of guilt or feelings of obligation. Only do what is genuine and you can give yourself to 100%
- Nothing is easy, nothing is black and white.
- Celebrate the uniqueness of humanity.
- If you make yourself proud then NEVER apologize for who you are.
- A simply life is a happy life.
- This one is important. Remember when you had a backpack full of clothes for four months? You never needed anything more. Remember when you are in Seattle that you do not need anything. Identify and organize your wants- what makes you truly happy?
- Be patient! Everything takes time.
- 3 month rule: almost all big adjustments take 3 months- before that it is unfair to make any adjustment or decisions.
Two years later, I have sat down to revisit these observations. Have I held to them as much as I wish? Yes, surprisingly, I have. There was no overnight change when I returned to the USA, I still love shopping too much, but little by little simplicity has come into my life. This is the key, my friends. Nothing happens overnight. It is through time that a little becomes a lot.Advertising
Last Updated on September 18, 2019
How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques
Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.
I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.
One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.
Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.
The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.
And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?
What to Write Down
Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.
Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:
Dates of Events
Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.
For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.
Names of People
Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.
Theories or Frameworks
Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.
Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.
Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.
Arguments and Debates
Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.
This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.
Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.
Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.
Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.
I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.
Your Own Questions
Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.
3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques
You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.
Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.
Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.
For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.
For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.
Here’s the idea:
In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.
The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.
If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).
You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps
3. The Cornell System
The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.
About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.
You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.
In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.
You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.
The Bottom Line
I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.
I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.
More About Note-Taking
- Why Successful People Take Notes And How to Make It Your Habit
- The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age
- 7 Reasons Why Taking Notes Makes You More Productive
Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com