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How to Strive for Continuous Improvement and Growth

How to Strive for Continuous Improvement and Growth

Take a second to think about how your life is right now. Are you moving towards the goals you truly want to achieve? Or, has your progress halted?

I know that the majority of you would agree that it’s incredibly frustrating to feel as though our lives have become stagnant. More and more often, people are seeking opportunities which not only align with their values and beliefs but also provide these chances to develop and grow.

This is why the topic of continuous improvement has become so hotly discussed in recent years. People are looking into how they can efficiently and productively facilitate their continued growth and self-improvement.

This process of learning how to incorporate continuous improvement and development into our life allows us to build motivation and progress towards the goals we truly want to achieve in life.

Is this something that you’re interested in?

The good news is that, I’m going to outline why continuous improvement is important and how you can strive for it in your life to in order to achieve YOUR unique goals.

What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is based on the idea that even when things are good, they could be better. Continually improving helps us to deliver on our goals and better meet the needs of our daily life. For example, finding ways to become either more productive or remove inefficiency from your life could both be outcomes of your efforts to improve continually.

Basically, continuous improvements help us to ensure that we’re functioning as efficiently, effectively, and accurately as possible.

There are many different methods through which we can pursue continuous improvement, such as through using the Deming Cycle.[1] This plan-do-check-act cycle involves first planning for the change, implementing the change, monitoring to see if that change makes a difference, and then acting on a larger scale if the change was successful.

You could also attain continuous improvement through self-evaluation.[2]

Despite the variety of continuous improvement methods, they can usually be segregated into either the incremental improvement category or the breakthrough improvement category.

Incremental vs Breakthrough Improvements

It is possible to achieve continuous improvement using only one of these two methods. However, the best practices tend to combine the two.

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Incremental Continuous Improvement

Incremental continuous improvements involve making small tweaks to a system as problems and challenges are found. Through this process, we are able to make small changes and corrections without having to review the entire process.

For example, imagine that you’re tasked with editing and proofreading a website for the organization you work for every week. As you work through the webpages, each you notice one or two broken links and you update them.

This would be an example of incremental continuous improvement. You are making small changes to the website that help it function at peak efficiency without having to review the entire system as a whole.

Breakthrough Continuous Improvement

Breakthrough continuous improvements contrast incremental ones. Breakthrough improvements involve making large changes to a system or process and usually involves a large-scale review.

The time and effort invested in breakthrough continuous improvements are larger than incremental improvements, but the results typically generate larger revisions and bring about larger changes more quickly.

Let’s return to the webpage example. Imagine that the organization you’re working for has decided to use a new operating system and a new theme for the webpage which significantly alters the design, formatting, and functionality. Now a much larger update is needed than correcting a few links to keep the webpage working efficiently.

Yes, you’ll have to invest more upfront to make these changes, but the results will likely yield a significantly updated and more modern webpage.

Benefits of Continuous Improvements

The benefits of making continuous improvements are clear. These practices help you to constantly be better yourself, your team, your organization, etc.[3]

Remember, nothing is every perfect and there is always going to be room to tweak and make improvements. Small incremental charges or large breakthrough changes can both bring about continuous improvement.

Are your daily routines holding you back in some way? Maybe it’s time to add/subtract a few things and make some small incremental changes to better your life. Or, it could be time to completely redesign your lifestyle to attempt to skyrocket your productivity immediately.

This isn’t a complicated concept or even a difficult one to implement once you understand it. But learning about continuous improvement methods such as the PDCA cycle, selecting one which works best for you, and implementing it in your life means that there’s practically nothing you won’t benefit from.

So now that you understand what continuous improvement is and how it can potentially benefit your life, it’s time to discuss how you go about incorporating these continuous improvement methods into your daily routine.

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How to Establish Continuous Improvement

Though you could try to tackle continuous improvement without a clear process, you will likely be much more successful if you set a plan to follow. The method I’ll outline today is one that we’ve already briefly mentioned, the PDCA cycle.

Though this model is often used within companies and organizations, it can also be applied to each unique individual.

The steps of the PDCA cycle include:[4]

  • Planning: Identifying and preparing for the change.
  • Doing: Implementing the change and attempt to improve the process.
  • Checking: Monitoring the results and outcomes of the change.
  • Acting: Implementing the change on a larger scale and applying it to other areas of your life as applicable.

The best way to utilize the PDCA when you’re starting out is by making small incremental changes rather than large breakthrough ones.

Smaller changes are easier to manage and you can simply make these changes as problems arise in your life on the fly. No need to consult anyone or seek guidance as you might need to for much larger breakthrough improvements.

Planning Phase: Clearly Define the Problem and Target Solution

Clearly Define the Problem

As problems arise, your first step in this continuous improvement process is to clearly identify the problem. If you don’t define the problem clearly your solution will lack both accuracy and effectiveness.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What is the problem here?
  • Who or what is the problem impacting and how is it having this impacts?
  • When does the problem commonly occur?
  • Why has this become an issue now?
  • What are the consequences of this problem?
  • What would the ideal result of overcoming this problem?

Your answers to these questions should help you clearly define the problem in question. Once you’ve got a clear understanding of what the problem is, what its impacts are, and how it’s occurring, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Establish a Potential Solution

Now that you understand the problem, you need to brainstorm some potential solutions and decide which you believe is the best.

Now, the solutions that you come up with will be unique to the problem in question. For example, imagine that you’re wasting 30 minutes each morning in bed as you scroll through social media on your mobile phone. There are many potential solutions to this problem.

You may decide that you should leave your phone on the other side of the room. You might decide to leave your phone outside of your bedroom each night. Or, you could simply lock yourself out of social media for the morning.

All of these are potential solutions. The main criteria for an effective solution should be that it helps you to overcome, correct, and prevent the consequences of the problem from occurring in the future.

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Your job is to now decide which of your brainstormed solution meets these criteria best. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the next step of this continuous improvement cycle.

Doing Phase: Test Your Change

Now that you’ve established a potential solution that you feel best addresses the problem, it’s time to implement it. If you want to achieve continuous improvement, obviously you need to take action!

To do this, you need to set up a small trial. If we use the social media example above, a potential trial could be to test your solution for a week.

The purpose of the trial is to ensure that you track this issue/problem closely for the designated time-frame. This will ensure that you’re effectively addressing the problem and not shaking your life up a bit and then forgetting about it.

Additionally, through monitoring, you can make minor tweaks to your solution throughout the trial period if there are issues with it. This will help prevent you from creating more issues than you are solving.

Once the trial phase is over and your small-scale test is complete, you can move onto the next step!

Checking Phase: Review the Trial

Now that you’ve completed your trial phase and have the results you know whether your solution worked or whether it needs more work.

If your solution worked flawlessly, that is awesome! However, many times you’re going to find that your solution will require tweaking as additional issues you hadn’t predicted make themselves apparent.

It’s just the reality of continuous improvement that not every solution you implement will be a winner. But don’t worry, failure is just a stepping stone.

Let’s take a look at this in action by returning to the social media example outlined above.

Imagine that you’ve selected the solution to place your mobile phone outside of your bedroom. You believe this will force you to get up each morning and start your day before checking your phone. Now you’re going to run the trial for a week.

Initially, the trial went well. However, after the first few days, you noticed that you ended up just grabbing your phone from outside of your room and sitting on the couch to check social media.

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This causes you to tweak your solution by adding an app on your phone to lock yourself out of social media accounts for the first few hours of each day. Now you return to the trial phase and complete the process.

Acting Phase: Implement and Apply the Solution

Congrats! You’ve identified a problem in your life, implemented a solution, and tweaked it to correct for any unforeseen issues.

Now it’s time to implement that solution for the long-term to make a real significant change in your life. How you decide is best to do this will depend on the situation.

I find that the best ways to do this are through looking to other areas of your life where this solution could be applied. This helps to engrain it into your lifestyle.

For example, maybe you also struggle with wasting time before you go to sleep on social media. If this is a habit you want to eliminate, you can now transfer the solution you just tested to this problem as well.

Now that you’ve successfully addressed the initial issue with a solution that you’ve fully integrated into your life, it’s time to start the cycle over.

After all, this process of continuous improvement is only continuous if you commit to continually improving different aspects of your life.

After you’ve got some experience with the PDCA cycle, you’ll find each subsequent improvement slightly easier to implement.

Be warned though, the process can be addicting. Once you start, you might find that you don’t want to stop!

Final Thoughts

Continuous improvement is one of the ways through which you can continually work to better your life. One day you’ll be able to look back at this process you underwent and view it as its own reward.

Hopefully, this article motivates you to get working to better your life, even if it’s already pretty good. There’s always room for improvement.

If you commit to a process of continuous improvement such as the PDCA cycle, hopefully, you’ll minimize the time you spend looking back on your life and wishing that you had done more.

I hope this article motivates, inspires, and provides you with the knowledge necessary to push yourself to reach your full potential as you make small continuous improvements each and every day.

More About Continuous Improvement

Featured photo credit: ROOM via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] ISIXSIGMA: Deming Cycle, PDCA
[2] Educational Administration Quarterly: Program Self-Evaluation for Continuous Improvement
[3] The Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement: Continuous Self-Improvement: Systems Thinking in a Personal Context
[4] Encyclopedia of Quality and the Service Economy 2015: Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) Cycle

More by this author

Mark Lynch

Featured Life-Balance, & Personal Development Author

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Last Updated on November 27, 2020

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective 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 effectively.

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 focus 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:

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1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

4. Definitions

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.

5. 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.

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6. Images

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.

7. Other Stuff

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.

8. 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.

1. Outlining

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.

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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.

2. Mind-Mapping

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.[1]

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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 Note-Taking Tips

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Cornell University: The Cornell Note Taking System

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