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15 Tips to Make Today the Day You Finish Your To-Do List

15 Tips to Make Today the Day You Finish Your To-Do List
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You’ve seen it before. Every checkmark only leaves two more unfinished tasks. Your to-do list has become an living organism, spawning more and more work while leaving you less and less time to finish. Is it possible to stop your to-do list, or will it just become an unstoppable blob of extra work?

Your best weapon against the rising tide of to-do is dedicating a day to destroying that list. Instead of wandering around, attacking various projects before putting them down, you go for the kill. Set up a massive to-do list and wipe it clean.

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Few things are more satisfying than after a day of ending your to-do list. Here are a few tips to get you started:

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  • Clear your schedule. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you give yourself a large chunk of time. A to-do ending day can’t be filled with all the regular errands of your life. The entire day needs to be focused on killing that list, so pick a day where you can have complete control over your time.
  • Wake up early. Building momentum is critical. Even if waking up at 5 am isn’t a usual event for you, it can be helpful here. Which do you think will give you the right start: dragging yourself out of bed at ten o’clock, or forcing yourself to start moving at six?
  • Collect your to-do list. If you have tasks and projects scattered over different parts of your life, you need to collect them into one list. One list detailing everything you want to have accomplished, on one piece of paper you can hold in front of you.
  • Know the end. What does being finished look like? Every task should have a clear goal and purpose beyond just getting done. You can spend an entire day attacking your to-do list and accomplishing nothing if you aren’t clear on the final picture.
  • Put hard tasks first. Pick your biggest and most difficult tasks and start on them first. Putting off the hard work is a sure sign it won’t get done. By putting the difficult tasks first, you also build a momentum that allows you to focus easily.
  • Isolate yourself. Lock yourself in a room, unplug your phone and internet if you have to. Anything to ensure that interruptions won’t break your focus. A few hours of complete focus can accomplish what would take several days of multitasking.
  • Set your rest breaks. Working continuously for several hours can be difficult to do with mentally straining work, especially if you aren’t used to it. My suggestion is to set short, but meaningful breaks in advance so you won’t be tempted to procrastinate.
  • Match breaks with tasks, not time. Your breaks should match up with the large to-do chunks on your list, not at a specific time. If you plan to finish a report you expect to take ninety minutes, finish it in one chunk. Taking a break while working on a major task will only break your flow.
  • Be patient when accelerating. It can take time to build up speed. When I write an article, it can take me up to fifteen minutes to get a clear idea on what I want to write. During this build-up time, the temptation is to quit or move on to something easier. Avoid that temptation and be patient.
  • Give yourself meaningful rewards. If you finish your to-do list, take a break. Go out and have fun, watch a television show, meet up with friends or just stare blankly at a wall. Feeling the urge to be completely productive 24/7 is an easy way to ensure you never do.
  • Does it need to be done? Cross off any items that lack long-term importance. Purify your to-do list so it only contains tasks that will be significant months and years from now. If your to-do list doesn’t seem important, it probably isn’t.
  • Energize your diet. Engineer your food and exercise routine to give you the energy you need throughout the day. Eat lighter foods and avoid simple carbohydrates (which spike your blood glucose and then drop it). Drink plenty of water and eat smaller meals more frequently. Your goal is to create a diet that will keep your fuel levels even throughout the day.
  • To exercise or not to exercise? Exercise is definitely a good idea. But whether you should bother heading to the gym on an intense project attacking day depends. I would say that a quick run can give you enough added energy to make up for the time loss. But if your exercise is long and prescheduled, you might want to leave it out to focus completely on your to-do list.
  • Collect resources ahead of time. The night before you plan your epic battle against your to-do, prepare. Make sure you have all the right tools, information and resources to get the job done. Nothing feels worse than a half-finished list because you needed to wait on information from a third party.
  • Chunk, don’t spread. Don’t spread tasks over all your waking hours like butter on toast. Intensity trumps time-management. Get as much done as possible and give yourself large chunks for both work and play. Spreading yourself too thin results in only a half-effort.

A half-day is often enough. The surprising thing about creating a to-do list day is, that if you do it right, it takes far less time than you expected. I’m usually impressed that I can accomplish my entire list by the late afternoon when I follow these suggestions.

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More by this author

Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

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:

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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.

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.

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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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.

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.

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.

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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 About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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