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6 Reasons to Track Your Progress, and 3 To Forget About It

6 Reasons to Track Your Progress, and 3 To Forget About It

    Lately, it seems like I’ve heard a lot of suggestions to write everything down: if I want to get my finances in order, I should track every penny I spend. If I want to eat better, I should track every calorie I consume. I’m all for keeping track of progress, but I keep thinking that tracking everything is bound to get overwhelming very quickly.

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    6 Reasons to Track Your Progress

    1. Milestones Are Crucial: Milestones tell you if your efforts are working. They’re also the benchmarks that you can use to convince an employer to give you a raise, a teacher to give you a better grade or a bank to give you a better interest rate. It’s very hard to show progress without regularly recorded data, but with it you can easily support an argument that you deserve better because you’ve been doing better.
    2. Creating a Baseline: If you really want to be able to show progress, though, you’ll need a baseline. You’ll need to track your data before you even start working on improvements. Having a baseline, though, offers a way to measure how much progress you’ve made, as well as compare the effectiveness of different strategies. If you want to measure just how much success you have in something like changing your diet, starting with a baseline can help you decide what eating strategies have really worked for you.
    3. The Psychological Factor: If you’re trying to change a habit, you have to make sure that you’re aware of it. If you want to change your spending, you need to be aware of where you currently are spending your money. If you’re in the habit of buying a cup of coffee every morning, you may not really be aware of it anymore. Looking at a list of places you’ve spent money at the end of the week can really bring the total cost to your attention.
    4. Staying on Track: If you’re working on a long-term project, it can be difficult to stay focused. Lots of the problems or habits you might consider tracking count as long-term projects, by the way. But writing down something daily that you’ve done that contributed (whether positively or negatively) to a project is an easy way to make sure that you make at least a little progress over time. Tracking your efforts is a good way to stay on track, as well as to demonstrate to stakeholders that you aren’t ignoring their project.
    5. Proving Your Point: Having a detailed record of just what you’ve been up to can come in handy, as I think every freelancer and plenty of salaried workers can swear to. What if your boss or client asks you to justify the cost of your work? Being able to pull out a set of notes describing your efforts can be the proof needed to dispute any arguments about your paycheck or invoice.
    6. Finding a Problem: If you have a reoccurring symptom, like stomach pains, your doctor might ask you to keep track of how often you experience the problem, along with some information about what you do differently on the days that you experience the pain. The same method can help pinpoint the causes of problems with systems far beyond your gastrointestinal tract. Maybe you need to find a bug in your software or where all of your cash goes. Either way, a little bit of tracking could nail down your problem.

    3 Reasons to Forget About Tracking Progress

    1. The Sheer Amount of Work: Keeping a precise record of anything you do over the course of a day can eat into the time you have available to actually do work. A minute here and a minute there doesn’t seem like a lot on the surface, but it can add up. It gets much worse if you try to track multiple variables at once: if you’re trying to keep a record of what you do over the course of the day, as well as every cent you spend, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
    2. Automated Procedures: For a lot of the variables you might be thinking about tracking, there’s already an automated tracking mechanism in place. Think about your finances. Aside from cash, someone already tracks every cent you spend. If you limit the amount of cash you spend, why bother keeping track yourself? You can just log on to your bank’s website at the end of the day or the week and review their tracking.
    3. Processing the Paperwork: Generally, if you’re tracking your progress, you’re doing so with paper and pencil. Even if you’re relying on an Excel spreadsheet or some other technique, it seems like you’re going to have to process all that data somehow if you want to track a variable for anything beyond the actual act of tracking it. Say you’re keeping a close eye on your calorie intake: you’ll have to make a note of what you eat at lunch — maybe on your phone, maybe on a napkin. When you get back to your computer, you’ll need to enter your menu in whatever larger system you’re using.

    What do you think?

    Has careful tracking helped you achieve a goal? Did it help you get your spending/eating/time-wasting under control? Or was keeping a precise record impractical for you?

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    Personally, I think it’s worth my while to make note of milestones, but tracking some information day after day isn’t going to do me so much good. For something along the lines of changing a habit — like spending money you don’t want to — tracking data for a week may be enough to change your habits. Once you’ve gotten yourself set into a new habit, continuing to track your progress probably won’t help you that much.

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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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