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Back to Basics: The Big Picture

Back to Basics: The Big Picture

The 50,000-Feet View

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of any productivity system, all the fiddly little bits that fit together just so. But how does everything you do add up to a life? Or does it?

    Thinking about the big picture too much can get in the way of our day-to-day lives – you don’t want to be dreaming about your life 20 years from now while you’re trying to get across a busy intersection with a broken traffic light! – but don’t let your day-to-day life get in the way of thinking about the big picture. When your focus is always on the next action, you can easily next action yourself into a dead-end, with no idea how you got there and no room to turn around.

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    The goal of any productivity system, then, isn’t to keep you focused on the tasks in front of you, it’s to allow you to direct your focus to all the aspects of your life when they need focus. Both the telephoto focus of getting work done and the wide-angle focus of sorting out who your are, what you’re doing, and where you want to be headed are important if you’re going to make any sort of life for yourself.

    The View from On High

    David Allen uses the metaphor of a plane in flight to explain the need to shift our focus to the big picture from time to time. When the plane’s on the runway, the world is a-bustle with motion: the flight crew are running all their pre-flight checklists and securing everything for take-off, the ground crew is fueling the plane and loading the baggage, everyone’s milling about just trying to meet their schedules.

    Once the plane takes off, though, things calm down. As you look out the window, the jumble of buildings, trees, and roads resolves itself into a grid of streets and city blocks. Individual buildings fall away as the plane climbs higher and higher, until the city itself blurs into a part of the landscape. From cruising altitude, the hubbub on the ground is invisible, and you can relax, get comfortable, and watch the world roll along under the plane.

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    This is what Allen calls “the 50,000-feet view”, where next actions and contexts drop away and instead you can think about the meaning of it all – what gives your life purpose. Where are you headed, and what will your life look like when you get there? Is it too late to change your itinerary and take a different connecting flight, to destinations un-thought-of before now? And when are they coming around with the peanuts, anyway? (OK, maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far…)

    Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

    The 50,000-feet view is where you focus on, in a word, your mission. It seems odd to most people to have a mission. Corporations have missions, usually some BS gobbledigook about “synergizing this” and “maximizing that”. Superheroes have missions, some naive nonsense about truth, justice, and the be-leotarded way. 28th level half-elf war mages have missions, usually something about rescuing the Night Queen from the clutches of the evil Tralfamadora and rebuilding the broken spires of the Moon Palace..

    But you? Do you have a mission?

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    It bears thinking about. It doesn’t have to be fancy or esoteric – this is your life we’re talking about! In plain language, what are you here for? What is it that, looking back from your rocking chair on the porch, in between hurling abuse at neighborhood kids whose danged ball keeps landing in your hedges, what is it that will make you feel you’ve lived a life worth living?

    A mission makes a useful mantra, a little ditty to look in the mirror Stuart Smalley-style and chant to yourself when things are looking bleak, but it’s also a test,a yardstick against which to measure your actions. Whenever you take on a project, ask yourself, “Is this going to bring me closer to accomplish my mission?” When things get bad and you start to think about quitting, remembering how whatever you’re working on advances your mission will help give you the determination you need to get the job done.

    What Matters to You?

    To figure out your mission, you need to know what really matters to you. Does your job matter? Your favorite TV show? Who matters most in your life? Whose expectations matter most? Could you live knowing that Uncle Frank thinks you’re a mess-up just like your dad, or that Granma Millie hates seeing you wasting your potential?

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    This seems like an easy question, but it’s not – not if you’re truly honest with yourself. It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that the thing you’ve done for the last X years of your life doing really doesn’t matter all that much to you after all – that it might have been the cats pajamas when you were 24 but at 34 seems like a dead-end. Or that the person you’re engaged to, married to, or living with isn’t really your One True Love. Or that you never really enjoyed reality shows, you just watched because there was nothing else on.

    People will do just about anything to avoid answering these questions and facing their lives head-on, because the answers often suggest that we need to make massive changes, and that means work. And not just “carry this box” work, but Sisyphean labor – rolling the huge stone of our lives uphill with nothing to do when it comes plummeting down from the summit except brush ourselves off and try again.  But as hard as it is, asking the tough questions is the key to a life well-lived.

    Prepare for Takeoff

    Like I said, you can’t spend every minute of every day with your head in the clouds, taking in the 50,000-feet view. Making an appointment to spend a few days with yourself isn’t a bad idea, though, and revisiting that appointment every year or two is a pretty good idea, too.

    You might not need a few days – maybe when you let go of all your day-to-day worries for a bit, you’ll discover that your unconscious mind has been mulling these issues over for quite a while. But usually you will need a good chunk of time, first to clear your mind (go hiking or something), then to really think things through. A weekend is probably appropriate, but don’t fret if you can’t find the time – take whatever time you can get, lock yourself up somewhere quiet, and do what you can – remember that you’re not writing anything in stone, you’re just trying to grab ahold of the things that give your life meaning. You have a whole lifetime to revise.

    More by this author

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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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