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Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Your Inbox

    This is the first post in an ongoing series I’m calling “back to Basics”, a “refresher course” in personal productivity. For people just starting to grapple with issues of productivity, it will serve as an introduction to the basic concepts that underlie much of what we write here at Lifehack. For more advanced readers, it will serve as a reminder of what you thought you were setting out to do before you started fiddling with your system.

    I’m not sure how long the series will be – I intend to keep going until a) I run out of topics to cover, or b) people start asking me to stop. :-)

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    Your Inbox

    We start, then, where most productivity systems start: your inbox. By “inbox”, I don’t necessarily mean one of those plastic or wooden trays you set on your desk and pile everything into; that’s one kind of inbox, but not the only kind. Basically, an inbox is any place where you collect inputs into your life for later processing, whether those inputs are information, correspondence, notes, unfinished work, things you intend to look at later, or whatever.

    An inbox, then, can be a tray in your office, a table by your front door, a notebook you carry in your purse or pocket, or a pocket in your shoulder bag. We also have “virtual” inboxes: your email program, your RSS reader, note-organizing apps like Evernote, even a text or word processing file you keep open on your desktop. And don’t forget your computer monitor – if you’re one of those people who covers their monitor with post-its, that, too, is an inbox.

    The Fewer, the Better

    As a general rule, the fewer inboxes you have, the better. Fewer inboxes means less places where important material can escape your notice, and also less time to process everything you need out of them.

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    As a practical matter, your inboxes should be treated as end-points, with all your various inputs funneling towards them. As I said, this assures that everything eventually gets put in a place where you’re going to pay some attention to it.

    With more and more of us using online web applications, it’s becoming quite easy to make sure your digital inputs end up in a single place. Most services will allow you to send things easily to your email, and you can set up rules to automatically forward stuff where it needs to end up, thus automating some of the processing of your inbox. For example, you could have all emails with attachments forwarded automatically to your Google Docs account so you can access them and even edit them from just about anywhere (that’s assuming you don’t regularly receive documents whose value you need to ascertain before deciding what you need to do with it).

    For physical inputs, make sure everyone knows where to put things that they want you to see and do something about – mail, documents to review, research material, whatever. At work, this tends not to be so difficult; at home it will be another story! You’ll help make sure that your chosen inbox is seen as a place to put things that need action if you regularly process it’s contents so that it doesn’t become a place where inputs go to be forgotten.

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    And make sure you set an example by using your inbox yourself! When you’re away from your desk or from home, keep a notebook or pack of index cards with you and jot notes, appointments, numbers, etc. down as they come to you. When you get to your inbox, drop it in and process it according to your normal schedule. If you don’t make good use of your inbox, nobody else will.

    An Inbox Alone Isn’t Productive

    It’s important that your inboxes not be treated as final destinations! An inbox is only useful as a place to collect everything that’s important, to get it out of your head so that you can do something with it. Inboxes that just keep filling up are worse than useless; not only do they not help you do the things that are important enough to you to end up in your inbox, but they soon overflow and leave you in search of a new inbox to fill with all your new important stuff. All the while you get further and further behind…

    Set up an inbox-cleaning routine that fits your workstyle and the rate at which it fills. While you don’t want to let it fill to overflowing, you also don’t want to feel compelled to process everything the moment it hits your inbox. The point of your inbox is to help you manage your inputs, not to allow your inputs to manage you!

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    Next Time: Processing Your Inbox

    In the next “Back to Basics” post, we’ll look at ways of processing the material that ends up in your inboxes. While it might take some effort and discipline to make sure your inboxes are used effectively, maintaining an inbox is a largely passive affair: stuff keeps filling your inbox whether you do anything or not. Processing is the first part of doing, where you start making active decisions about what to do with each item in your inbox.

    Do you have any useful tips to help your fellow readers channel all their inputs into one place? Let us know in the comments!

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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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