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Get Random!

Get Random!

Get Random

    We spend a lot of time at Lifehack talking about getting organized – making up lists, labeling files, simplifying your workspace, and so on. Everything in its place, and a place for everything, right?

    There’s nothing wrong with this view of organization, so long as you’re getting more work done than the time you’re spending on staying organized. But a lot of times, our brains don’t work quite so neatly. For that matter, our lives don’t work quite so neatly. As it happens, we live in worlds that are as much defined by randomness and chaos as by neatness and order.

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    This isn’t a “left-brain/right-brain thing. It’s about how we engage with the world. Because the world isn’t always as neat and orderly as the systems we create to interact with it, we can fall “out of sync” at times. We feel this all the time – overwhelmed, creatively blocked, or just plain stuck. At those times it’s a good idea to inject a little randomness into our otherwise predictable system.

    Randomness isn’t just a way to “break out of the ordinary” – it is the ordinary! And as much as we try to control things, we need that little seed of randomness now and again to close the gap between our attempts to organize our lives and the mixed-up world that is our lives. It’s what we’re designed for – humans didn’t evolve in a GTD world, we involved in a messy and chaotic world, and we’re pretty well adapted to it.

    Bring on the Crazy

    Here are a handful of ways to add a dash of randomness to your life. Try them all or just one or two, and see if you aren’t quite surprised at the results.

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    The Noguchi Filing System: Designed by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, the Noguchi filing system relies on the vagaries of use habits, rather than the alphabet, to sort your files. The idea is simple: instead of filing material in traditional folders and drawers, you put every document (or bundle of related documents) into a 9×12 (or larger) envelope, label it, and file it upright on a shelf. New folders go on the left-hand end of the shelf, and every file you remove goes back not where it came from, but again, on the left-hand end of the shelf. As you use the system, the left side will fill up with material you use the most often, while material you useless often will move to the right. Every so often, you can box up the right half of the shelf and archive it, or shift them into long-term reference sections by subject (Noguchi color codes his reference files, and moves them to their own shelves to be ordered by use once again).

    Though it seems crazy, in testing Noguchi says that access time is almost always faster in shelves sorted by the Noguchi system. That’s because material you’re most likely to need is going to be material you’re most likely to have used recently, and that material is all on the left. The rarely-used files to the right might take longer to find, but since you rarely need to find them, on average you’ll save time – not to mention the time you save by not filing in any particular order in the first place.

    Bananaslug Fever: Searching on Google is pretty straight-forward – if you know what you’re looking for. But it’s easy to get stumped, trying search after search around a topic and coming up with a bunch of not-so-inspiring pages. Enter Bananaslug. The brain-child of my fellow UCSC alum (Go Fightin’ Bananaslugs!) Steve Nelson, Bananaslug works like Google – in fact, it is a front-end to Google – but adds a random keyword from one of a dozen or so categories to your search, creating some interesting – and maybe even inspiring – results.

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    For example, a search for project planning on Google turns up the usual assortment of Wikipedia and blog pages, plus a book or two. Useful, if you’re looking for basic info, but what if you already know all that, and you want to learn something new? When I enter “project planning in Bananaslug and ask for a random keyword from the category “great ideas” (it chose “reasoning”), I’m introduced to whole fields of project planning I didn’t even know about: quantitative reasoning, semi-quantitative reasoning, geometric-based reasoning, temporal knowledge representation, and so on. I could get the same results from Google, except I’d never, ever have known to add “reasoning” to my search terms.

    Change something: Ever try to change a habit. Man is that hard. Experts say if you keep it up for 21 days (or 30, or 28, or 45, or…) it becomes a habit, but that’s clearly BS – the time it takes for something to become a habit varies by the habit itself, the personality of the person trying to instill it, the motivation, and so on. Some things never become habits, and some habits are born in a minute.

    A lot of psychologists, coaches, and other counselors don’t advice their clients to adopt new habits, because habit-creation is rarely under conscious control. Instead, they advise their clients to just change one little thing, anything – move your computer, talk to someone new, try something that’s off your regular routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing every day, either – the idea is to create enough chaos that your regular habits become indistinguishable from the new non-habits. Try one new thing every day, and see what happens.

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    Brainstorm: Stuck for an idea? Try “blue”. Or “propeller”. How about “traction ankle”? Throwing a random word or idea or phrase into the mix and forcing yourself to seriously consider it, no matter how far off-topic it might seem, can create a cascade of associations that finally circle back to something useful. For example, according to Eric Abrahamson in A Perfect Mess, the word “blue” was the key that led an advertising firm to develop a safety-focused campaign to reach out to the previously-untapped market of female auto insurance buyers. How? Who knows, and who cares? The important thing is that it works.

    Unschedule: Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a schedule. If you want to see him, you call his secretary, and if he’s available right now, you come on over. If not, try again later. How crazy is that?

    Of course, your life is a lot more complicated than his, I’m sure – he only has a state to run and movies to make. For you, maybe instead of a “non-schedule” you could try an “Unschedule. Popularized by Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit, in an Unschedule you schedule only the things you want to do. In the gaps in between, you work on projects, writing them into your schedule after you’ve worked a solid half-hour on a single project. At the end of the day or week, you can see how many hours of productive time you’ve racked up – surprisingly, it’s often much  greater than people manage with a much more orderly, less random schedule. (You can see an example of an Unschedule at Fiore’s site.)

    When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Weird

    Like anything, randomness is best in moderation. Try adding a dash to your otherwise orderly day-to-day and see what happens. One thing about randomness, it’s flexible – that little bit of weirdness might be just helpful today, but one day, when the going gets really weird, you’ll be ready to go with it. You may even go pro*!

    (*With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

    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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