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GTD Refresh: Getting My Head Together

GTD Refresh: Getting My Head Together

 

Getting My Head Together

    The last year was a hard one for me, in virtually every area of my life. Even my successes — and there have been several — have come at the cost of greater stress and a more and more difficult to balance schedule. 

    While I have managed to adapt and develop ways of keeping everything on track and moving forward, each new pressure — whether on my time, my finances, or my emotional stability — has strained my ability to keep everything together just a little bit more. By the beginning of this year, I realized, my system was ancient history, replaced by a patchwork of shreds and tatters I’d thrown together on the fly as needed.

    To make matters worse, it really wasn’t working — obligations kept piling up and the remnants of my system kept falling down. It was time, I realized, to get serious again, and to rescue my productivity system and get it back in tip-top shape.

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    With that in mind, I decided I should go back to a strict GTD system — and this time, pay attention to the ways I was modifying it or even violating its principles. In the interest of accountability, I thought I would share with you my experiences over the next several months, both to provide a model of what a GTD Refresh might look like in case you, too, have fallen off the wagon somewhat, and to keep myself accountable by sharing my experiences with the Lifehack audience.

    My plan is to share, every week or so, where I’m at — essentially writing up my weekly review. My hope is that by sharing what’s working and how, and what’s not working and why it isn’t, others in the same boat might learn something that will help them refresh their own productivity systems. My focus is especially on the  idea of an “in-place” refresh — which will be somewhat slower than a “traditional” GTD start-up. Allen recommends newcomers to GTD set aside a couple of days to collect everything and process it into one’s first lists. But I simply can’t do that — so instead, I’ll be following another Allen dictate — take all the stuff you can’t deal with right now and put it in a box marked “Stuff to deal with later” and come back to it when I’m better able. 

    Getting my head together

    I’ve decided to start my return to “orthodox” GTD not from the “runway” level — the level of everyday actions, and the level where we tend to get most swamped by disorganized inputs — but from the “20,000-foot” level, the level of “Areas of Focus”, and work my way up. I’m pretty good about keeping track of my next actions (though I don’t contextualize — which I’ll be starting now) and projects in a simple Moleskine with a couple of tabs for “Next Actions”, “Projects”, and “Notes” (a catch-all that acts as my inbox-on-the-go).

    Where I’m falling apart is in juggling all the different roles I play and all the directions I’ve allowed myself to be pulled in. So before I start the big job of evaluating and organizing all my projects and next actions, I decided to spend an afternoon thinking about who I am and how my life is defined — and how I’d like to define it. 

    To shake things up even further, I decided to mind-map each of Horizons of Focus from 20,000 to 50,000 feet. I am typically a fairly linear, analytic thinker, and I’ve always had some reservations about mind-mapping, but what I’ve been doing, what comes naturally to me, isn’t really working — so I need to do something different, and mind-mapping is certainly way out of my normal range of thinking behaviors. It’s visual where I tend to be verbal, it’s spatial where I tend to be linear, and it’s an unfamiliar tool that, I hoped, would let me do untypical kinds of things.

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    And it did. Over several hours, I made mind-maps of my Areas of Focus, my ideal Vision of myself, and my Purpose. I skipped Goals because I want to “marinate” on my Areas of Focus and my Vision for a while before thinking about my goals over the next year or so.

    So, for instance, here’s what I listed as my Areas of Focus:

    1. Teaching:  I teach two classes (often several sections of each), each at a different school.  Teaching is my primary occupation, so it’s obviously a big part of “what’s on my mind” at any given time — both in keeping up with the schedule I’ve set, and discovering new materials to use, techniques to incorporate, or ideas to share with my students.

    • Women’s Studies
    • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

    2. Career Development / Marketing: This is my catch-all category for all the things I do to advance myself professionally, both as an educator (professional development, keeping up with recent research, etc.) and as a writer (applying for writing gigs, contacting editors, querying publications, etc.).

    3. Writing: Writing is an increasing part of my career, and my long-term goal is to taper off my teaching in favor of writing. (I hope to always teach a class or two, but on my own terms, not as my primary income.)  Because I write for mainstream publication, both online and off, as well as for academic outlets on one hand and business clients on the other, there are a lot of sub-categories under this heading — a lot of outlets I have to be thinking about at least somewhat often.

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    • Academic: Writing I do (or have done) as an anthropologist, including my book on the Cold War, articles appearing in books or journals, conference presentations, and instructional material.
    • Commercial: Client work, including ghostwriting, marketing materials, press releases, etc.
    • Books: Both work I have already written that needs continued attention to market and sell (in the case of my self-published book) and books I’m planning to write.
    • Blogs / Websites: Lifehack, of course, as well as my own websites and other sites where I write as an occasional contributor.
    • Freelance Writing: Articles and queries written for mainstream and trade publications.

    4. Finances / Money: Paying my bills, building up my savings, dealing with long-term financial obligations like student loans, planning a retirement fund, keeping track of income, expenses, and taxes.

    5. Leisure: Activities I do for fun, either by myself or with friends and family. Planning a vacation. 

    6. Relationships: Networking, friendships, colleagues — all the interpersonal relationships that need maintaining.

    7. Dating: Although technically another kind of relationship, I felt this deserved its own category. Single since the end of last summer, I’ve recently re-entered the dating pool, and that takes a lot more energy and a different kind of maintenance than the relationships listed in #6.

    8. Family: My parents, brother and sister-in-law, nephew and niece, and other family members. Birthdays and holidays, going out, family activities.

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    9. Health: General health consciousness, including doctor’s appointments, ordering contact lenses, paying attention to my physical fitness and diet, and similar concerns. Also, I was in a car accident several years back which left me with an ongoing lawsuit and pretty severe headaches much of the time, so that takes a lot of attention.

    10. Household: Everything to do with maintaining and living in my home, from grocery shopping to housecleaning to decor and so on. 

    11. Transportation: Auto maintenance, car washes, etc.

     As you can see, I’ve got a lot going  on. Next week, I’ll start a new mind-map listing my projects, and my “Areas of Focus” mind-map will help me to generate new projects, as well as set some goals. And then, I’ll start importing my action list into a GTD-based personal organizer — I figure, if I’m going to go “pure” GTD, I should use tools that are designed with that structure in mind, rather than the “flat” to do lists I’ve been using. 

     Have you “reset” your GTD system before? That is, started over again, basically from scratch? How did it go? What did you do differently the second time around? What was most helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments — maybe we can help some folks who’ve given up get their systems back in order, or even help some newcomers avoid the mistakes we made our first times around. 

     Next time: Goals and Projects. And setting up a GTD organizer. 

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on March 25, 2020

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective 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 effectively.

    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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    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    4. 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.

    5. 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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    6. 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.

    7. 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.

    8. 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 Note-Taking Tips

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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