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GTD Refresh, Part 4: Getting Sorted

GTD Refresh, Part 4: Getting Sorted

File Folder

    Last week, I talked about finally getting my projects in order. Of course, that’s not a one-time thing, but I’m not quite ready to talk about the process of bringing new projects into my lists just yet, whether “on-the-fly” or as part of my weekly review.

    But getting a grip on my projects, both big (there’s a book proposal I want to write) and small (I need to find a decent dentist) is a two-step process. The first is what I described last week: identifying all my active projects and getting some next actions assigned to each of them. The other part of the process is setting myself up to actually do them.

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    In some cases, of course, I can just figure out what needs doing and go ahead and do it. But for the bigger projects, I need materials, and that means files.

    Maintaining files is a weak area for me, not because I, like any other full-blooded productivity geek, don’t have a healthy lustful appreciation of file folders and my standard-issue GTD label-maker, but because it’s the least interesting and fussiest part of doing anything. But I’m 1800 miles from home – if I am going to get anything done in this 5-week sojourn, I don’t have any room to forget anything crucial, or for being disorganized.

    I can’t think of anything less interesting than talking about putting paper in folders (except maybe actually putting paper in folders) and I’ve posted about filing before, so I won’t get into the mechanics of it all here, except to say that every project gets a folder (or sometimes a hard-bound notebook, if it will be unfolding over a long period of time) and every folder is neatly labeled. While a project is active, I’m careful to keep every scrap of paper related to it – I would rather have a little extra cleaning to do at a project’s close than find myself without something I didn’t know would be important down the line.

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    What I do want to talk about here is that perennial chestnut of personal productivity literature: paper vs. technology.

    Now, I’m a big old geek, no getting around that. I’m the kind of guy whose as likely to have his nose stuck in his Blackberry as not, who fantasizes about new home network configurations (I’ve got two old PCs under my kitchen table waiting to be repurposed…), and who travels with not one but two laptops. I love well-designed software that does a job beautifully, and love the searchability and security of keeping important information in electronic form, preferable backed up in multiple places.

    That said, I am as far from paperless as possible. My productivity system, indeed my office as a whole, is “paper-full”. For all the arguments against it – and believe me, the environmental impact alone pains me, though I try to use recycled paper whenever I can get it – I find paper is important. No paper, no productivity.

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    For one thing, I’m a writer. And while I am pretty comfortable letting words flow from my fingers through the keyboard to the screen, I can’t edit that way. I’m just not comfortable enough with the screen to read for any length of time at it, and especially not to do the kind of finicky re-thinking involved with a revision for publication.

    But that’s just for writing. My preference for paper goes way beyond just editing and revising. And here is where, I hope, it gets interesting for GTD’ers everywhere.

    There’s something very physical about GTD, or perhaps about working in general. Something about writing things down with pen or pencil on actual paper, about holding things in your hands, that acts as a trigger for action. Email, Evernote notes, tasks on online Todo lists – I find it all too easy to scroll through them, to glance at them and think “yes, that’s something that has to be done” and not actually do it.

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    But paper, something I hold in my hands, something I  physically manipulate… It’s as if physically interacting with my work in a material way triggers that animal part of me that feels the sun moving across the sky and knows that work must be done, and if not now, it will be too late.

    So while I use all manner of virtual technological tools to get things done, in the end most things funnel to a paper file – a nice, heavy file folder stuffed with papers. I buy decorative file folders for two reasons: a) they tend to be made of sturdier stock than plain folders, thus holding up to use better, and b) they are easily differentiated one from the other, making my work just that little bit easier to get to.

    When I’m ready to go to work, the folder comes out, the contents get scanned, and somehow, almost as if by magic, I get down to working. And things get done.

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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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