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How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

    If you’ve read my articles for any length of time, you know I’m an advocate of using paper task lists for your day-to-day task management needs. On a larger scale, such as for ubiquitous capture and weekly planning, I rely on technology, but I then use that large-scale system to form a daily task list on paper. This keeps me focused and burning through the tasks in rapid succession.

    However, there was a time when I was using paper task lists and receiving no benefit at all from it. In fact, I may have been getting even less done than when I relied on the computer to manage my daily tasks.

    At that point in time, my lists were long, written in small print to fit everything on one page. And I don’t know how paper size is measured in the United States, but I’m talking about an A4 sheet of paper.

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    No wonder I got nothing done. I had days and days worth of tasks on one page. There was no direction of attention nor anything to assist in focusing on only that day’s tasks. Just a blob of everything I needed to do.

    If your task list looks like this, like most people’s do, you’re not really writing up task lists. These are more like a mind sweep or capture, because you’ve captured everything you need to do in one place, but haven’t yet processed it in the various appropriate ways to create lists that actually help you in getting stuff done.

    So, here are the rules that I implemented to take that sheet of paper that sucked me dry of motivation and focus and turn it into something that helps you get stuff done.

    It’s Probably Too Big

    If you’ve gone and taken a piece of paper out of your printer or you’ve used a notebook that’s fairly large (say, pages the size of a standard letter), your piece of paper is too big. You need to be limited to make good decisions. You need something about a quarter of that size. A small notebook is perfect for the job.

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    When you’ve got a big piece of paper, you’re tempted to fill it up. That’s really where the root problem lies with many people and their inability to craft effective task lists: they see a space, and they want to fill it up. Sure, it’s instinctual. Humans, for some reason or another, want to fill every space and niche and vacuum they can find. Look at the Internet – it’s one of the biggest spaces filled with junk for the sake of filling it.

    The first step is to restrict yourself. This gives you limited space and scope to work with, which means you immediately put more thought and consideration into the development of your list. You think things through and only list the things that need to be done.

    One Day at a Time

    Often, people will try and make one task list that covers several days, or worse, just create a task list that attempts to cover everything, no matter what the timeframe for it is. You only want to cover one day.

    You’ve got software like Things to help you capture and sort tasks on a larger scale, but the whole point of having a small sheet of paper in front of you, in tangible form, is to help you focus on a daily basis. You need to refine your list to cover only the necessities of each day, the most important tasks that are going to move your projects further in real ways. These are high-yield tasks for the day, which are usually comprised of many smaller, seemingly low-yield, tasks.

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    Never try to squeeze your week into one list. Heck, don’t even try for two days. You’re going to blow it. The task list will serve you best when you use it as a tool to keep you highly focused for one day at a time, and by including tasks for subsequent days, you lose the advantage of keeping highly focused. You might be tempted to jump to that more interesting task three days down the track!

    Prioritize Every List

    Even with less space and less timeframe going into each task list, you will probably still have quite a few tasks to juggle and will need to identify the most important tasks for the day so you can tackle them first, or otherwise plan your day so that they get done. Of course, you want to get everything on that list done and you shouldn’t include more than you can handle if you want to have any hope of feeling motivated when the time to write your next list comes around. But prioritizing helps you focus further and know which tasks can be postponed (if necessary) to complete others.

    If you don’t prioritize, you risk spending all day on a project that, it turns out, was far less urgent than the task just underneath it on the list.

    The best way I’ve found to do this is to choose three tasks and three tasks alone and place a star or asterisk next to them, just to the left (keep a margin when you start jotting your list down so that you don’t find yourself cramming your asterisks into corners!).

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    Do not exceed three asterisks. It totally defeats the purpose. You just want to know your three, most urgent, most high-yield tasks for that day.

    And if you can manage to get under three asterisks, even better. You’ve got great focus!

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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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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