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Know Where to Draw the Line for Enhanced Personal Productivity: Innovation versus Standardization

Know Where to Draw the Line for Enhanced Personal Productivity: Innovation versus Standardization
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One of the most powerful tools we can use to enhance personal productivity is to standardize tasks and processes. This is nothing new, yet it has become part of the much touted Toyota Production System as a way to reduce automobile manufacturing costs. A classic example from hundreds of years ago is the way that railways came up with a standard spacing or distance between the two parallel rails that make up a railway. Before they did, every railcar had to be unloaded and reloaded onto a railcar of a different gauge for each railway it traveled.

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However, too much standardization is also a bad thing. Henry Ford found this out when he refused to introduce new styles and colors when people started losing interest in his Model T cars that were produced by the millions in his day. He only made them in black at the time. Don’t try to come to a date with a standard agenda and present well-organized and detailed lists. How special do you make them feel when you book them in to a time slot? Or if you take them to the same restaurant all the time? Or if you picked up your date in one of Ford’s black Model Ts at the time?

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So, where do we draw the line? The answer for how much you should standardize is actually quite plain and simple: standardize as much as is practical so long as you and the other involved parties (customer, friends, etc.) derive greater value from the standardization than from a competing innovation. For a customer situation, if you have a standard, boring product, they might turn elsewhere for something more exciting. The same is true for a date. There are several areas or ways to standardize. A list of things that should probably be standardized for improved productivity are:

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  1. daily and weekly planning process,
  2. email and correspondence collection and response systems,
  3. sleep, exercise and eating times (your body loves these things),
  4. goal setting and reviews,
  5. business tools including software, notebooks, PDAs, etc. so that there isn’t tremendous waste in fiddling with these things to get them to work,
  6. daily chores list while finding ways to cover them more efficiently,
  7. rest and recreation times,
  8. preparation for any type of competition.

People who become overly preoccupied with the standardization aspects can become a real problem. Taking a family to a GTD productivity seminar on a vacation trip is probably not a great idea. Now, let’s take a look at what should be innovated for improved productivity. The following list of things should be handled with an innovative mindset:

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  1. reading (& audio and video) materials since limiting sources can cause stagnation,
  2. relationships – keep trying new things to keep them interesting and creative
  3. exercise routines themselves since doing the same exercises forever does less then changing the routine does,
  4. personal and professional networks because meeting new people in different areas can greatly broaden experiences and perspectives,
  5. fashion (overly standardizing this one can get you into trouble),
  6. vacations should be kept varied and interesting,
  7. recognition, appreciation and expressions of gratitude,
  8. places you take your dates or spouse to and the things you do.

The ways to determine the limits of how far you should go in standardizing are not always easy to know. We should be careful not to assume. Unchecked standardization might result in you seeing every office coffee mug with someone’s name on it and some there wearing the same suit every Wednesday. This would suggest your office experience is becoming a banal one. The person wearing the suit likely has no idea this is a problem and correctly assumes it to be a practical thing to do. Another example is the guy who brings home the roses every time he screws up doesn’t scream sincerity. There are some simple ways to find out where appropriate limits are such as:

  • asking someone familiar with a routine how it comes across. If handled right, people probably are not aware of it to begin with. For example, someone who always attends appointments on time by allowing an extra five minutes travel time will likely find no objection.
  • testing a new routine before fully implementing it.
  • develop a clear and preferably measurable indicator of success so that if something is working, it can be continued or discontinued.
  • decide if it adds value. If a standardized routine becomes a nightmare, it should be re-evaluated.

Whether you are manufacturing cars or picking up a date in one, know where the limits should be on standardizing versus innovating. Standardize wherever practical, but don’t go overboard or things won’t go well. Use this strategy to maximize productivity without losing spontaneity. Henry probably picked up his wife Clara in a black model T from time to time, but she married him before he invented it so it might not have mattered as much. However, showing up in a Model T to pick up a date today might be a great opener. Just know where to draw the line.

Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis now available.

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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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