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One System To Rule Them All

One System To Rule Them All

Sticky Notes

    I first became interested in what is now known as lifehacking because of a simple problem: I wanted to be able to get through all of my emails in 15 minutes, rather than the 15 hours it seemed to take. Then I became interested in personal finance. After that, it was study skills, and then project management. These areas are fairly disparate, but my exploration of each came down to the fact that I just wanted to make my own life a little easier.

    Most of us take winding paths to productivity, subdividing our searches into different areas of personal development. If we are entrepreneurs, we’ll spend months on improving that skill set, but we’ll also explore personal finance separately. The problem that I’ve run into, time and again, is that my life is not so compartmentalized. If I have a problem with managing my time, odds are pretty good that I’ll have an equally difficult time managing my money — whether for my business or for my home life.

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    A System Here, A System There

    I like Mint’s money management interface. I think Remember the Milk may be one of the best ways to control my tasks. And TiddlyWiki (or another wiki) is just plain perfect for project management. But do I really need to flit back and forth between all these different systems? Now, I don’t think that the perfect productivity suite, able to handle every type of lifehack rolled into one piece of software, has been written yet — if you disagree, point me to your recommendation in the comments please. But some systems can do double duty, and eliminate a little of that virtual running around.

    Multitaskers and Unitaskers

    I’m a big Alton Brown fan and, if you’ve watched even one episode, you’ll know that man hates unitaskers — kitchen gadgets that do just one thing. Many admittedly awesome web applications share that flaw. Sites like Mint are cool, but they only handle one facet of the big pile of productivity options that is your life. Instead, we want multitaskers wherever possible.

    We won’t be able to get rid of all unitaskers, of course, unless we really want to roll our own productivity suites. And, honestly, considering the tools already out there, building our own may not be the most productive use of our time. So, where can we start?

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    Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

    Take a good look at the sites you go to on a daily or weekly basis. Personally, half of mine are Google-based, along with several very slick web applications. Most important to my day is Remember the Milk. It’s the second thing I check in the morning, only because I’m a bit of an email addict even after years of working on that particular problem.

    I’m not entirely sure if one is allowed to stop using Google products after one starts, but I’ve noticed that my usage of Google Calendar, at least, has significantly dropped off. I used to plan out my day in extreme detail on GCal, but I’ve slowly moved more towards listing appointments as tasks on Remember the Milk. It’s a matter of simplicity — I can Jott a reminder of an appointment to Remember the Milk from anywhere I have cell reception. I still use Google Calendar to an extent — Remember the Milk isn’t practical for long-term planning, but most of my short term planning is now organized as tasks.

    Making the Best of Complicated Situations

    It can be extremely difficult to narrow down the tools you use to the ones that actually help you. As a general rule, any time I have type the same information twice, I probably don’t need a given tool. But specifics are far more complicated. The great thing about applications like Mint is that they do all the hard work for you — they pull a whole bunch of information into one place for you. And if your multitasking solution would require you do all that aggregation by hand, I have to tell you to ignore my advice to consolidate.

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    But it may make sense to bring other solutions together: for a single project, do you really need both a project wiki and a Basecamp account? Even if you’re storing different types of information in each, it seems likely that creative tagging or page creation would allow you to consolidate to just one project management option.

    Downsized

    Many of us rush out and try each new productivity application. It’s fun to see what people come up with. But staying loyal to the absolute minimum of tools can help reduce the amount of running around we do online — the amount of time we spend measuring our productivity, rather than actually being productive.

    This week, I managed to downsize my personal toolbox by two tools — two unitaskers that I used to help myself keep track of ideas and information. I’ve been dumping the same material into a special list on Remember the Milk and I’ve already noticed that I’m more likely to actually do something with that information now that I don’t have to open another tab to find it.

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    I’ve still got a few unitaskers I rely on — I’m torn on whether email is actually a unitasker or not, though I’m leaning towards a yes. Some I don’t see ever being able to get rid of, but I am enjoying having to keep track of a few less tools.

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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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