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Personal Productivity in the 21st Century

Personal Productivity in the 21st Century
Knowledge Worker

What does it mean to be productive? The “gurus” have given us a few ideas — it means to “get things done”, to be “highly effective”, to know who it was, exactly, who moved your cheese. What things, effective at what, and who is bringing cheese to work anyway are questions that these books don’t — and can’t — answer.

There’s something profoundly old-fashioned about much of our productivity literature today. I’ll admit — I’m quite a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but there are aspects of his work and his philosophy that bug me, that hearken back to the Industrial Psychology of the early 20th century. Whenever he talks about “cranking widgets”, I can’t help but see in my mind Charlie Chaplin the Modern Times haplessly wielding a wrench against an ever-increasing onslaught of bolts that need tightening. And from there, I’m led inevitably to the famous image of Chaplin being dragged through the cogs and wheels of the machine — a fitting metaphor for how many people feel when they try to put all Allen’s ideas into practice.

The others — Covey, Drucker, and the flood of personal development books aimed at managers and executives that fill the business shelf at Borders — bring to mind the business world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I see Covey and my mind flips to Darren Stephens heading off to work at the ad agency, or men with hats whistling at the pretty girls in the secretarial pool in some madcap ’50s comedy. I see ZIg Ziglar’s books on the shelf (tons of them!) and imagine Willy Loman out there on the road, desperate for one more sale.

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The productivity gurus of the last century seem to be describing a world where water coolers and coffee breaks still rule, where the non-smokers are the outcasts, where short-sleeved white shirts are matched with white, chest-length ties and topped off with neatly parted hair. They’re not describing worlds I’m familiar with — they’re not describing worlds I suspect most of us are familiar with.

The 21st Century Worker

While I’m sure there are still Old School corporate executives out there, and boiler room salesmen, and more than a few factory workers (though they’re rare in the US, where less than 10% of our working population is involved in production), the professional of today isn’t likely to be any of those. Work in the Western world has been redefined as knowledge work — the production of ideas, not goods. We’re paid to think, not make.

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What does that mean in terms of productivity? In the 20th century, a worker’s productivity was measured in terms of how many widgets s/he cranked in a day, an hour — even a minute. Employers set up cameras and filmed workers at their machines, allowing them to time the steps taken to complete a task down to 1/28th of a second (most of the early development of film-making technology came from manufacturers, not artists). How do you measure the generation of ideas? How do you reduce thinking to a widget you can crank?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Which is why, I think, so many people balk at much of the advice offered by the likes of Allen, Covey, Drucker, and the lesser luminaries of the personal productivity world — and why creative people tend to be especially suspicious of their systems. It seems unnatural to, say, schedule a block of time when we can think uninterrupted — ideas tend not to respect our schedules very much.

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It’s why, too, the idea of writing things down when they occur to us and following them up during our scheduled processing time also puts many people off — when we get a really good idea, we want to follow up on it now. Even if that means putting off whatever work’s in front of us.

Getting Creativity Done

There is a place in even the most creative person’s life for the kind of discipline offered by the systems of the productivity gurus. In fact, I’d say that a lot of us need those systems even more than the executives and managers that they’re aimed at. Getting places on time, forcing ourselves to handle our household necessities, keeping on top of our income and outlay — these are things that don’t come naturally to a lot of creative people, and following a productivity system can make that part of our lives a lot easier — which should in theory help us free up more time and energy for doing the creative stuff that gets us going.

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But I think there’s also an empty space, a lacuna (a favorite word of mine that I almost never get to use!) that we need to deal with. How can we keep our schedules rigid enough that we know what we need to do when we need to do it, but flexible enough that we can focus on the things that feed our passion? How can we educate the people around us who see us sitting in our office (or den, or on a bench at the park) staring into space and think we’re goofing off, so that they understand that this still time is part of our work — the most important part of our work? How can we break free from the economic model that posits time as a spendable thing, and measures only successful outcomes — when we learn most from the failures?

Tomorrow, we’re posting an interview of Guy Kawasaki, a man I agree with totally about 50% of the time (and the other 50% of the time utterly disagree with). In the interview, Guy says “People should stop looking for grails and start looking for personal enlightenment.” What he means — or what I mean when I quote him — is that the idea that there needs to be a financial payoff to every idea, the idea that the “return” is more important than the “investment”, all too often keeps us from pouring ourselves into things that we don’t see any way to measure. And yet those are the things that are the things we should be most willing to invest ourselves in: family, friendship, beauty, truth, trust, community — enlightenment.

So what’s the answer? Where’s the “hack”? To be honest, I don’t know. I have infinitely more questions than solutions right now. But this month, I’ve asked our writers (including myself) to take on some of the issues I’m raising here. I’ve asked them to consider what’s missing in the productivity systems we have today, and what have we missed in them that’s especially valuable? Stay tuned throughout the month as we explore these issues, and feel free to bring up your own questions — and your own solutions — in the comments.

More by this author

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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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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