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Pick a number: It can simplify your life

Pick a number: It can simplify your life
Number 3

So, what does Jerry Seinfeld and a typical sales person have in common? A focus on a key number. Seinfeld always needed new jokes so early in his career he used a calendar and a big red marker to cross out each day he sat down for a session to write new material. He needed one session per day and made sure every day on his calendar was marked. His number “1” helped him to become number 1 in his area. Anyone working in sales is quite familiar with “meeting the number”, whatever that number is for his or her manager or company.

We often over-think and over-complicate the methods we use for achieving our goals. A great way to achieve our goals is to define a key number and use that as our motivator, measuring stick or target. Here are some examples of how a simple number can positively impact goals and likelihood of achieving them. Use whatever number you want to relate to whatever is important to you. The examples relate to simple numbers (1-10) and are in a range of areas.

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  • Number 1: the special thing you do every day to become number one.
  • Number 2: education – read two books per month.
  • Number 3: dieting – the maximum number big meals taken at a restaurant per week.
  • Number 4: fitness – the number of exercise days per week.
  • Number 5: sales – the number of appointments per week for new prospects.
  • Number 6: television – the maximum number of viewing hours per week.
  • Number 7: goal review – the number of days each week for a review.
  • Number 8: sleep – eight hours per night is best for most people.
  • Number 9: goals – the maximum number of items on the goal list.
  • Number 10: networking – meet ten new people per week (or month).

The main idea here is not to create a list like this one, but to simply pick one or more simple things to attach a simple number to. If exercise is a key, pick the number of sessions per week and put a system in place for getting it done. The simpler the number, the easier it is to remember and visualize it being accomplished. Seinfeld had his big full year wall calendar and reminded himself to never break the chain of marked out days.

Why does this work? Because there is no ambiguity nor is there a place to make excuses when there is sufficient importance put on the simple number. When we establish complex systems for our goals, it becomes easier to defeat them through clever means. They are also harder to remember and visualize. They are also harder to explain to others. With something simple like deciding whether or not to watch a television movie, it becomes easier to switch the thing off if the 6, 10, 2 or whatever hour per week quota has already been met.

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Be careful about building tolerances into the numbers. There is a place for a zero tolerance or zero deviation goals, but they should be used sparingly and only for the main goal. Build in a little flexibility for other goals that are less important. Beating yourself up for not meeting arbitrary goals can be unhealthy. Another aspect is that the goal number needs to be achievable, even under unusual circumstances. Reading two books per month becomes more difficult if you are traveling on a six week vacation and forgot to bring reading glasses along. No need to force-read four the following month or stress yourself out during the vacation because that would be counterproductive.

An important aspect of picking a simple number is that this works better for the long term than for the short term. This technique is great when you are trying to form habits and create lifestyle changes. If you have a financial problem and are working your way out of debt, a simple goal like a “a minimum $20 per day increase in net worth” won’t do much in the short term. After a few years of this, the outcome can be quite dramatic. Similarly, a weight loss goal for an obese person of say “1 pound per month or sustainable weight loss” won’t do much in the first year but it will form the habit for longer term results.

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Don’t forget to build in a termination clause. Keep the weight loss goal going too long and there might be a problem at the other end of the scale. Build in a “mission accomplished” goal number and reward yourself for achieving your desired outcome. Seinfeld probably doesn’t write every day anymore now that his show was a big hit and ran its course. There would have been some great parties and he likely has new goals.

There are a couple points on process that matter. Like with other types of goal setting, there needs to be a visual, tangible way of setting these things down. Use a calendar, notebook, wall chart or some other type of written list to make the number stick to reality. This helps with visualization, demonstrating it to others, maintaining accountability and providing a record. Keep a log of your exercise activities if fitness is your goal. Make it as real as possible. If motivation is a problem, get a partner to help. Having a goal of killing the television viewing won’t work very well if your spouse loves movies but will work great if you are both working on reading more or spending more time in bed.

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So, simplify your life by focusing on key numbers. It worked for Seinfeld.

What’s your number?

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 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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