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Take a Vacation from Your Email!

Take a Vacation from Your Email!

Take a Vacation from Your Email!

    Considering how useful – revolutionary, even – email is as a communication tool, it can also be an incredible drain on productivity. If you’re anything like me, you have discussion listservs, newsletters, Google alerts, Facebook updates, blog comments, advertisements, automated backups, reminders, and all manner of other stuff pouring into your inbox all the time – all in addition to emails from actual people actually trying to communicate with you.

    Of course you know to minimize these inputs, to limit updates to only the ones you most need, to evaluate every newsletter to make sure that it truly provides value (whether in information or entertainment), to subscribe only to the listservs that offer the most use, to unsubscribe from ads whenever possible, and so on. And of course you know to set up filters to divert the essential but non-urgent stuff into a “read later” folder or its equivalent.

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    But still it comes. And while deep in the recesses of your mind you probably know that you should only check your email at set times throughout the day, it seems like there’s always something worth checking for in between those oh-so-reasonable times – a reply to a personal email sent the night before, an important piece of information you can’t advance on some important project without, a listserv thread you’re deeply engaged in, or whatever.

    And so, time slips away. You check for that one piece of important something, and it’s not there but there’s another important email that grabs your attention. And by the time you deal with that one, yet another. Then the one you’re looking for comes through, and that needs dealing with, and then an unexpectedly urgent email, and then and then and then…

    And before you know it, hours have passed.

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    Unless you have a discipline of steel and a heart of stone, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to break free of the email cycle long enough to get some serious work done. I’m no different – I know I’ve frittered whole days away dealing with the email that came in while I waited for something crucial. And even if you are able to get a few hours away, it can be hard to get your mind off that anticipated message, especially if you’re expecting bad news or the crucial piece of information needed to break through on a significant project.

    Let’s take the whole day off!

    I wish I could be more like Tim Ferriss. Through a clever system of automation, deferral of routine tasks to employees, and – let’s face it – gall, Ferriss is able to limit his email checking to once a week or less. Alas, I don’t have underlings to delegate my email to – and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable doing so even if I did. And I definitely don’t have the gall to set an autoresponder telling everyone who emails me that I’ll get to their email sometime in the next 10 days! While for Ferriss his system is about teaching others to respect his time, I can’t help but feel that it’s disrespectful of the person who sent an email to assume that their communication isn’t important enough to look at right away.

    But who knows? It works for Ferriss, and if I really paid attention to such things, I probably would find that nothing I ever get demands an immediate response, or even a “within-the-week” response. Lord knows my own email backup has kept me from responding for longer than that, even to emails that are probably pretty important.

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    Still, that’s a huge jump, and not all of us have Ferriss’ taste for taking huge jumps. Instead, let me make a more modest proposal: make one day each week an email-free day. Quite a few businesses have adopted “email-free Friday” as a policy over the last several years, to varying degrees of success.

    The concept is simple enough: for one day of the week, you just don’t open your email program (or webmail). Turn off notifications on your Blackberry or Droid phone, exit your Gmail notifier – do whatever you have to do to avoid email for that one day.

    The concept is simple, but the execution might be a little complicated! Here are a few additional points to make it easier:

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    • To avoid any “anticipation anxiety”, try not to send out any emails requiring response the afternoon or evening before.
    • Keep a “to-email” list close at hand all day to jot reminders of emails you’ll need to send the next day.
    • Fridays seem like a natural day, since it’s when the flow of work (and work-related email) is tapering off, but I think a mid-week day is probably going to have a greater payoff. The natural Friday drop-off in work might eat up any gain you get from going email-free!
    • Set up an auto-responder for that day, including a phone number or other way to contact you in case something urgent comes up. No need to get complex: “I am currently occupied in other work and will not be able to respond to your email today. If you absolutely must speak with me, please call at (888) 555-5555.” (There are a couple of good examples on this post by Tim Ferriss.)
    • If you’re not sure you can manage a whole day without email, allow yourself to check email only at the very end of the day – say, after 4pm. DO NOT check in the morning – that’s how they get you! Pay attention, though, during that late check on your email furlough day – you might notice that you don’t ever get anything that couldn’t wait until the next morning of the following Monday.

    Let’s all try this for a month or so and see if we aren’t more productive. If you have any tips for how to make this work, let us know in the comments!

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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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