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The Productivity Threatdown

The Productivity Threatdown

The  Productivity Threatdown

    Fans of Steven Colbert are familiar with his “Threatdown” segment, an irreverent countdown of the five greatest threats facing the United States at any given moment. As I watched this segment one night – instead of, you know, working on the project I was desperately trying to get done – it occurred to me that the “threatdown” was one of the five greatest threats facing my productivity, at least right at that moment. So I thought I’d count down the biggest threats to productivity, as I see them.

    #5. Distractions

    I didn’t have to be watching The Colbert Report instead of finishing my project. I’d turned the TV on to have some noise in the house – it gets a little too quiet when I’m working late at night – and before I knew it I was watching the TV instead of working. I’d gotten distracted.

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    While there are times when distractions can be helpful – we often make greater headway on sticky problems when we think about something else rather than obsessing over them – for the most part, outside distractions pull our focus away from whatever we’re working on and slow us down.

    Only you can determine the degree of distraction-free-edness you need to work well. For me, too much quiet is itself a distraction, hence the TV. But the risk of getting sucked into a program or overhearing something that pulls my mind off my work is too great, I’ve decided – since my “Threatdown” epiphany, I’ve limited myself to playing instrumental music on the stereo instead.

    #4. Lack of constraints

    It’s true – one of the biggest threats to getting things done is not having any limits. Unlimited time, budget, personnel, resources – these are very often the elements of projects that just go on and on and on without ever getting anywhere.

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    We see this in big government projects all the time. Although military contracts, big construction efforts, the design and implementation of new computer systems, and other programs are usually budgeted when they start, contractors know that after a certain point, they can ask for whatever increases they want and they’ll get them. After all, it does nobody any good to have half a tunnel under Boston Harbor or two-thirds of a secure border or an almost-working bomber.

    At a smaller scale, most of us notice that we get almost everything with a deadline done on time, while projects without deadlines languish for months, years, even whole lifetimes. Writers often make fun at the”one-day” novel – not a novel written in one day, but a novel a writer intends to write one day. That “one day” almost never comes…

    #3. Imposed goals or no goals at all

    Not having a clear goal in mind for a project is a sure-fire way to kill the project. It’s hard to get passionate about something if we’re not really sure why we want to do it in the first place.

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    Goals imposed on us by others are just as dangerous. If the reason we’re doing something doesn’t have significant personal meaning, we’re likely to be unmotivated and sloppy. Businesses know this all too well – there’s a whole library of advice for corporations on building “buy-in” – that is, on getting employees to internalize the goals of a project as their own. Turns out, workers aren’t very motivated to excel when they’re just putting in hours for a paycheck – and material incentives like bonuses, promotions, and prizes rarely do much, either. What does work is when people feel that the success of their projects is meaningful to them personally, regardless of the benefits it might have for someone else.

    #2. Perfectionism

    Having too clear an idea of what you want to accomplish can be even more dangerous than having no idea at all! Not being sure about what we’re doing at least has the potential for opening up a space for improvisation and innovation, which may lead to success in any number of ways. But perfectionism doesn’t allow for such sloppiness – it accepts only the fulfillment of rigidly defined standards.

    Because perfectionists are often aware of the impossibility of perfection, they can even develop a resistance to achieving the perfection they think they are working towards. When we set out to do something that’s “good enough”, we accept that it will have shortcomings, so we can divorce our own identity and self-esteem from the faulty product knowing we did the best we could with what we had. Perfectionism brooks no such escape – the lack of perfection is perceived as a fault in the self, and we often sabotage our “good enough” efforts to avoid facing our own faults.

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    #1. Procrastination

    Of course. There are thousands of reasons we procrastinate, including all of the above, but the end result is always the same: we don’t work on something we need to get done. And while the notion of productive procrastination is a nice one – meaning we work on other things that are also important to avoid working on the big one we’re procrastinating – having that big old project just hanging there inevitably produces stress, guilt, self-incrimination, and other unpleasantness. If productivity were just measured in units of work done per unit of time, that wouldn’t matter, but I see productivity’s best measure as satisfaction with ourselves, and we’ll never be satisfied with ourselves with big unfinished projects hanging over us.

    #0 Bears

    You can’t get anything done if you get eaten by a bear. So avoid that.

    More by this author

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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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