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There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management

There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management
Being Productive

What does it mean to be productive? A typical definition might be something like, “Getting the most done in the least possible time.” In a workplace context, this means one and only one thing: more work. If the process for a task can be streamlined so it can be done in half the time, then you can have your employees do that task twice as many times.

In order to cram more into the same amount of time, we need careful time management, but I want to suggest that productivity is far more than just time management. That in fact, the definition of productivity above might be fine if you’re an employer and paying your employees by the hour or the workday, but it’s absolutely dreadful for just about everyone — and everything — else.

Another definition of productivity

Here’s a different take on what productivity is: You’re being productive when your work is entirely satisfying and fulfilling.

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Although the specific things that are satisfying and fulfilling to you are, of course, a matter of individual tastes and preferences, here are a few qualities most people would consider important:

  • You grow as a person.
  • You enjoy the company of others.
  • You are proud of what you’ve completed.
  • You feel confident about your abilities.
  • You look forward to undertaking the same or similar projects in the future.
  • You help others.
  • You receive the acclaim of your peers.

Notice, the qualities that make work satisfying are all about you, not about the work. There is no job that is inherently so dirty or demeaning that nobody could find it satisfying and fulfilling. (Unfortunately, that isn’t at all how work gets assigned in our society, where race, class, gender, social standing, ambition, educational certifications, and other irrelevancies determine who will do what job, leaving only a small amount of “wiggle room” for each of us to choose among a limited number of options.)

There are dirty jobs, and you have to do them

There are, of course, lots of tasks that are neither satisfying nor fulfilling that have to get done nevertheless. Few people enjoy doing their taxes or getting a root canal, but they need doing. Since it’s unlikely that every routine, boring, dangerous, or repetitive task that our society needs to keep running will be automated within our lifetimes, there is still a need to manage our time.

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But the goal of time management should not only be to get the most done in the time allotted. At it’s best, time management offers a set of strategies for maintaining balance between “work” and “life”. I’ve put those terms in quotes because a) our work is, of course, not a thing separate from life, and b) by “work” I don’t mean our job but all the least satisfying and least fulfilling tasks that we need to take care of in order to live. Frankly, if your job consists entirely of that sort of work, you’d best be considering a switch!

Looked at this way, the hoary phrase “work-life balance” that so many employers are paying lip service to these days takes on a new meaning (and one most employers don’t have even remotely in mind): to balance our lives more in favor of tasks that are satisfying and fulfilling.

Those tasks that are draining and unstimulating should be done as quickly as possible, not to maximize shareholder value but so that people can get on with the stuff that makes them human. Sometimes that means giving employees family days or setting them up to telecommute, but often that means giving employees room to do things that challenge and stimulate them, and minimizing or automating the things that don’t.

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This applies outside of the workplace, as well. If your family life consists entirely of chores and drudgery, you’re not in balance no matter what percentage of your time is spent at home. Household organization and chores should be, as much as possible, systematized and routinized so it can be gotten out of the way with the least possible investment of time and effort, so that you and your family can get on with the things that make you grow closer together.

Getting to doing

When you have the “work” under control, you can afford to give time to the projects that turn you on. In fact, you can afford to take pleasure not in getting things done but in doing them. While a completed task or project can give you a great deal of satisfaction, the act of doing should also be fulfilling. Consider fishing: everyone loves landing a big fish, but at the end of the day what counts is not how many fish you’re bringing home or how big they are but the time you spent sitting in the boat watching the line.

For a writer, having a finished manuscript to send off to a publisher is great, but it’s the daily flow of words that makes writing worth doing. Same thing for a painter, for whom the feel of paint on canvas is as important — if not more so — as having a finished work to hang or sell. There are sales people who love being in the thick of a negotiation, actors who love the thrill of the stage, athletes for whom the feeling of pushing their bodies is far more important than a win. And when they’re finished, they move on to the next one.

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The most useless thing you do

There’s a word in Yiddish that I’ve always loved: “Luftmenschen”. Literally “air people”, Luftmenschen are people who deal in “air” — in the non-tangible: ideas, thoughts, dreams. While it’s a bit of a put-down to be called a Luftmensch, I’ve always felt is seemed like an admirable occupation.

The Luftmensch knows something the rest of us don’t: that the most useless thing you do is the most important. That is, the things we do with no final purpose in mind, solely for the enjoyment of doing them, are the things that make us human — that make us Menschen. (A Mensch is a genuine, authentic person.)

If we’re lucky, these things are part of our job — we get paid to do things we’d do anyway just for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. But lucky or not, they are the key to real productivity — not doing as much as possible in as little time as possible, but doing the least fulfilling stuff as quickly as possible so we have plenty of time to do the “useless” stuff — thinking, dreaming, living.

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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