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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 1: Transformation

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 1: Transformation

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the first part of a 12-part series I will be posting over the next several weeks, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    Something is afoot in the productivity blogosphere, something which, I think, reflects a wider change in society itself. In the past year, several popular personal productivity bloggers have changed their focus, sometimes radically, or even stopped blogging altogether. At the same time, new writers have launched productivity sites that have attacked the very notion of productivity.

    Especially targeted in this shift is the work of David Allen, who brought us GTD (Getting Things Done). After several years of almost religious devotion among many, a small but growing number of people are becoming dissatisfied with the GTD methodology. For some, it is too focused on the issues facing corporate leaders; for others, it is too full of pseudo-religious Zen mysticism and California spiritualism.

    On the eve of the December 30th release of Allen’s new book, Making It All Work, which promises to extend the core ideas of GTD beyond the executive suite, I thought it would be a good time to clear the tables and to look into the future at what a new vision of productivity might look like. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring the social context in which our ideas of productivity and, indeed, blogs like Lifehack and books like Getting Things Done exist, and explore some of the trouble areas in the field of personal productivity as we currently understand and live it.

    The goal here is not to put forth a new system or anything like that, but to think about what’s missing and how we might fill it. Ultimately, I don’t think there is any particular system that’s going to work for everyone; instead, I hope to develop a set of principles that will act as a guide for each of us – myself included – to put into action in our own particular ways.

    What’s Happening in Productivity Today

    I’ve said in the past, Merlin Mann has a lot to answer for. Like many others, I was introduced to GTD by a post on his blog 43Folders, probably via a link from BoingBoing. Mann joined a handful of bloggers, including Gina Trapani of Lifehacker and our own Leon Ho, in exploring the idea of “lifehacks” first put forth by Danny O’Brien in a talk at the Emmerging Technology Conference in 2004. Lifehacks are tricks aimed at making some part of one’s life a little easier. It might be a shift in perspective about email, a common tool used in a creative way, or a technological solution to a formerly non-technological problem.

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    For several years, bloggers both popular and obscure have been sharing their hacks with each other, looking for ways to shave a few seconds off a repetitive task, or to make the best use of their limited free time.

    But there are only so many useful tricks a blogger can share, and when there are dozens if not hundreds of bloggers in the same space, distinguishing yourself from the herd can be a tough challenge. It also does something funny to the mind, to write about productivity all the time. Writing about productivity becomes one of the things, if not the thing, that you’re getting done by being productive, and at some point that starts to feel just a tad too circular.

    Productivity is Dead. Long Live Productivity.

    In June of 2008, Glen Stansberry announced a change of focus at LifeDev. The change was subtle; the only immediately visible difference was his tagline, formerly “Productivity for Creative People”, not “Empowering Creative People”. On the surface, Glen’s reasoning seems innocuous enough: “The problem with the tagline was that it pigeon-holed me into one very, very specific range of topics.” But at a deeper level, the change has some profound implications. Productivity is supposed to be empowering, after all, or else why bother?

    Glen’s decision was mostly personal, and did not reflect much of a change in LifeDev’s content – if anything, it simply brought the tagline more in line with what Glen was already writing about. A couple months later, though, a more significant challenge was issued, this time by the Grand Master himself, Merlin Mann of 43Folders. Frustrated by both his management of his own site and the crop of productivity blogs that had sprung up in the wake of his own success. Merlin issued what amounts to the “J’Accuse” of the productivity blogosphere:

    Friends, I’m done with “productivity” as a personal fetish or hobby. There are countless sites that are all too happy to vend stroke material for your joyless addiction to puns about procrastination and systems for generating more taxonomically satisfying meta-work. But, presently, you won’t find so much of that here.

    Except inasmuch as it can help move aside barriers to finishing the projects that you claim matter to you, “productivity” is often a sprawling ghetto of well-marketed nonsense for people who really just need a ritalin and a hug. So, for myself, random tips and lists that aren’t anchored to solving a real-world problem for a smart but flawed adult with a mind are dead to me. Pour a forty on ‘em.

    From now on, I’m going to talk about how people make stuff.

    Merlin’s change of heart – and change of focus – was significant for a number of reasons. First, his site was one of the first big productivity blogs, and his personality and charisma have made him a (hesitant) leader. Second, his early posts on GTD have probably sold more copies of David Allen’s books than anything else ever written about them. Third, Merlin’s “branding” of a stack of index cards with a binder clip as the “Hipster PDA”, and his promotion of the Moleskine, initiated thousands, if not tens of thousands, of techy geeks into the world of pen and paper capture.

    Merlin obviously didn’t give up his commitment to being productive; what he gave up was his commitment to the idea of productivity in the abstract. For Merlin, what matters most is not the system, nor the tools, but the doing. And, more importantly, the doing of something meaningful to the do-er.

    While the mainstream productivity blogs were subtly or not-so-subtly shifting their attention to the pursuit of creativity, a new crop of blogs were emerging with a new counter-productivity (which is NOT to say “counter-productive”) stance. Nick Cernis launched his blog Put Things Off in January, with a decidedly different approach epitomized by his site’s cute and fluffy kitten logo, a distinct change from the file folder motif of 43Folders. By the end of his second month, Nick had announced the death of productivity:

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    [T]he productivity industry has become a techno-spiritualist movement. People are now using productivity ’systems’, software and small beeping devices just because almost everybody else is.

    Our obsession with ‘productivity’ is getting in the way of our lives.

    I think we all need to look at how much time and energy we’re wasting on our quest to become super-productive beings, and remind ourselves instead that simple is often best. Perhaps it’s time to stop all the beeps for a while [emphasis in original; quotes taken out of order].

    By the end of his third month, Nick had released an e-book, Todoodlist, detailing his own stripped-down take on productivity – sans gadgets, sans fancy notebooks, sans pseudo-spirituality.

    Nick might have been a little late to the game; a year earlier, Leo Babauta, a former Lifehack contributor, had also released a stripped-down productivity system called Zen to Done. Not as confrontational as Nick’s, maybe, Leo’s system still emphasized minimizing the use of fancy gadgets in favor of simplicity and a more meaningful, unmediated relationship with one’s work.

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    Clay Collins went both of them one further when, in May 2008, he posted his Alternative Productivity Manifesto on his own upstart blog, The Growing Life. For Clay, the central problem we all have to deal with is meaning, and the creation of a lifestyle (or, indeed, life) around those things that give us meaning. Productivity is part of the solution, but it is not the solution. Indeed,

    No productivity system can put you in a zen like, meditative, or mind like water state. A calm, focused, and meditative mind leads to greater productivity, but productivity systems cannot create a mind like water.

    In this single item from “The Alternative Productivity Manifesto”, Clay cuts to the heart of the matter: being productive can’t give our lives meaning, they can only help clear the clutter so we can figure out and focus on the things that do give life meaning – and in doing so, find the passion and motivation to get done those things which are, in the end, meaningful.

    “If you’ve crossed the river,” writes Merlin Mann, ”you should quit carrying the boat.” A productivity system helps us get across the river. A good one can help us navigate the shallows, ride out the rapids, and avoid taking any spills, but once we’re on the other side, we have to get out and do the work of making meaning of and in our lives.

    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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    1 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 2 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 3 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 4 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 5 What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

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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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