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Tracking My Mileage Without Losing My Mind

Tracking My Mileage Without Losing My Mind

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    I track where I go — whether I’m traveling by car, train or plane — for several reasons:

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    • I can write off 50.6 cents for every business mile I drive in 2008.
    • I can plan my trips more efficiently if I have a good idea of how often I’m traveling, and where.
    • I can easily backtrack, if need be, even long after the travel.

    But finding a method for tracking travel, especially mileage, that isn’t time consuming, can be difficult. I learned to track mileage from my mother, who, to this day, writes down her mileage and location every time she parks the car on the back of her most recent gas receipt. It gets the job done, but it seems like she has to devote a lot of time to the process, from the actual time spent writing down information to processing it later on.

    When picking a mileage tracking system — or creating your own — there are some very specific factors that you should keep in mind:

    Documentation needs: If you’re expecting to be reimbursed for your mileage by an employer or client, know from the beginning what sort of documentation you’ll need to hand over — will a travel log suffice? will you need gas receipts? will your travel need approval? The same goes for any mileage you intend to claim as a deduction on your taxes. If you’re based in the U.S., unless you get audited, you need only minimal documentation. It’s if you get audited that you’ll need to be able to pull out some paperwork to show that you really do drive extensively for your job. What kind of records, you might ask: Kelly Erb, of taxgirl, says, “The best proof is written records.” The key, Kelly says, is that they have to be contemporary — meaning you tracked your travels as you made them. Electronic tracking is fine as long as you keep up with it in the same way you would keep up a written system. She recommends tracking mileage and the purpose of a trip, as well as keeping receipts for both tolls and gas. Kelly offered up another suggestion as well: “If you use E-Z pass or something similar, you will actually have a printed record of your trips compiled for you.”

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    Other variables: Are you tracking your travels to help make your weekly round of errands more efficient? Or are you comparing your mileage to your spending on gasoline? If you need to track other variables, you’ll have to plan for that fact from the beginning. You may need to include your gas expenses or the number of times in a month that you visit a given location in a month in your tracking system.

    If you’re good about record keeping in general, you may not need to stress too much about tracking miles: say you keep a calendar with pretty precise records of where you are at any given time — business names and addresses. If you don’t detour too often, you can just calculate the distance from one appointment to the next (just plug addresses into either GoogleMaps or Mapquest).

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    But for those of us who would rather keep track of our mileage as we go, several web applications can serve the purpose admirably. Personally, I like Jott. As I reach a location, I can just call up Jott and record a message stating my mileage, my current location and my purpose (which makes things much easier when I need to sort out my business travel from everything else). And because Jott will send my recordings to my email, I can set up filters based on a few words or even run searches for particular locations. The only wrench in my system is the occasional voice recognition issue: I go to plenty of places with apparently unrecognizable names. But I can always go back to Jott and listen to a particular recording again.

    I just drop my Jotts into a spreadsheet — theoretically on a monthly basis, but realistically every few months — with a few formulas set up to figure out not only my total travels, but also my totals within categories. I try to phrase my Jotts in such a way that I can just cut and paste while doing something less than intellectually challenging, like watching television.

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    But I can think of plenty of variations on this theme that depend on how you connect to the internet and which applications you like: you could text messages to a Twitter account, keep files on a PDA or hack your car and a GPS device together so they can keep track of mileage without your interference. The key difference between these techniques and an old-school mileage book (which you can get for free at your local H&R Block office if you don’t like high tech solutions) is that the information is already typed up. With far less effort than handling a stack of receipts, you’ll be able to manipulate your travel information: even the simple task of adding up a total number of miles traveled seems monumental with my mother’s stack of annotated gas receipts. Many people say that the only acceptable method of tracking is using pen and paper, preferably kept in the car. But think how much time adding up those numbers are going to take, while I’m dumping my Jotts into a spreadsheet that will do all the math for me?

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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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