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What You Should Know Before Starting GTD

What You Should Know Before Starting GTD
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As I’m sure is the case with most folks who get into GTD, I was driven to it by promises of organization and less stress, both at work and at home. Frankly, the notion of being able to accomplish everything I needed to (and even some things I wanted to, but never had time for) was music to my ears. I had missed too many deadlines, forgotten too many dentist appointments, neglected too many quarts of milk on my way home from the office. I definitely needed some assistance (and I’m sure many of you can empathize).

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Here I sit, many months later, working hard to fully integrate GTD into my daily life. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy (a notion exemplified by sites like the GTD Mastery 100 and the countless blogs) and can take a good deal of investment. Part of me wishes I had a better idea what I was in for before diving glassy-eyed into the pool of kool-aid. So, with that in mind, I came up with my own list of things I wish I’d known about GTD before I got started (not that I would’ve decided any differently – I’d still be doing it because it’s a fantastic system):

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  • It Takes Work – After reading the book, you haven’t magically unlocked the part of your brain that remembers to call your mother on Mother’s Day. There’s a good deal of work required to keep your system current and complete. At the absolute minimum, you’ll need to maintain several different lists, a filing system and a calendar. Obviously things can get more complicated from there, especially given the myriad of different implementations and tools that exist today. But no matter if you’re strictly paper or using the latest Web 2.0 web app to Get Things Done, know that it’s not a “set it and forget it” operation.
  • It Takes Time – I’ve heard various, rough estimates of how long one can spend doing the necessary weekly review, daily management of project and task lists, etc. – but it will obviously depend on the amount of stuff you’re trying to accomplish. For me, I can quite easily spend between 30 minutes and an hour per day just keeping my various in-baskets and whatnot empty and processed. Again, your specific implementation and project list may dictate longer processing and maintenance time frames – just know that you’ll spend a sizable chunk of time keeping all your ducks in a row.
  • It Takes Discipline – With a well-oiled GTD implementation, you’ll be amazed at how effective you are at knocking out tasks and projects. But there’s a flip-side of that coin: if left alone and/or not maintained properly, the system can quickly become very unwieldy and difficult to manage. I’ve encountered this situation a handful of times since I started, and I can personally attest to the fact that it’s a much bigger task to catch up on a week’s worth of stuff than it is to just spend a little time not falling off of the wagon. I believe the occasional lapse is unavoidable, but plan on setting aside an evening to get your system back on track.
  • The Benefit is Directly Proportional to Your Level of Investment – Some people feel that, for GTD to be really effective, the whole system (as described in the book) must be implemented completely. Others think that you can definitely take bits and pieces of the book and experience significant benefits in your quality of life and work. Personally, I’m a bit on the fence, but I believe there is one universal truth here : the degree to which you do this stuff will dictate the benefits you experience. If all you do is write things down, then you’ll probably forget fewer ideas you have while out hitting golf balls or whatever. In the end, it’s really up to you how extensively you do this GTD thing. But the more you do, the greater your return will be.

This isn’t meant to scare anybody into not doing GTD – I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you need to bear in mind that, for the system to work, you’re going to have to work at it. Is your peace of mind and a general lack of stress worth it? I would say, yes, definitely.

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Brett Kelly is a Computer Programmer from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and son. He enjoys waxing philosophical (as well as giving practical, useful advice) about productivity, GTD and technology over at The Cranking Widgets Blog (RSS feed). For more practical GTD shenanigans, you might enjoy GTD Masters, a series of interviews with well-known GTD/productivity bloggers.

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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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