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Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

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    I’ve said it before: the best approach to productivity is a simple one, and that approach is to know what needs doing, and then do what needs doing. I’m not talking systems. How you manage the knowing and doing is another issue. But approaching productivity on this simple level is important. In our effort to become more productive, our strange human minds can sometimes turn it into an almost mystical and ethereal concept with hidden treasures and secrets waiting for those who explore it enough.

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    But at the end of the day, all this business about getting productive is mundane. It’s dirty. It’s about just doing what needs doing. There are other things that deserve to be put on the philosophical pedestal and considered deeply, such as how we make meaning from what we do and discover the things we’re passionate about. These are the things that make greater productivity a pursuit that’s worthwhile in the first place.

    Because on its own, being productive means nothing, and it’s such a mundane thing that I occasionally wonder if we’re creating much ado about nothing. But the truth is that we’re not and that increasing our skill in furthering our goals through action is indeed worthwhile; without it, those more important things in life can’t stand on their own two legs. Productivity is a pillar and a propellant for them.

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    Reading about productivity and lifehacking can be a hobby. But it can also be a way to feel better about the fact we’re not getting anything done or making significant improvements in our life, just as some people find that overeating can help ease (or temporarily erase) emotional pain. Use it like a crutch, and it’ll become more than it really is and more complicated than it really is, because you depend on the crutch, exacerbating the problem you had in the first place with facing your dreams head on and figuring out how to make them happen.

    I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a geek and in what little spare time I can gather after work and family are satisfied, I play a bit of EVE Online. In this game you must advance and improve your character and his or her abilities by training skills, and because it’s such an intellectual and complicated game there are even third party applications that can help you create a skill training plan that spans years.

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    What’s that got to do with anything? Well, I think sometimes we need to stop talking about productivity all day like it’s some fluffy cloud in the sky, sit down and look at what’s really stopping us from getting things done. A lot of the time it’s because we simply don’t have the skills required to be productive. Like speaking a language, cooking, playing chess or even EVE, being productive is not an instinctual thing we’re born with. It’s something you learn, and you get good at with time. And you won’t get anywhere without some sort of skill training plan.

    There’s an old saying that everyone has heard hundreds of times: practice makes perfect. But what they forget to add is that if you’re not practicing the right things, you don’t get any better. If all you practice on the guitar or piano are the same scales you could already pull off flawlessly a year ago, you’re not learning anything new. You’re not getting any better at playing. Or, if you’re practicing with bad finger placement and flawed technique, you could actually be getting worse and creating health issues for yourself.

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    What’s needed is a path to improvement. A path that doesn’t go in circles covering the same ground and a path that doesn’t reinforce the negative behavior patterns we’ve learned over the years. Ever tried to look busy even though you’d done all the work you could for the day, just so your corporate overlords wouldn’t ask you why you weren’t working? That’s a negative behavior pattern caused by the society we live in and it can slip into all areas of your life without you even realizing it. Instead of staying where you are surrounded by bad habits and circular thinking, decide where you need to be in order to work past those things and get the real work done. You might start by focusing on a few core skills for productive thinking:

    • Discipline. 95% of getting things done is in doing the things that need to be done.
    • Evaluation. You need to be able to step above the day-to-day minutiae and evaluate whether you’re getting closer to your goals; if you’re not, you’re not getting the right things done.
    • Discrimination. It’s sometimes a word with negative connotations, but you need to be able to discriminate between the important things — productive work — and the busywork.
    • Discipline.
    • Foresight. You need to able to see your big-picture goals and the tomorrow you intend to create in the first place. Being productive without direction is pointless.

    There are many skills that factor into being competently productive and these are just a few of them. The point is not to tell you what you need to handle. The point is that you should be thinking about what you need to handle and working towards being better at productivity in a proactive way. Reading about productivity in order to gain knowledge about it is a good thing, but too often it becomes the end of the path.

    This will be my last post on Lifehack for a while as I adapt to a new and fairly significant role over the coming weeks. I wanted to leave you with something that got you thinking about where you’re going with productivity, why you read blogs like Lifehack, and what you’re getting out of it. I hope I succeeded, and if I did get you thinking I’d love to hear about in the comments.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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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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