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12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day

12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day
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What would an ideal workday look like? While there might not be a single answer across the board, all of us can relate to the fact that many of our workdays are not designed for optimal productivity. We complain about too many meetings, not enough pay, travel that saps your energy and did I mention the hours? Why not take some time today to consider what an ideal day at work might look like?

Start the afternoon before. A clean space makes for smooth work. To the degree that you can, neaten up your desk and put things in order for the next day. Do a quick “what do I need to work on tomorrow?” and write it down. This little step plants seeds of productivity that will spill over into the following day. Get home at a reasonable hour- your loved ones will thank you for it. I’ve found that my family likes my work more as a result of working less when I can. The competition between family and work shrinks when both are in balance.

Start the night before. This might seem obvious but so many people burn the candle at both ends. It makes sense to get to sleep at a reasonable hour in order to get in 6-8 quality hours of sleep. Some need more, few of us need less. Become a sleep expert and routine your bed time for optimal waking the next day. Another secret is to do a ‘media audit’ of your free hours prior to bed. If you find yourself zoning out via TV for no good reason, turn the tube off and read, work out or talk with friends.

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Practice early morning rituals. A strong start to the day is key for designing your ideal work experience. When you get up early, it’s as if you’ve already accomplished something. Throw in a coffee ritual (but not too much!) and you have another reason to get up. I’ll admit, I enjoy a good 7 minute snooze button as much as the next guy, but only to a degree. Put mind over mattress and get moving in the AM.

Crank when you can. When you’re at work, work. In the time-windows when you know you can really crank, get things done. This may involve closing your office door or telling your secretary that you need 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. My guess is that you can accomplish more in a half hour of dedicated work time than you could in 3-4 blocks of stop-and-go work.

Remember, interruptions happen, now what? Sure, we need to crank out our work but interruptions do happen. The key is to absorb them instead of bristle when they come up. You may have to coach those around you as to how you would like correspondence and when you are most free. Some people use door signs as subtle reminders of their work: green means come on in while red implies that work is going on. Find what works for you. I once heard of someone who hung a sign on his cubicle that said, “Power hour in progress. Enter at risk.”

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Take your breaks. A good stretch and walk around the block is good for the body and the mind. Step away from the computer, leave the Blackberry at your desk and just walk. Take five minutes and read a chapter from that book that you put in your briefcase. Breathe some fresh air. Get some water. It’s that simple.

Create real human interaction. While digital correspondence is at an all time high, our moments of genuine human interchange may be at risk. A simple rule? Whenever you can, interact. As long as you’re getting your work done, keep it human and stay on task. I think that they can go hand in hand- human interaction and getting things done.

Speed matters. As you’re going through your day, remember that speed matters. Move with purpose and swiftly act on things that are in front of you. Walk briskly and others will sense that you are a person of action. Their step will pick up too!

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Food is your friend. A few months back, I looked at the scale and realized that I had lost about 10 pounds without even trying. I saw that my eating habits had been spotty and my body wasn’t getting enough of what it needed in order to keep going. Take the time to prepare a decent set of 4-5 smaller meals instead of binging at the end of the day. Now I try to keep a supply of energy bars in my desk just in case.

Take note of the final hour. The final hour is key to an optimal work day. This is a good time to process any excess in your in-box, prepare things for the next day and clear your mind.

Remember what’s really important. Getting out the door at a reasonable time (and it probably differs for each of us) is good for you and for those you care about. When you arrive home from work, take 10 seconds to remind yourself that you’re now at home and need to be fully present for your spouse, kids, and whatever else requires your attention. It’s not easy making this transition but vital nonetheless.

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Begin again. The good and bad news of an ideal workday is that it requires mastery and repetition. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things only went 75% well today because tomorrow is coming. You’ll get another shot at success.

An ideal workday is something towards which we can work. In my field of education, I tell young teachers to aim for the “3 Day Rule”: strive to be on your game for 3 out of 5 days and you’ll start to turn the tide of how you work. Eventually your 3 days will turn into 4 and every once in a while, you’ll see a solid 5 days of productivity.

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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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