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What to Do When It’s All Too Much

What to Do When It’s All Too Much
What to Do When It's All Too Much

    Things have been pretty hectic around here. We lifehackistes talk about and write about productivity as a way of dealing with the everyday distractions and time-sinks that prevent us from getting our important work done — whether that’s career-related tasks or following our personal goals. But what happens when everything falls apart? When disaster strikes and it takes everything you have to deal with it?

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    I don’t want to get too much into my personal and family life here — suffice it to say that we’re facing some situations that promise to emotionally scar my step-children for life, and minimizing the damage is obviously the first priority. Dealing with it means often reacting to immediate situations, and where kids are involved you can’t schedule dealing with interruptions for later or plan around them. There’s an emotional toll, as well, that makes the trivialities of everyday life and work rather harder to face.

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    And yet, I can’t drop out of anything either. My work and my partner’s work is what pays the bills and keeps our family fed. Miraculously, I’m managing to keep on top of most things and to get the important stuff done. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned about staying afloat when the world is collapsing around you:

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    • Have strong routines. Because I’ve spent the last couple of years building strong routines, scheduling everything from work and travel time to shopping and even goofing off, I don’t have to think about that now when my intellectual and emotional energies are needed elsewhere. Everything I need to work on is written down, so I don’t have to obsess over what I need to do next or what I am not doing that I should be — nothing’s getting forgotten, even if it takes longer to get to it than it normally would. Developing good practices when things are going your way helps dramatically when things aren’t going your way.
    • Prioritize. I’ll admit, I’m not very systematic in the way I handle prioritization. I don’t use Covey’s quadrants or assign priorities in my todo lists. I had started a few months ago using the idea of MITs (Most Important Tasks), where each night (or first thing in the morning) you write down the 3-5 tasks that are most important to get done in the following day. The idea is, if you get just those things done, you’ve had a good day. Taking a few minutes to figure out what you have to do tomorrow or today is essential to weathering a disaster — or rather, taking a moment to decide what you can manage without doing. I can’t miss class — the consequences for my students are too extreme and take too much work to deal with — but I can miss watching a video I’m evaluating to show my students, or a trip to the library to do research for a paper due in 6 months.
    • Procrastinate. That’s right, I said “procrastinate”. We spend a lot of time here at lifehack.org and other personal productivity sites looking for ways to combat procrastination, but sometimes it can be adaptive to put off work you just can’t focus on right now. Knowing your priorities is important, of course — don’t put off the essential stuff. But for the little things, promise yourself a weekend day, or the next quiet evening (whenever that comes), to catch up. Accept that you’re procrastinating, embrace it even, so your mind can let go of the anxiety and you can focus on what’s truly important right now.
    • Batch tasks. When you don’t know what new trauma tomorrow will bring, you have to take advantage of the quiet moments when they happen. Catch up on all the things you’ve put off over the last few days. Minimize your shopping list and do it all at once. Carry work with you in case a free moment arrives (waiting on line at the court house is a good time to get some reading done, for example).
    • Rely on others. This means two things. First, delegate stuff you wouldn’t normally delegate. Say “no” more often than you normally would, even when that means someone else has to take up the slack. Explain yourself if you have to, but don’t feel pressured to take time away from where it’s most needed. Second, lean on the people closest to you for support. Tell your family and friends what’s going on, and be open with people about how you’re feeling. Dealing with traumatic situations takes a lot more out of us than we think, and the people who care about us are more important in these times than ever. A lot of times, we don’t want to “burden” them with our problems, but that’s just asking for a breakdown — give them an opportunity to take some of that burden off your shoulders so you can deal with whatever problems you’re facing. (Men, this counts doubly for you — everything in our society says we’re not allowed to need help, but there are things bigger than we can manage, and where others like children are involved, denying help can put them at risk.)

    The idea is to keep as much of your energy and attention focused on dealing with the problems at hand while still meeting the obligations you can’t afford to let slide. It’s still hard — that’s just the nature of big problems — but it’s harder still when a disaster in one area of your life sets off a domino effect that ripples through every other area of your life. If you can keep things moving along, even if you can’t afford to keep your normal pace, you’ll be better able to face the disaster in front of you and to pick up the pieces afterward. Since I’m in the middle of this, I’d love to hear any other general advice people have for making your way in the face of disaster. Let us know your tips in the comments!

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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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