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12 Hours to Better Time Management

12 Hours to Better Time Management
12 Hours to Better Time Management

Work. Kids. School. Sports. Second job. Partner’s job. The next great American novel. Your knitting circle. Remodeling the guest bathroom. Taking your car in for its 30,000 mile tune-up. An on and on and on — it seems like we have things to do in abundance. What we don’t ever seem to have enough of is time.

I think we all know what we should do, but the prospect of sitting down and getting everything together, taking the time to set up a system that we trust to work for us (and that we trust ourselves to make work) is daunting. And, what’s more, it’s time consuming — and time’s exactly what we don’t have.

We’re too busy to manage our time!

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But, what if you could do it in 12 hours? Maybe not even all at once — a couple hours a day over the course of a week, maybe, or even a half-hour a day over course of a few weeks? That seems a lot more doable, doesn’t it? Like something you might be able to get yourself to do?

Here, then, is the backbone of a good system you can implement in 12 hours (or less). Give yourself a week or three to get it up and running, and see if the time you invest in it now isn’t returned to you several times over down the line.

1. Set up your calendars (4-6 hours)

Use an online calendar like Google Calendar or 30 Boxes to set reminders for every conceivable event in your life, particularly recurring events like bill payment dates, your kids’ soccer games, and your shopping trips. I recommend a calendar rather than a reminder service like Sandy because you are going to want to look at your upcoming events once in a while, and a calendar is a format we’re all familiar with.

I recommend you put these into a calendar other than your main calendar. If you like the idea of looking at everything in, say, Outlook, most of the online calendars offer a iCal feed that you can subscribe to in Outlook. Call it “Reminders” and open it as a second calendar. If you put the al into your main calendar, you may find that it becomes too cluttered to be of any use — especially in the month view where most calendars only show the first few items per day.

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Put all of these events into your calendar:

  • Gas bill due date
  • Electric bill due date
  • Mortgage/rent due date
  • Phone bill due dates (landline and mobile)
  • Cable/satellite bill due date
  • Insurance premium due dates
  • Backup computer (daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on your usage and level of paranoia — automate this if you can)
  • Trash pickup (set reminder for the night before)
  • One day every three months for oil changes
  • One day every year for auto tune-ups
  • One day every three years for major auto tune-ups
  • One day every 6 months for dentist appointments
  • One day every year for doctor, eye doctor
  • Any other recurring medical appointments
  • One day very month for prescription refilling (two reminders — one to call in refill, one to pick up)
  • Netflix/Tivo/XM/other service billing dates
  • Write grocery list (one day before your regular shopping day)
  • The day the exterminator comes
  • The time and day of any TV show you watch regularly
  • The last day of January (to check for tax paperwork)
  • One or more days at the beginning of the year to do your taxes and.or contact your tax preparer
  • April 15 (or whatever day taxes are due in your country)
  • Start and end of the school year, start and end of school vacations
  • Birthdays, Anniversaries, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, other important holidays (set two reminders — one on the day itself to remind you to call or take some other action and one two weeks earlier to buy a gift, if needed, or plan a party)
  • Monthly, quarterly, and annual home maintenance (see checklists below)
  • Any other date which requires a concrete action at specific times every week, month, or year

Also add these dates, without reminders:

  • The end date for all of the above billing cycles
  • The pay dates for any automatic payments (and it’s a good idea, while you’re at it, to set up automatic payments for as many bills as you can)
  • Direct deposit dates
  • Automatic bank transfer dates
  • Stock dividend payment/reinvestment dates
  • Any other date it’s important for you to know about but which does not require any immediate action on your part

In your main calendar, the one you use for keeping track of your schedule day to day, schedule blocks of time for the following:

  • Grocery shopping (weekly)
  • Laundry (weekly)
  • Family meals
  • Bill paying (bi-monthly — the first and third weekend of the month might be good. List in the note section all of the bills that come due in the half month after each bill-paying day)
  • Any weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting
  • Kids’ sports events (e.g. weekly football games every Saturday from September 15 through December 15)
  • Other kids’ activities (art classes, piano lessons, every 3rd weekend at grandparents’, etc.)
  • Weekend chores/cleaning
  • Commute time
  • Gym sessions
  • Golf/bicycling/other sports
  • Weekly review (schedule 2 hours whenever you’re least likely to be interrupted) — make sure you use your weekly review to add any new reminders you might need!
  • Writing time (if you want to write an hour a day, schedule an hour a day — don’t assume you’ll just “find” a spare hour each day.)
  • Other hobbies (same as with writing)
  • Any classes you’re taking
  • Goofing off time (I schedule at least an hour a day for whatever strikes my fancy)
  • Any other regular blocks of time you know you need to be at a specific place or doing a specific thing. The only exception is your regular 9-to-5 job, if you have one — schedule the activities you’ll do at your job, not the job itself.

You’ll have to use your own judgment about which of these scheduled events needs reminders and which don’t. I don’t set reminders for commuting time, for example, since it’s enough for me to be able to look at my calendar and see that those times are blocked off. On the other hand, I have reminders 15 minutes before all the classes I teach, so I know when I need to start heading to my classrooms when I’m on campus.

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2. Set up password system (2-3 hours)

Use a program like KeePass, or a password protected spreadsheet, or whatever system you feel most comfortable with, but use one — if you have a lot of passwords and no system, you’ll waste a lot of time either trying every possible password you can remember or searching frantically though your emails, files, or scraps of paper on your desk for wherever you recorded your password. In one or two sessions, record every login and password you have. Make sure you get information for all of these:

  • Bank accounts (including debit card PIN)
  • Credit cards
  • Stock accounts
  • Email
  • Internet service
  • Online payment services
  • Phone service
  • Utilities
  • Website memberships (Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, flickr, WordPress.com, Digg, Reddit, Blogger, OpenID, etc.)
  • Your site’s login, FTP, and admin panel info
  • Any MySQL or other databases your site uses
  • Work accounts
  • Parking permit services
  • DMV online/other government services
  • Web applications
  • Software registration keys (not technically passwords, but many password managers include sections for registration keys — useful if [when] you need to reinstall Windows)
  • Any other account you have a password to

3. Create checklists (2-3 hours)

Make a new folder on your computer called “AAAAA Checklists” (or “@Checklists” for you David Allen fans), so it sorts to the top of your Documents folder.  Create a set of checklists for recurring tasks and save them to at folder, so you can easily print them off whenever you need one. Some checklists to think about creating include:

  • Grocery list (with everything you commonly buy and space for additions; my list is organized by aisle in the store we shop at, so I can move quickly from back to front with minimal interruptions)
  • Monthly home maintenance (e.g. change air filters, test smoke detectors, etc.)
  • Quarterly of semi-annual home maintenance (e.g. clean gutters, replace smoke detector batteries, check fire extinguishers, etc.)
  • Winter/Summer car preparation (e.g. check coolant, flush radiator, add chains/snow tires, etc.)
  • Trip/vacation packing
  • Christmas decorating

4. Keep up to date with a weekly review

You scheduled a weekly review in part 1 — make sure you keep that appointment. During your weekly review, take 10 minutes to set up reminders for any recurring events you might have missed in your initial setup, as well as any new commitments you’ve taken on. Check your schedule and make sure that you’ve left adequate time for any new tasks that you need to take care of in the coming week If necessary, move some of those blocks of scheduled time around. Check, too, what’s coming up that you’ll need to add to your schedule — for example, if your child’s birthday is coming up, you’ll need to schedule a block of time to pick up a gift, and another block of time to plan a party, etc.

Better, not perfect

There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course. This is meant as a backbone to a system; you will find that other ways to make yourself more efficient occur to you. Password management, for example, is just one kind of reference system that will save you time on a pretty regular basis — you will probably think of others that fit your own particular situation. In my home, keeping the mail sorted and in some semblance of order is a big task, so I set up a mail management center, with trays for my partner’s and my personal mail, a tray for bills, and a tray for coupons and flyers (it took about 30 minutes, in case you want to add that to your 12-hour commitment). You might not have a problem with mail, but you might need to work on keeping track of magazines.

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Having a solid structure in place will help you wrangle with the other, smaller “time sinks” in your life. Once you start looking at your time in a “big picture” view, you’ll start seeing everything that falls outside of your existing system in a new way, and solutions will suggest themselves. Instead of fretting about it, just schedule an hour or two to take care of it — for bigger projects break it into three or four 2-hour sections.

Once you’ve started getting a grip on your schedule, you’ll find that not only are you more on top of your schedule (instead of it being on top of you!) but your mind will be more at ease. Instead of worrying about what’s coming up, or even what you should be doing right now, you’ll just check your schedule and know. The energy you used to use for worrying and occasionally freaking out, you can put to better use pursuing your dreams.

What about you? What 1-2 hour activities do you recommend to help get a grip on time?

More by this author

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques Back to Basics: Capture Your Ideas The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain) Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

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Last Updated on March 25, 2020

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective 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 effectively.

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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1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

4. 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.

5. 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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6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 Note-Taking Tips

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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