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50 Tricks to Get Things Done Faster, Better, and More Easily

50 Tricks to Get Things Done Faster, Better, and More Easily
We all want to get stuff done, whether it’s the work we have to do so we can get on with what we want to do, or indeed, the projects we feel are our purpose in life. To that end, here’s a collection of 50 hacks, tips, tricks, and mnemonic devices I’ve collected that can help you work better.

  1. Most Important Tasks (MITs): At the start of each day (or the night before) highlight the three or four most important things you have to do in the coming day.  Do them first.  If you get nothing else accomplished aside from your MITs, you’ve still had a pretty productive day.
  2. Big Rocks: The big projects you’re working on at any given moment. Set aside time every day or week to move your big rocks forward.
  3. Inbox Zero: Decide what to do with every email you get, the moment you read it.  If there’s something you need to do, either do it or add it to your todo list and delete or file the email.  If it’s something you need for reference, file it.  Empty your email inbox every day.
  4. Wake up earlier: Add a productive hour to your day by getting up an hour earlier — before everyone else starts imposing on your time.
  5. One In, One Out: Avoid clutter by adopting a replacement-only standard.  Every time you but something new, you throw out or donate something old.  For example, you buy a new shirt, you get rid of an old one. (Variation: One in, Two Out — useful when you begin to feel overwhelmed by your possessions.)
  6. Brainstorming: The act of generating dozens of ideas without editing or censoring yourself.  Lots of people use mindmaps for this: stick the thing you want to think about in the middle (a problem you need to solve, a theme you want to write about, etc.) and start writing whatever you think of.  Build off of each of the sub-topics, and each of their sub-topics.  Don’t worry about whether the ideas are any good or not — you don’t have to follow through on them, just get them out of your head.  After a while, you’ll start surprising yourself with some really creative concepts.
  7. Ubiquitous Capture: Always carry something to take notes with — a pen and paper, a PDA, a stack of index cards.  Capture every thought that comes into your mind, whether it’s an idea for a project you’d like to do, an appointment you need to make, something you need to pick up next time you’re at the store, whatever.  Review it regularly and transfer everything to where it belongs: a todo list, a filing system, a journal, etc.
  8. Get more sleep: Sleep is essential to health, learning, and awareness.  Research shows the body goes through a complete sleep cycle in about 90 minutes, so napping for less than that doesn’t have the same effect that real sleep does (although it does make you feel better). Get 8 hours a night, at least. Learn to see sleep as a pleasure, not a necessary evil or a luxury.
  9. 10+2*5: Work in short spurts of 10 minutes, interrupted by 2 minute breaks.  Use a timer. Do this 5 times an hour to stay on target without over-taxing your physical and mental resources. Spend those 2 minutes getting a drink, going to the bathroom, or staring out a window.
  10. SMART goals: A rubric for creating and pursuing your goals, helping to avoid setting goals that are simply unattainable. Stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.
  11. SUCCES: From Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, SUCCES is a set of characteristics that make ideas memorable (“sticky”): sticky ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.
  12. Eat the Frog: Do your most unpleasant task first. Based on the saying that if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a frog, the day can only get better from then on.
  13. 80/20 Rule/Pareto Principle: Generally speaking, the 80/20 Principle says that most of our results come from a small portion of our actual work, and conversely, that we spend most of our energy doing things that aren’t ultimately all that important.  Figure out which part of your work has the greatest results and focus as much of your energy as you can on that part.
  14. What’s the Next Action?: Don’t plan out everything you need to do to finish a project, just focus on the very next thing you need to do to move it forward. Usually doing the next, little thing will lead to another, and another, until we’re either done or we run into a block: we need more information, we need someone else to catch up, etc. Be as concrete and discrete as possible: you can’t “install cable”, all you can do is “call the cable company to request cable installation”.
  15. The Secret: There is no secret.
  16. Slow Down: Make time for yourself. Eat slowly. Enjoy a lazy weekend day. Take the time to do things right, and keep a balance between the rush-rush world of work and the rest of your life.
  17. Time Boxing: Assign a set amount of time per day to work on a task or project.  Focus entirely on that one thing during that time. Don’t worry about finishing it, just worry about giving that amount of undivided attention to the project. (Variation: fixed goals.  For example, you don’t get up until you’ve written 1,000 words, or processed 10 orders, or whatever.)
  18. Batch Process: Do all your similar tasks together.  For example, don’t deal with emails sporadically throughout the day; instead, set aside an hour to go through your email inbox and respond to emails.  Do the same with voice mail, phone calls, responding to letters, filing, and so on — any routine, repetitive tasks.
  19. Covey Quadrants: A system for assigning priorities.  Two axes, one for importance, the other for urgency, intersect.  Tasks are assigned to one of the four quadrants: not important, not urgent; not important, urgent; important, not urgent; and important and urgent.  Purge the tasks that are neither important nor urgent, defer the unimportant but urgent ones, try to avoid letting the important ones become urgent, and as much as possible work on the tasks in the important but not urgent quadrant.
  20. Handle Everything Once: Don’t set things aside hoping you’ll have time to deal with them later.  Ask yourself “What do I need to do with this” every time you pick up something from your email list, and either do it, schedule it for later, defer it to someone else, or file it.
  21. Don’t Break the Chain: Use a calendar to track your daily goals.  Every day you do something, like working out or writing 1,000 words, make a big red “X”.  Every day the chain will grow longer.  Don’t break the chain! That is, don’t let any non-X days interrupt your chain of successful days.
  22. Review: Schedule a time with yourself every week to look over what you’ve done that week and what you want to do the next week. Ask yourself if there are any new projects you should be starting, and if what you’re working on is moving you closer to your goals for your life.
  23. Roles: Everyone fills several different roles in their life.  For instance, I’m a teacher, a student, a writer, a step-father, a partner, a brother, a son, an uncle, an anthropologist, and so on. Understanding your different roles and learning to keep them distinct when necessary can help you keep some sense of balance between them.  Make goals around the various roles you fill, and make sure that your goals fit with your goals in other roles.
  24. Flow: The flow state happens when you’re so absorbed in whatever you’re doing that you have no awareness of the passing of time and the work just happens automatically. It’s hard to trigger consciously, but you can create the conditions for it by allowing yourself a block of uninterrupted time, minimizing distractions, and calming yourself.
  25. Do It Now: Fight procrastination by adopting “do it now!” as your mantra.  Limit yourself to 60 seconds when making a decision, decide what you’re going to do with every input in your life as soon as you encounter it, learn to make bold decisions even when you’re not really sure.  Keep moving forward.
  26. Time Log: Lawyers have to track everything they do in the day and how long they do it so they can bill their clients and remain accountable.  You need to be accountable to yourself, so keep track of how much time you really spend on the things that are important to you by tracking your time.
  27. Structured Procrastination: A strategy of recognizing and using one’s procrastinating tendencies to get stuff done.  Items at the top of top of the list are avoided by doing seemingly less difficult and less important tasks further down the list — making the procrastinator highly productive.  The trick is to make sure the items at the top are apparently urgent — with pressing deadlines and apparently large consequences.  But, of course, they aren’t really all that urgent.  Structured procrastination requires a masterful skill at self-deception, which fortunately bigtime procrastinators excel at.
  28. Personal Mission Statement: Write a personal mission statement, and use it as a guide to set goals. Ask if each goal or activity moves you closer to achieving your mission.  If it doesn’t, eliminate it.  Periodically review and revise your mission statement.
  29. Backwards Planning: A planning strategy that works from the goal back to your next action. Start with the end goal in mind.  What do you have to have in place to accomplish it? OK, now what do you have to have in place to accomplish what you have to have in place to accomplish your end goal? And what do you have to have in place to accomplish that? And so on, back to something you already have in place and/or can put in place immediately. That’s your next action.
  30. Tune Out: Create a personal privacy zone by wearing headphones. People are much more hesitant to interrupt someone wearing headphones.  Note: actually listening to music through your headphones is optional — nobody knows but you.
  31. Write It Down: Don’t rely on your memory as your system. Write down the things you need to do, your schedule, anything you might need to refer to, and every passing thought so you can relax, knowing you won’t forget.  Use your brain for thinking, use paper or your computer for keeping track of stuff.
  32. Gap Time: The little blocks of time we have during the day while waiting for the bus, standing in line, waiting for a meeting to start, etc.  Have a list of small, 5-minute tasks that you can do in these moments, or carry something to read or work on to make the most of these spare minutes.
  33. Monotasking: We like to think of ourselves as great multitaskers, but we aren’t.  What we do when we multitask is devote tiny slices of time to several tasks in rapid succession.  Since it takes more than a few minutes (research suggests as long as 20) to really get into a task, we end up working worse and more slowly than if we devoted longer blocks of time to each task, worked until it was done, and moved on to the next one.
  34. Habits: Habits are as much about the way we see and respond to the world as about the actions we routinely take. Examine your own habits and ask what they say about your relation to the world — and what would have to change to create a worldview in which your goals were attainable.
  35. Triggers: Place meaningful reminders around you to help you remember, as well as to help create better habits.  For example, put the books you need to take back to the library in front of the door, so you can’t leave the house without seeing them and remembering they need to go back.
  36. Unclutter: Clutter is anything that’s out of place and in the way.  IT’s not necessarily neatness — someone can have a rigorously neat workspace and not be able to get anything done.  It’s being able to access what you need, when you need it, without breaking the flow of your work to find it. Figure out what is “clutter” in your working and living spaces, and fix that.
  37. Visualize: Imagine yourself having accomplished your goals.  What is your life like? Are you who you want to be? If not, rethink your goals.  If so, then visualize yourself taking the steps you need to take to get there.  You’ve got yourself a plan; write it down and do it.
  38. Tickler File: A set of 43 folders, labeled 1 – 31 and January – December, used to remind us of tasks we need to do on a specific day.  For instance, if you have a trip on March 23rd, you’d put your itinerary, tickets, and other material in the “March” folder. At the start of each month, you move the previous month’s folder to the back. On March 1st, you’d transfer your travel information into the “23” folder. Each day, you move the previous day’s folder to the back.  On the 23rd, the “23” folder will be at the front, and everything you need that day will be there for you.
  39. ToDon’t List: A list of things not to do — useful for keeping track of habits that lead you to be unproductive, like playing online flash games.
  40. Templates: Create templates for repetitive tasks, like letters, customer reply emails, blog posts, etc.
  41. Checklists: When planning any big task, make a checklist so you don’t forget the steps while in the busy middle part of doing it.  Keep your checklists so you can use them next time you have to do the same task.
  42. No: Learning to say “no” — to new commitments, to interruptions, to anything — is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to keep you focused on your own commitments and give you time to work on them.
  43. Unschedule: Schedule all your fun activities and personal life stuff (the stuff you want to do) first. Fill in whatever time’s left over with uninterrupted blocks of work. Write those into your schedule after you’ve completed them. Reward yourself after every block of quality, focused work.
  44. Purge: Regularly go through your existing commitments and get rid of anything that is either not helping you advance your own goals or is a regular “sink” of time or energy.
  45. One Bucket: Minimize the places you collect new inputs in your life, your “buckets”.  Ideally have one “bucket” where everything goes.  Lots of people experience an incredible sense of relief when everything they need to think about is collected in one place in front of them, no matter how big the pile.
  46. 50-30-20: Spend 50% of your working day on tasks that advance your long-term, life goals, spend 30% on tasks that advance your middle-term (2-years or so) goals, and the remaining 20% on things that affect only the next 90 days or so.
  47. Timer: Tell yourself you will work on a project or task, and only that project or task, for a set amount of time. Set a timer (use a kitchen timer, or use a countdown timer on your computer), and plug away at your work.  When the timer goes off, you’re done — move on to the next project or task.
  48. Do Your Worst: Give yourself permission to suck.  Relieve the pressure of needing to achieve perfection in every task on the first run.  Promise yourself you’ll go back and fix any problems later, but for now, just run wild.
  49. Make an Appointment with Yourself: Schedule time every week or so just for you.  Consider the state of your life: what’s working? What isn’t working? what mistakes are you making? what could you change? Give yourself a chance to get to know you.
  50. [This space left intentionally blank]: This is a big list, sure, but it’s not an exhaustive one.  The last space is left for you to fill in.  What works for you? What would you like to share with the rest of the lifehack.org community? Let us know in the comments — or write your own list and link back to us!

Featured photo credit: productive via i.huffpost.com

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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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