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Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information

Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information
Books

    I read lots of books. I follow several blogs. I take classes. I’ve learned enough new information I want to incorporate into my work that I know I haven’t got a chance of remembering it all. There have been times that all that information consumption has felt like a waste, because the human brain just isn’t built to remember so many details and act on them. Not just a waste of time, either — my college classes cost enough to make the thought of missing even one abhorrent.

    It’s worth my while, then, to make the effort to process the information that I learn and apply it in real life. All of the tricks I have for learning new information when I was still in school just don’t work out in the real world. So many learning techniques focus on a test or classes where you have a clear chance of how to build on specific ideas. We need more practical solutions.

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    Create tasks.

    As I read, I try to keep the question of how I can apply my newfound knowledge. I want specific things I can do to follow up on a given piece of information. My actions can vary a great deal: if I’m looking at a blog post about ten tricks to improving a website, I might just move each of those ten tricks directly on to my task list. If, however, I’m reading a biography of Mark Twain, I might write down specifics as ideas for blog posts or articles — which wind up as tasks slated for a certain date.

    I’m ruthless about my tasks, though. I try to avoid adding tasks that aren’t going to help me. Even then, I have to keep a task list dedicated to ideas and tasks that I know the odds of getting too aren’t so great. I consider those tasks my “rainy day” list: when I don’t have anything else worth doing, I pull a task off that list.

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    Pass on information.

    There used to be people who hoarded information, usually for the information’s own good. Monks saving libraries from marauding barbarians, a nobleman hiding an important tome in his library: these are archetypes we recognize. But the Internet has allowed us to move past them to a certain extent. Sites like Digg and del.icio.us are based on the idea that we want to tell our friends about all the cool stuff we learn. Even better, I’ve found that if I learn something, pass it along to someone who will find it useful and promptly forget it, I still feel like I’ve done something worthwhile with that information. Passing along a link or making a copy of a file is a great action item, I think.

    Organize your notes.

    Even if you’re on the ball about getting rid of material you don’t need to keep, some notes will probably accumulate. Some people don’t need to go much beyond keeping their notes — they’ll be able to handle any necessary research from their stack. Some of us, however, need some method of organizing our notes so that we can find them again easily.

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    I know plenty of people are vehemently against handling information anymore than they absolutely have to, but I do find filing my notes to be a great opportunity to review them and check for any new action items I can develop, or information I can pass along.

    Prepare to forget.

    If you aren’t willing to flat out forget some information, you can go crazy. And there are plenty of things that are worthwhile to forget. Forget, here, really means that you don’t need to make an active effort to remember. You’ll probably remember plenty of things that fit into these categories — the human brain is funny that way. But if something slips out, you’re still okay.

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    Facts you don’t need regularly — I know that at some point, I learned a whole list of facts about Honduras, including the total area of the country. My apologies to any Hondurans reading, but I just don’t need to know that. I know that I can easily look it up if I need to know it.
    Things you’ve already written down — There’s no need to actively try to forget upcoming tasks, but once they’ve hit paper (or the electronic equivalent) there really isn’t a reason to actively try to remember them either.
    Details you pay someone else to remember — Some of us are lucky enough to have a secretary or administrative assistant (while others of us have just worked as secretaries). Assuming you have a capable assistant, leave the details that they are paid to handle with them.

    Please note that I didn’t suggest forgetting about things that don’t relate to your current projects. I’m a big believer that interdisciplinary knowledge is the real clue to breakthroughs, whether you have a case of writer’s block or you’re designing a new house.

    Prepare to remember.

    All of my suggestions for forgetting aside, there are plenty of pieces of data you need to remember. You may have a big presentation coming up, or an interview on a certain section. Heck, you may even need to write a term paper. Instead of stressing out about remembering details, however, I’d like to suggest a simple tool: the review.

    I set aside material that I know I’ll need for a given project and, when the project is actually near enough to be worth working on, I review my information. I don’t prepare for presentations weeks in advance, because the information may not stick in my mind. My ideal prep time is much closer to a week — long enough that I have time to practice and review as many times as I feel necessary but not so long that I run the risk of forgetting necessary material.

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    Last Updated on May 22, 2019

    The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

    The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

    If you spend any time at all researching life hacks, you’ve probably heard of the famous Pomodoro Technique.

    Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the more popular time management life hacks used today. But this method isn’t for everyone, and for every person who is a passionate adherent of the system, there is another person who is critical of the results.

    Is the Pomodoro Technique right for you? It’s a matter of personal preference. But if you are curious about the benefits of using the technique, this article will break down the basic information you will need to decide if this technique is worth trying out.

    What is the Pomodoro Technique?

    The Pomodoro Technique is a time management philosophy that aims to provide the user with maximum focus and creative freshness, thereby allowing them to complete projects faster with less mental fatigue.

    The process is simple:

    For every project throughout the day, you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically.

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    You work for 25 minutes, then take break for five minutes.

    Each 25-minute work period is called a “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for tomato. Francesco Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato as his personal timer, and thus the method’s name.

    After four “pomodoros” have passed, (100 minutes of work time with 15 minutes of break time) you then take a 15-20 minute break.

    Every time you finish a pomodoro, you mark your progress with an “X”, and note the number of times you had the impulse to procrastinate or switch gears to work on another task for each 25-minute chunk of time.

    How the Pomodoro Technique boosts your productivity

    Frequent breaks keep your mind fresh and focused. According to the official Pomodoro website, the system is easy to use and you will see results very quickly:

    “You will probably begin to notice a difference in your work or study process within a day or two. True mastery of the technique takes from seven to twenty days of constant use.”

    If you have a large and varied to-do list, using the Pomodoro Technique can help you crank through projects faster by forcing you to adhere to strict timing.

    Watching the timer wind down can spur you to wrap up your current task more quickly, and spreading a task over two or three pomodoros can keep you from getting frustrated.

    The constant timing of your activities makes you more accountable for your tasks and minimizes the time you spend procrastinating.

    You’ll grow to “respect the tomato”, and that can help you to better handle your workload.

    Successful people who love it

    Steven Sande of The Unofficial Apple Weblog is a fan of the system, and has compiled a great list of Apple-compatible Pomodoro tools.

    Before he started using the technique, he said,

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    “Sometimes I couldn’t figure out how to organize a single day in my calendar, simply because I would jump around to all sorts of projects and never get even one of them accomplished.”

    Another proponent of the Pomodoro Technique is Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal. Shellenbarger tried out this system along with several other similar methods for time management, and said,

    “It eased my anxiety over the passing of time and also made me more efficient; refreshed by breaks, for example, I halved the total time required to fact-check a column.”

    Any cons for the Pomodoro Technique?

    Despite the number of Pomodoro-heads out there, the system isn’t without its critics. Colin T. Miller, a Yahoo! employee and blogger, tried using the Pomodoro Technique and had some issues:[1]

    “Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair. Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X. For instance…meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting…In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway.”

    Another critic is Mario Fusco, who argues that the Pomodoro Technique is…well…sort of ridiculous:[2]

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    “Aren’t we really able to keep ourselves concentrated without a timer ticketing on our desk?… Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects?… I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours… Bring back your timer to your kitchen and start working in a more professional and effective way.”

    Conclusion

    One of the best things about the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s free. Yeah, you can fork over some bills to get a tomato-shaped timer if you want… or you can use any timer program on your computer or phone. So even if you try it and hate it, you haven’t lost any cash.

    The process isn’t ideal for every person, or in any line of work. But if you need a systematic way to tackle your daily to-do list, the Pomodoro Technique may fit your needs.

    If you want to learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, check out this article: How to Make the Pomodoro Technique More Productive

    Reference

    [1] Aspirations of a Software Developer: A Month of the Pomodoro Technique
    [2] InfoQ: A Critique of the Pomodoro Technique

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