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Developing Productive Habits Requires Productive Action — How to Defeat the Cycle

Developing Productive Habits Requires Productive Action — How to Defeat the Cycle

    Have you ever known someone who consistently fails to complete things? Have you ever known someone who always gets the job done on time? I’m sure you have. In fact, I’m sure most people you know fall into one camp or the other. Which one of these two types of people are you?

    There’s a reason that 99.9% of people fall into one of these two camps, but not somewhere in between. How many people have you known that are just as likely to get things done as they are to let things slide? Come to think of it, I’ve never met a person like this in my life. It’s because the trend to complete or to procrastinate are not mere fluctuations in our mood or our environment, but habits in and of themselves.

    The key to getting things done is to consistently get things done. It is about building a new habit and making it so much a part of you that you don’t have to think about how you’re going to get it done and what you’re going to do to psych yourself up for it; you just sit down and complete it.

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    Motivation is important, but I’d contend that it’s not a big part of how much you complete. It can certainly affect you on an off day, but if your problem is repeated, regular procrastination, your problem isn’t motivation. It’s bad habits. In my opinion, this is the most fundamental piece of knowledge to changing your productivity patterns.

    It’s not about systems. It’s not about hacks. It’s not about the way you feel.

    It’s about the way you consciously and subconsciously approach taking action in general. If you’ve got a procrastination problem, you’ve most likely got one that affects getting around to changing a lightbulb at home just as much as tasks at work.

    The problem with is getting out of the loop; to form a new habit, you have to consistently complete tasks until it just becomes a part of your personality and attitude. And consistently completing tasks is the problem you’re having in the first place, so how the heck do you get out of the cycle?

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    Reminds me of the dilemma I face each morning: in order to drink my coffee and become alert, I’ve got to make the coffee, which is fiddly and requires alertness.

    (I’m not quitting coffee. Don’t even say it.)

    Start Small

    Discipline, which is at the core of building new habits until the associated actions don’t require discipline in order to be executed, is like a muscle. That’s nothing new. I’m sure you’ve heard this said many times before.

    What do you do when you’re out of shape and you want to get back in shape? To do this successfully, you start small. Of course, the temptation many people fall for is going for strenuous runs and workouts straight away, but what always happens, happens: they fail and give up.

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    To build any new habit, you must take small steps and increase the size of these steps only once you have no difficulty with the one you’re on. If you’re doing fifty push-ups in your workout and this becomes easy and unchallenging, you up the number. It’s the same with general personal productivity. You start by assigning yourself small tasks and once you fly through the little, easy items on the list, you step it up a notch and tackle something a bit larger.

    Be Consistent

    Whether you start small or you start big, you’ve got to be consistent. Doing push-ups each day for a week as you try and get back in shape, then forgetting for two weeks and doing it for one more week before you forget again, is not likely to help you out all too much. The progress you’ve made on developing new habits, and improving your fitness, will quickly disappear. Again, it’s the same in the case of learning this “completion attitude” — if you give your productivity muscles a work out infrequently, the time in between will murder any progress you have made.

    Fortunately, to assist our lazy and undisciplined minds, we have alarms which you can set on your phone, in iCal or Outlook, or whatever it is you use. Of course, the only problem then is obeying the reminder!

    Don’t Be Complacent

    The first and most obvious piece of advice that falls under this heading is: start small, but don’t stay small. It’s easy to get comfortable with your progress and not push yourself further. Remember to consistently increase the level of challenge or difficulty, no matter what it is you’re trying to master.

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    The second, less obvious, but perhaps more important thing is: don’t have an end goal. And by that I don’t mean you shouldn’t set goals and milestones, but don’t have a place where you’ll just stop trying and plateau. Life’s not meant to be lived that way. You can always improve, no matter what it is you are doing. The ability to fly through work so you can get on with life is no different. You can always build and reinforce the good habits that allow you to tackle consecutively larger and larger projects with increasing ease.

    If you stay on this road, there will come a day when you’ll want to tackle a project that everyone around you says is too big for you to realistically handle — and you’ll handle it with ease.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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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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