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Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)

Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)
Five Productivity Ideas I'm Not Buying

    The body of work on productivity, life-work balance, and personal achievement sits uncomfortably – perhaps perilously — close to the genre of “self-help”. There are good ideas out there, but there are also a lot of hacks, quacks, and worse pawning off half-baked philosophies and poorly conceived analogies as solid advice.

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    While none of it is all that dangerous in and of itself, I think there is reason to be cautious about the ideas and strategies we invest our time, energy, and all too often our selves into. By presenting poor advice that promises but, in the end, fails to make us more productive, more able to handle the overwhelming press of personal and professional commitments, or more satisfied with our abilities, talents, and achievements, this mass of bad advice leaves us doubting ourselves, wondering not if there’s something wrong with the authors but if there’s something wrong with us.

    After working my way though a good part of my local library’s books on personal productivity and organization, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of ideas that, though popular, seem to promise a lot more than they deliver. A lot of it is built on poorly done, poorly understood, or even fraudulent research. I’m surprised, too, at how shallow so much of this literature is that promises to help its readers deepen their lives.

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    Much of it isn’t worth mentioning, but there are a few ideas that are so popular, that come up so much when we lifehackistas get to talking, that they do deserve examination. Here is my list of five ideas that I’m not buying – some of them I’ve tried and found lacking, others simply strike me as outright stupid, and some as sheer BS, but all of them are well-known and carry a lot of weight in the personal productivity world.

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    • Mind mapping. I wanted so badly to believe this one! As an academic, I’m always looking for ways to simplify and strengthen the organization and use of information, tools that would help me to see connections among seemingly disparate ideas. What a disappointment it was to sit down with Tony Buzan’s books and find almost nothing there – a way to make beautiful pictures that seems to offer nothing in the way of actual productivity. I simply can’t see why a handful of colored pencils and an hour of sketching little drawings and cutesy arrows (hey, let’s make this line look like a staircase, because it’s about “moving up” in the world!) should be considered an improvement over ten minutes of list-making. All Buzan offers to support any of this is his insistence that this is how the brain works. And if it isn’t…?
    • The 80/20 Rule. I get the idea here: eliminate the stuff you do that doesn’t make you happier, wealthier, or wiser, and focus on the stuff that does. But why wrap the pretty good advice up in a scientific-sounding pseudo-rule (hey, it’s mathy, it must be true!? What is “20%” of the stuff I do, anyway? How is that measured? Total calories expended on each task, minutes used on each thing, or maybe the amount of worrying I do in getting something done? I’m sure there’s some business psychologist somewhere who has sat down and tracked employees’ workflows – what does that have to do with me? How does that transfer out of the workplace, and why should it? What would “80%” of my productivity even look like? What does 20% of parenting look like? Of painting? Of writing? It’s a bogus measure meant to give more gravitas to advice that, frankly, doesn’t need it.
    • The power of Brand You. This is another one I get the idea of, but think it’s misdirected. Basically, the idea of Brand You is to stand out, to be memorable, to market yourself – through schmoozing, networking, the quality of your work, and so on – as THE person to turn to in your field. But the over-reliance on the idea of a brand, as if you were a product to be put on a shelf – it bother me. What’s more, the idea is that you’re always selling yourself. In no other part of life do we think of salespeople as holding the keys to success, but when it comes to shaping our careers and even our lives, we’re asked to turn to Willy Loman as a model?
    • Making productivity a habit. This strikes me as good advice, but it’s only halfway there. The problem with habits is that they become routines, reflexes – not even “become”, they are routines. As anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking or stop saying “um” will tell you, habits are hard to break. Habits can hinder our ability to adapt to change, can even prevent us from seeing change at all. They can also blind us to important information, forcing us to push it out of our minds the way the habitual smoker explains away his morning cough or wheezing after the second flight of stairs.
    • Visualizing success. I’ve saved the worst for last – the alleged power of positive thinking. It never ceases to surprise me how much traction this kind of new-agey, pseudo-mystical thinking gets among otherwise hard-headed, practical-minded movers and shakers. The worst part is that it’s not even true: research shows that visualizing yourself as successful, imagining you’ve won that promotion and corner office or walking down the street with the current object of your obsession rarely leads to effective action. Instead, psychologists find that mentally re-enacting the series of events that led one to have difficulty securing a promotion or getting a date is more likely to compel us to act, and in more productive ways. Self-examination is key, not escaping into an imagined but unrealized future.

    Like I said, these are ideas that have a lot of followers, which tells me that somebody, somewhere is getting – or thinks they’re getting – some use out of them. So I’m not ready to close the door on them entirely; if you think there’s a good reason to take another look at something in the list above, let me know!

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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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