In the world of too many notifications, too short attention spans and multiple priorities, not only is it gratifying to make time for self-reflection and reconnect to one’s authentic self. Self-awareness can be a lifesaver. Our busy schedule, however, protests against this one more activity that takes time and does not seem to bring in an immediate (financial) reward. It often engages anxiety and procrastination to support its protest.

Awareness of the problem is known to be a part of a solution. This month, let’s freshen up what we know about note taking and explore how it can help you structure your life to integrate and nurture its every aspect. It might even loosen up your schedule a bit – if you let it :).

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open for everything.

Shunryu Suzuki

Note-taking has been an essential part of human history. Systems for personal records on important subjects were known to ancient Greeks. During the Renaissance, students took notes that they sometimes used as reference works long after finishing their studies. Cognitive psychology recognises note-taking as a central aspect of human behaviour related to information management (wiki.)

In modern times, note-taking might have developed new facets like reminders or to-do lists. Still, the primary cognitive reason for taking notes is managing information – processing it (learning), saving for future reference (storing), sharing (communication) and transforming it (creative writing).

Looking at note-taking as an information management tool allows us to integrate it into our lives in a supportive way. It does not have to be yet another to-do on one of the innumerable to-do lists or add to the anxiety. With a few well-planned steps, it is possible to turn note-taking into a life framework and harness its benefits in an empowering way.

Getting things done

Your mind is for having ideas, not storing them.

David Allen

Suppose you would ask me to name one person who influenced how I structure my personal and professional tasks and projects and ensured efficiency, productivity, and organisational talent are the qualities my colleagues most often recommend in me. In that case, I’d say – David Allen. I recommend reading his book “Getting things done” if you want to understand his method in-depth. Over the years, I have slightly adjusted his framework to make it leaner.

Capture all your commitments and actions in one single place

At least a portion of our mind is always running through everything that it considers unfinished, and that is not captured in a trusted system outside it. You either keep everything in your head or out of your head. If it is in between, your mind won’t trust either one. Suppose your mind does not trust the storing system. In that case, it will keep resurfacing the information, distracting you from anything else you might be doing and thus diminishing your capacity to perform. You free your mind by choosing one tool and capturing all the stuff that needs your attention. An uncluttered mind will have more good ideas and apply resources to the tasks at hand in a focused and productive way.

Think about the task, not of it

Does your to-do list look anything like this:

  • Mike
  • Milk
  • Receipts
  • Print-outs
  • Mum

Most of the task lists look the same way. I agree with David Allen – looking at such task lists creates more stress than relief. Though it is a valuable trigger for something you’ve committed to do or decide, it still calls out, “Decide about me!!” And, if you do not have the energy or focus at the moment, it will simply remind you that you are overwhelmed.

Instead, you could describe the task as the intended outcome – what needs to happen for this to be “done”. In addition, you might add the first physical step to move the situation forward. The extra minute you’ve put into thinking makes all the difference when you look at your to-do list. Instead of creating more pressure, it creates clarity:

  • Next Thursday: discuss with Mike the outline for the article
  • Buy milk on my way home
  • Scan receipts to finalise expenses report first thing in the morning
  • Pick up prints-out from the office before the meeting
  • Call mum to clarify what to bring for Saturday’s dinner

Organise the information

It does not matter what specific system you use to organise your information. You can organise tasks, projects and commitments by priority, by urgency, by type of action or by categories. What matters most is that you do this consistently and that it is so simple that you can use it intuitively.

Engage

Once all your commitments are captured, clarified and organised, you will have a neat structure to consciously choose the most impactful (or most important) task to start. Once this is done, you tick it off your list and take care of the next one. For ease of reference, you can choose a set of filters to show you the tasks for the day, week or month. If you collaborate with others, your filter can show tasks awaiting input or open for a particular project.

Review

Regular reviews help you to see connections you might not have been able to recognise otherwise. Maybe you’ll notice that the dry-cleaner you’ll pick your shirts up is located around the corner from that new restaurant you wanted to visit and discuss catering options. Additionally, during the review, you can capture new inputs, prepare for the upcoming week and make sure there is nothing you have missed.

Knowledge management

Save your best thinking so you don’t have to do it again.

Tiago Forte

Every day in our lives, we consume information. Old information is archived or trashed to give place to new information. What if, like those Renaissance students, we would be able to use the knowledge we’ve once processed for reference when needed?

Much per David Allen’s principles, all relevant information we come across can be captured, classified and organised for future use. This note-taking approach is specifically interesting for creative professionals that are sometimes challenged to find new ideas for their work.

Suppose we add our experiences, ideas and learnings to this knowledge vault. In that case, we create a library of inspirational, moving, engaging, relevant, curious and meaningful facts and ideas. It becomes a treasure box, and we can use its contents again and again in a variety of ways.

I’ve connected my knowledge vault to the master task list, where I keep all my commitments, tasks, projects and ideas. It enables me to store all relevant information centrally. I can, for example, understand why I made certain decisions or find practical advice on tasks I am not dealing with regularly. Additionally, I use it extensively when I write and create content for my social media, allowing me to process, recycle and reuse content and ideas.

Knowing who is who

Were you ever on the verge of remembering what the name of that author whose quote inspired you so much was? Or maybe you spent time wondering where you saw that excellent animated infographic on global warming and who created it? Or perhaps you tried to remember the discussion you had some years ago with a random group of coworkers that you’d love to use as inspiration for your next article? It might as well be that you cannot remember when the last time you spoke with your college buddy was?

We often rely on our memory or chance when it comes to relationship maintenance. On average, we meet much more new people yearly than our parents or grandparents used to – due to digitalisation and globalisation as well as the growing pace of the world. Managing relationships becomes essential for those who do a lot of networking. But how to remember them all?

The third pillar of my life framework is my relationship management system. Like saving a person’s contact information on my phone, I keep information about interactions with that person in my note-taking app. In addition to the name and surname, it also contains a summary of our latest interactions. Thus I can always find people with the same interests for collaboration in my network. I can also know whom to ask if I require insight into specific areas of expertise I don’t have myself. I also jot down the most exciting thought leaders I follow or reference a great discussion we’ve had.

With this in place, I can be on top of my relationship management and enhance it through collaborations and meaningful exchanges.

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