Productivity Tips and Free Time Management: How to Create a System That Works For You

Credit Chotda

[Read Time (Just Reading): 14 minutes]

[Read Time (Doing It): 2-6 hours]

(Recommended: Read then set aside half a day)

If there's one complaint I hear more than any other it's, "I never have enough time to do everything I want." Now there are special circumstances for which this is true--taking 21 credits of college classes, interning, studying for the LSAT, and working 40+ hours per week all at the same time, for example--but 95% of  these complaints about not having enough time are actually just a result of a lack of organization. And that's a good thing because it means you can easily fix it.

I tend to use my own situation for the example in these posts because I use myself as a guinea pig for hundreds of experiments every year to figure out what works and what actually changes behavior. I'm also what I can most accurately measure and it gives me a frame of reference from which to recommend certain strategies--I'm not just obsessed with talking about myself, though you could probably make that argument.

In any case, this subject will be separated into multiple posts because it's such a huge topic. In this part I will be using my organizational system as an example for you of how to make your own.

My average week consists of:

  • A 3.5-day weekend with lots of free time (However, this last term I unfortunately filled this time with work. More on this later.)
  • 7-8 hours of sleep per night
  • 12 credit hours of intense 400 level college courses
  • 15 hours of studying for school
  • 20 hours of work
  • 5-10 hours of work for a large national non-profit organization (private consulting)
  • 10-20 hours devoted to my Conflict Resolution Center internship
  • 10 hours spent exercising (spread of 6 days)
  • 1-5 hour spent working on blog posts
  • 2 hours spent researching productivity strategies/tools

Let me first say that not only is this schedule possible (it IS actually my schedule after all), but it allows for quite a bit of chill-out time and is very low-stress--eliminating stress is the topic of an upcoming post. If you've read any of my other articles I apologize for sounding like a broken record but putting together a schedule like this is a moderate amount of work initially but nowhere near the amount you think it will be. In the end it will end up being far less work than you're putting in now because it will run itself.

A Few Things First

The concepts of motivation and drive in the sense of "being compelled to do something you want to do" are absolutely useless to me. As far as I'm concerned in this context, motivation and drive are ideas used by people whose lives are disorganized to try to explain how some people excel in achieving their goals while others try so hard but fail--I certainly suffered from this for a long time and still do on occasion, so don't beat yourself up if you do as well.

I see motivation and drive as renewable but sparse resources to be used in occasional times of unusually intense life activity. What many people mistake forsustained motivation as I first defined it is actually a positive feedback loop of two things: (1) making decisions and (2) positive reinforcement based on the results of your decisions. It has nothing to do with an external or inherent drive to excel, and I'll discuss that in a bit.

If you disagree, please do, but in my mind a lack of motivation is no excuse for not achieving your goals. Period. I've never been a motivated person yet I've been forced to figure out how to be productive, and this is what I've found.

The following system, strategies, tools, and tips will help you learn how to organize your life in such a way that you will not be able to believe how unproductive you were before. So...

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Challenging “Work” as a Counterproductive Idea


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I'm a very busy person and if you are too, you've probably been told to take it easy every now and then. Yesterday talking with a friend about my about 80 hours or so of work per week, he expressed his concern about whether or not it's a balanced lifestyle.

This is definitely the reaction I would expect coming from someone who cares about me but this particular time it struck me for the first time as an odd thing to say.

This quasi-reflective post is of a nature I'll not often publish on BrainChocolate but it's extremely relevant to a very important post I published called "Productivity Tips and Free Time Management: How to Create a System That Works for You." In it, I walk step by step through starting the process of organizing your entire life by massively reducing stress, increasing productivity by thousands of times, and living the kind of life you want. A big promise for sure but you can evaluate it once you read it.

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Effective Study Skills: Get the Most From Your Class Time

Credit N. I. Andjelic
Read Time (Total): 11 minutes

Anything can be learned, practiced, and mastered. Anything. Period.

Here, you will learn some of the most important the skills you need to master your schoolwork, but the true benefit reaches far beyond. These tools and strategies will help you get the most out of almost any situation that allows for almost any situation. Do something the right way the first time and you won't have to waste time with stupid corrections that leave your results mangled and incomplete.

There's no mystical wall between you and good grades/effective learning; just like anything else, study skills need to be learned and practiced and the best part is, it doesn't take long.

GPA Trend Note: This GPA trend is from one of the top private college prep schools in Oregon which doesn't mean anything in itself but the students are most definitely pushed very hard by great teachers and challenging material.

[Click graph for bigger version]

This is my middle-high school GPA trend. As you can see, my per term GPA jumped from a 3.2 to a 3.7 after Winter Break of my Junior year, increased to a 3.9 by my last high school term, and up to 4.0 my next term in college. I didn't all of the sudden get smarter. I sat down during that break and came up with a study system with an emphasis on testing methods and using what works. Here's what happened and how to do it yourself.

Before we dive in, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

In this context, "smart" and "intelligent" aren't useful concepts, they're often excuses for not acting on your goals. We'll treat them as such for our purposes here. I can't count the times I've heard some form of, "That person is so smart. The things that come naturally to him/her I have to work on so hard and I'm still not as good." I'll devote a whole post to this later but the point is this: barring extraordinary circumstances, no one is born a better or worse learner than the next person. [I should qualify this statement by saying that this is not a scientific claim, but rather a conceptual tool; more on this in a later post] The "naturals" are usually raised in a culture of effective and efficient learning and so it comes "naturally" to them. If you weren't raised in that culture, it's something you can learn and master.

This post will focus on two things: note taking and listening. I believe that these are two of the most important study skills to have and the biggest indicators of success in learning. If you learn how to take notes effectively and efficiently and you know how to listen productively, you will make astonishing, measurable improvements. I can't stress this enough. Not only did my per term GPA increase by half a point over academic-night, but I started loving school again and though I work harder, it doesn't seem like work because I enjoy it. There's way more to this than can fit in a single post but here's a good start and the rest will follow.

The beef: [hard content begins here]

Note Taking: How to be Efficient

The Content

What Not To Do:

-Focus on details: This is one of the worst things you can do---and most don't even realize they're doing it. Effective learning requires a story. When you read Harry Potter you don't first study all the characters' names, the different spells, the locations of each scene, etc.... Instead, you follow the plot-line and you effortlessly learn the details because they all connect. Learning course material is no different.

-Write down stuff you already know: This is a mistake most people make, often times just in order to feel productive--feeling productive doesn't mean you're being productive. If the speaker says something you already have a good grasp on, don't write it down just because everyone else is. If you know it, it's just a waste of time and energy. Instead use this time to develop a story, plot-line, narrative, whatever you'd like to call it, about the subject matter.

-Take down dates, locations, or other information you won't be immediately tested on: If the test isn't specifically about these small details, don't bother. If you need to, these details are the kinds of things you can look up on Google or Wikipedia. If you miss major concept points because you're taking down details, that's A LOT harder to just google and will probably end up consuming hours of your valuable time.

What To Do:

-Copy only important material: Take down anything the speaker writes on the board unless you already know it. Graphs and diagrams are incredibly important.

-Use Keywords/Phrases: Write these in the margins to cue you when you're reviewing your notes.

-Write Quickly and Abbreviate: Save time.

-Be brief in Shorthand: When you transcribe it later that day, you'll remember what you meant. The longer you wait to transcribe, the more you'll forget...and fast.

-Tracking Assistance: Use bullet points, outline formatting, and other symbols to create a visual hierarchy of importance in your notes. This cuts down on hours of study time later on.

-Number Pages: Before each term write page numbers in the upper right corner on only the front of each sheet (so you have either all odd or all even numbering). This will help you reference your notes' pages when studying for tests.

-Listen While You Write: Listen and focus on comprehending what the speaker is saying as you're writing what they already said. It takes a little practice but not as much as you might expect.

The Method

There are three stages to note taking, the second of which has a number of different approaches.

1. Review (8 minutes)

Read through notes from the previous class period prior to the next class time (4 minutes). Read through notes from the readings relevant to the next class time (4 minutes).  They payoff of reviewing previous material before class is just unbelievable. Review main connections and relationships, don't focus on individual facts. It'll cut down on time and these concepts are what will help you most when moving on to new material.

2. Notes (Duration of Class Period)

They key to taking good notes is have a good, standard system. There are, broadly, two approaches to note taking: the sentence method and the shorthand method.

-The Sentence Method: Summarize the speaker's main points in your own words. Write out complete sentences as if you were explaining the concept to yourself in the future and couldn't remember the speaker's exact phrasing. Takes up more class time than shorthand but can have a significant effect on comprehension and retention. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn and this method mimics teaching as closely as possible given the setting.

The Sentence Method (Click for Large Version)

-The Shorthand Method: Take notes in short hand using symbols and abbreviations. Use as few words as possible while still getting the main points down. As you can tell by the example below, shorthand is almost impossible to decipher unless it's fresh in your mind.

In the following example, I had written questions for an informational interview but we ended up having an organic discussion. Instead of stopping the speaker so I could organize my notes, I used a series of improvised location cues to keep track of what he was talking about without having to reorganize the whole page on the fly.

The Shorthand Version (Click for Large Version - Longhand Transcription Below)

3. After Class (25 minutes per class)

Transcribe shorthand notes to full sentences as soon as possible after class and always the day that you take them. This method allows you to spend more of your energy in class on listening, which I'll talk about in a second, and increases comprehension and retention. Some of the best learners I know swear by this method.

If you use the sentence method, you'll end up needing to use some short hand and leaving space to fill in details later. If you do this, use this time to write key words in the margins and fill in the empty space you left in your notes.

You'll almost inevitably use a mix of these two systems so the important thing is to experiment and figure out what works best for you. I personally like to take shorthand notes and transcribe them into full sentences but I'll spend a little time writing a small paragraph if there's a complex point I'm not 100% sure I have down. I use symbols in the margins as I go to be able to find certain things fast. For example, a circled star means "important," a circled Q means "quote," a circled P means "important person," etc...

Click for Large Version (Transcription of Shorthand)

[The Cornell Method can facilitate a pretty good mix of the two approaches]

Listening in Class: How to Use Class-Time

Good listening skills are without a doubt the biggest difference between the people who study a ton for tests and just do OK and the people who do minimal studying and ace their exams. Now, you can keep believing the myth that there are just some lucky people who just don't have to study and magically ace exams but if you're actually serious about improving your learning abilities, please throw this myth out the window immediately. Don't feel bad if you fall into this--it's a pervasive idea and it took a pretty big jolt for me to realize how wrong it was.

Sure, there are people who only have to study a fraction of the time that others do and get better grades but it's not magic: it's knowing how to use your time and energy in the most productive and efficient way possible.

I'm an example of how you can do this. Check out my GPA trend again. From Sophomore Fall through Junior fall I worked my ass off studying and studying and studying, and look what I got from it. I went from a 2.9 to a 3.2. An improvement but a superficial one. You might be able to eek out Three-tenths of a GPA point by working really, really hard but if you think about it, the B- to B range on the GPA scale shows very little improvement next to a B to A improvement. As everybody knows, there's a lot bigger quality-of-work gap between a 3.2 and a 3.7 than between a 2.9 to a 3.2. [Revisit my GPA graph if needed.]

While the previous note-taking strategies are ones I developed gradually through trial and error and which contribute to a slow but steady increase in performance, the following listening strategies are what catapulted me from a 3.2 to a 3.7 quite literally overnight. Like, really--I remember that night.

[Note: the GPA is nothing more than a quantitative measure of performance so don't obsess over it. Focus on actually learning and if you use these methods correctly, the GPA will follow.]

Class Time

People usually think of class time as a time when you listen to a speaker, take down information to be studied later, and learn some while you're there. The first step to conquering learning is to change the way you think about class time.

Class time should be time used primarily to learn and understand what the speaker is saying, and secondarily to take notes to act as a reminder of what you already learned in class. I'd say about 80% of your learning should be from class time. This means that taking notes should not be your primary activity in class. It should be a mental workout and if done properly, for every hour you spend using the following strategies in class you will shave off about 30-45 minutes studying for the big exams.

In other words, practice this stuff and you'll easily more than cut your studying time in half.

Bad Listening Habits and How to Fix Them

-Listening for facts: As I said before, this is a pretty bad thing to do in your notes but it's the absolute worst thing you can do when listening--and I know this is somewhat counter-intuitive. Focus on broad ideas and connections and you'll naturally remember the facts because of how they connect. Think of it this way: each term-long course is a story, each class period is a chapter, and everything is connected by a plot line. Concentrate on finding the plot line, and if there doesn't seem to be one, make one up. I can't stress the importance of this enough: the more you connect the information you hear/see, the more you'll understand and remember.

-Criticizing the Speaker: If the speaker is an asshole, if they're awkward, etc...make mental note of it and let it go. Get past all that and listen for the content. If the speaker is incompetent but is the only choice you have, blaming your lack of understanding on a bad teacher isn't going to help and it just makes it look like you can't do things on your own. A teacher's job is to facilitate learning, not to make you learn. If the teacher can't facilitate your learning, facilitate it yourself and find a way to learn the material. No excuses, there's always a way.

-Calling the Subject Boring/Stupid: If you're in a class you don't like but have to be in, you're stuck there so you might as well make the best of it because it impacts your future, even if only on your transcript, whether you like it or not. The key to remembering what you learn is to make it practical or applicable so find a way.

- Lazy thinking: Einstein said, "Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." Same goes for listening. Expect class time to be a difficult workout and mentally prepare yourself.

-Wasting Class Time: Thought is many times faster than speech. Do these things as the speaker lectures:

Anticipate their Next Point: You will start a dialogue in your head and see more connections than otherwise.

Connect Seemingly Unrelated Ideas: it often brings up good questions you can ask.

-Being a Bad Questioner: There are at least two kinds of bad questioners:

1. Overzealous: He/she doesn’t connect content and questions are mostly low to mid-level clarifying questions or opinionated-objection related. Be humble in class, there’s a reason you’re a student.

2. Silent Student: Doesn’t say a word in class. May or may not have questions but it doesn’t matter because the student is inactive.

How to Ask Good Questions

-Pay Attention and be Prepared for Class: If you don't, you can't ask good questions. Period.

-Ask About Broad Connections: Again with the connections thing. It should permeate your life. Only ask about details if not knowing them would hinder your learning for the day (only about 10% of details fit here).

-Don't Bring Outside Material into Questions: Do this in your head/notes. If you want the speaker's opinion, find them after the class, shoot them an email, or go to their office. Class time is to learn the material at hand, though there are some exceptions to this rule.

-Phrasing: If you think the speaker is wrong or the material is invalid, form a question that places the blame on your own "misunderstanding" of the material. Always speak as if you assume the speaker to be correct and carefully challenge the appropriate material.

A few words of encouragement: This can all sound like a lot of thinking and can seem overwhelming but remember, at first it's probably more thinking about strategy than you're used to but it's a lot less effort than you think it will be.

The secret, if there is one, is to spend anywhere from 1-3 h ours designing your learning strategy and then make little tweaks as you go. If you use these strategies you can cut your study time more than in half. I now only study for 3 hours max the night before an exam, I've had a 3.9 for the last three terms (I could have been putting in more effort), and I'm learning more than ever before.

This year is The Year of the Four-Point.

[The next post along these lines will be how to use your notes and class material to study for exams by minimizing time spent and maximizing short and long-term retention. Want me to let you know when I post? Click "Follow My Blog via Email" at the top right-hand side of this page.]

Good luck and feel free to drop me a line.

Written by Nathan Schmitt

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Wine Recommendation: 2008 Gascón Malbec (Great Value)

2008 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec
Read Time (Total): 1 minute

2008 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($11 at Trader Joe's)

I'm going through a Mendozan Malbec phase so I picked up this bottle last Sunday and I'm definitely very pleased. The nose is quite fruity: dominated by black cherries, some blackberry, and unmistakable vanilla undertones. The palate is pretty mild: black cherry develops first and it's moderately acidic with a pronounced but subtle tannic structure.

I've gotta doesn't stand up to pizza (see Altos below) but goes great with a good whole-wheat levain (or some other full bodied bread) with olive oil and balsamic. This would go well with more mild fish like Ahi or anything white, salads, and white sauce-based pastas. Also, give it a swirl following a bit of spicy chile chocolate and tell me it wasn't amazing.

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BrainChocolate: A New Endeavor

Cape Kidnappers

This is BrainChocolate, a page devoted to getting the most out of life. This isn't my personal blog, it's not a creative outlet or a political or philosophical slate, it's just a place where I share what I love and hope you'll enjoy too.

Posts will include everything from foods and wine to productivity tips and interesting information. The content will always be fresh and only the best will be published.

Nathan Schmitt

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