The Most Productive, Performance Enhancing Habit -- Write It Down
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
You've probably heard the tip "write it down to remember" or "write it down to get it done" before. Even more probable: you've heard it many times. And even more probable than that: you've shrugged it off. Perhaps you've thought that it takes too much time and is unnecessary. It's just a tip, right?
No, it isn't "just a tip." It is "THE" tip. It is the solid gold, success-making secret of high achievers and performers. And you keep hearing about it from achievement, productivity and time management gurus because it works extremely well. It doesn't take extra time. In the long run it makes extra time.
Basically, we believe and trust writing, including our own writing, more than any other venue. If, for example, your spouse tells you about an appointment you have at 2:00, you may take his or her word for it, but you'll feel more certain about it if you have a note on the calendar. Consequently, you'll be more likely to adjust your timing of your activities to that particular schedule. Ever since writing began about six thousand years ago, writing has been considered more authoritative and believable than individual memory and oral histories. In fact, oral histories aren't really considered histories as much as metaphoric stories. And the well-known catch phrase for authoritativeness is "it is written." The idea is ingrained in us from numerous sources, starting in elementary school. So, why does believing and trusting make you faster and more productive? Because you believe that it is something that should or must be done, so you do it. Because having confidence that you're on the right track, doing the right thing at the right time means that you hesitate less; you do fewer anxious and useless rechecks; and thus you finish sooner.
Writing is memorable -- and unwritten memory is highly inaccurate. The very act of writing makes something easier to remember. You've used another sense or method to record what you're learning. That's why you take notes in lectures, you may not remember much of what you hear, especially with complex materials, but if you've actively done something with it -- like writing it down -- you've added another layer of recording to your memory. Also, you've used another sense: you heard it, and now you see it. One of the reasons that oral histories are discounted is that they're not "fresh." When an event occurs, the immediate witnesses experience it from a variety of different perspectives, so their interpretations of what happened are already different from one another. And, over time and the retelling of the experience, their memory of it begins to change. If each of the witnesses writes down what they saw and heard at the time, an impartial assessment can be made of the probable "facts." The written record won't change. It's the same for your memory of past events, of ideas and insights, of goals and plans, of people, of schedules and yes, even of what you need the next time you go shopping. You can't remember it all and you won't remember it accurately. If you write it down, it will stay "fresh" and you can refer to it as needed. You'll be able to stay on time, maintain an inventory of the items you need in your home or workplace, keep track of your personal plans, manage an effective network of contacts and meet your goals.
It is fortunate that most people accept the necessity of writing some essential items, like appointments, schedules and contacts (address book.) Yet many resist, avoid and procrastinate on other essentials such as expense records, time sheets and tax records. Eventually it catches up with them and they end up spending countless hours trying to find old receipts and re-creating data from an inaccurate and overworked memory. Writing it down in the first place saves much time and anxiety. (But you already know that, don't you?)
Then there are the other essentials that most people fail to recognize as essentials.
1. To-do lists. The to-do list is the most time-saving and productivity device known to man. (Well, alright, maybe I'm slighting the microwave oven, but the to-do list is way up there. We will talk about the relative productivity value of the computer some other time.) No matter how good your memory is, it's never as good as you think. If you want to remember to do it write it down. If you want to remember to do it at the right time, in the right order, plan it out before you make your list. Also remember that if you write it, you'll more likely believe it needs to be done. Oh, yes...remember to carry your to-do list with you.
2. Goals. You've heard this before: goals are like destination points marked on maps -- no matter how good the map you won't get anywhere unless you know where you're going. Workable goals are flexible plans for where you're going in life: career, relationships, personal achievement, etc. Unless you write them and the rationale behind them, you won't be able to plan them or be inspired to work toward them.
3. Planning. You can't achieve anything without some sort of plan. You know that, and you plan every day. If you run out of milk and have to go to the supermarket, you plan to drive there a particular way and go to a particular section to find it and go to another section to pay for it. By now you know it all by rote. You don't need to write that. But you have a plan. Bigger goals require written plans. And the bigger the goal the more extensive and detailed the plan must be. Just as your goals are like destination points on a map, a plan is the map to the destination point. The more complex the route, the more difficult to find without the map. There are too many twists and turns and blocked roads on the way to your goals to negotiate the journey without a good map. Write your plans and all their glorious details.
4. Your people network. You understand that you need an address and phone book to keep in touch. You need more than that to have a true, viable network and support system. Just as you need to keep track of things like birthdays and anniversaries for family, you need a record for all your contacts that helps you remember what you need to do for them and what they can do for you. For friends, you not only need to record such things as the important dates in their lives, but also important shared experiences, names and contact info of their significant others, notes on their careers and goals and notes on their probable contacts that you might need to use some time. For business contacts, you need to keep track of where, how and why you met, what interests you share, what you can glean about their families and friends, what interests you don't share but are important to them, what meetings you've had and what happened there. Do I need to tell you what use you can make of such information. Can you remember it all? Of course not. Write it down. Systematically. Immediately after getting it.
Here are some more tips for using writing for productivity:
1. Write it somewhere you can see it frequently and find it easily. Use devices like wall calendars and bulletin boards.
2. Keep a pocket sized note pad with you to make sure you write stuff down as soon as you get information or have an idea.
3. Store it on computer later. Learn to use databases. Back them up.
4. Dictate it if you don't have time to write it or are in the wrong place to do so and then put it in your computer and also print it out. There's an online service, Jott.com that allows you to dictate memos, to-do lists, items for your blog and other stuff by using your cell phone, so you don't have to carry a tape recorder with you.
Be organized. Be prepared. Keep good records. Write it down.