Learning Grit: Why Experts Take Notes.

Experts take notes - Photo by Tammy Strobel of Rowdykittens

Experts take notes – Photo by Tammy Strobel of Rowdykittens

Recent psychological research on successful learning outcomes has revealed a fascinating result that shatters many common beliefs. The only consistent indicator of success isn’t intelligence, its grit. Grit is a personality trait which consistently focuses motivation over a long period of time. Grit is the ability to keep chipping away at big, long-term goals until they are completed. For example, if you have a strong do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos and want to build your own tiny house, you are going to need a lot of grit to turn your design ideas into a finished shelter.

Admittedly, I am easily over-whelmed by large projects and I don’t feel like I have a lot of natural grit. Further, I have experienced grit, but it always seems tricky to maintain. In the past when I had a gritty focus on future goal-oriented outcomes, I tended to ignore the present and felt depressed. Recently, I think I have found a balance in happily focusing on the present while applying a “gritty” determination to life. To continue my Tiny House Magazine series on DIY ethos, I wanted to share with you a few gritty methods I have discovered to manage knowledge, and put my anxious, forgetful mind at ease.

Taking notes: When I was an academic scientist at least 30% of my time was dedicated to taking notes. In science, if you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen. Recording is important because it makes ideas resilient to memory loss and gives ideas a foundation to be shared with others for feedback. Do you remember taking notes and doing homework in school? Educational institutions encourage this because it’s a good way to learn and evaluate. To relearn this note-taking practice, it’s easiest to start with old-fashion journaling. However, thanks to new smartphone technologies, there is more than one medium you can use. Writing down my ideas sometimes inhibits my work flow or feels too time consuming. On these occasions, I try using my smartphone to record my voice, take a photo, or combine the two by making a short video.

Simplifying: The biggest super-power in having a DIY ethos is learning how to simplify complex tasks. Designing and building a tiny house, for example, is very complex but focusing on one small decision at a time makes the work much easier. Our brains are powerful tools for creative thinking and problem solving; however our short-term/working memory can only focus on about 7 variables. Breaking large concepts into lots of small concepts and using visual imaging tools such as “concept mapping” will dramatically improve understanding and bolster grit.

Organizing: As stated above, successful and effective people are not necessarily the smartest, they are simply the people with the grit to get things done. Organizing is the simplest way I have found to aggregate small related tasks into big tasks over time. I tend to not be a linear thinker. However, to share and build upon knowledge, it is much easier for me to organize ideas in a linear step by step fashion.  Here are a few tools I use to stay organized:

  • Tagging: Categorizing information through tagging is an easy way to get started organizing. I often assign tags to ideas and a date for timeline reference so I can find it later.
  • Evernote, Onenote, Things and The Brain: These are wonderful software tools that help you manage information. Evernote is a digital capture tool whereas Onenote provides linear structure to organize progressive tasks under a big project. Things is a task management tool that helps plan and keep track of project progress. The Brain is a non-linear organization tool that fosters creativity by connecting objects/people/tasks to a web-like network of relationships.
  • Knowledge management: To learn about more tools and methods for productivity, I suggest checking out David Allen of “getting things done” and Ethan Waldman of Cloud Coach. One of the greatest advantages I find with these tools is freeing up my mind from memorization to allow a focus on creative thinking.
  • Reflecting: Self-awareness is a critical feedback exercise for improving grit. I’ve found one of the best ways to change my behavior is to observe my actions from another perspective. For example, one tool I have used to improve my teaching was video recording my lectures and watching myself from the third person. This reflection allowed me to see my teaching behavior objectively (how others saw me) and gave me ideas on how to improve.

In practicing a DIY ethos I have found taking notes, simplifying, organizing and reflecting have helped me learn grit and complete my projects. The tools above make my large projects easier to manage over time, improve my productivity, and foster focus on the present moment. To put my anxious and forgetful mind at ease, I remind myself: it is more important to focus on a practice rather than a goal-oriented outcome. I can’t control future outcomes, I can only control my efforts. If I only focus on outcomes beyond my control, I am bound to be disappointed regardless of my grit and determination. By practicing my values I can be satisfied by my consistent contributions and remain resilient when the world inevitably changes around me.