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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways

How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways

It’s important to be able to take good notes because these notes can become your inspirations and ideas later. If your notes are messy, you may not be able to just recall what you’ve learned.

Author Tim Ferriss has his entire shelves containing nothing but notebooks filled with his daily scribblings. Not one to mince words, the self-optimization guru once wrote:[1]

“I take notes like some people take drugs.”

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is another avid note-taker:[2]

“Some of Virgin’s most successful companies have been born from random moments – if we hadn’t opened our notebooks, they would never have happened.”

In college, there was such a strong emphasis on effective note-taking — I still have a few stacks of my own spiral notebooks, filled with furiously scribbled lecture notes. Once we embark on our professional careers, however, many of us lose that habit. But keeping a written log of all new content — during meetings, brainstorms and while reading — remains an essential productivity and learning tool.

As CEO of my own company, I’m seldom caught without a notepad. Time is my most precious resource and note-taking lets me extract the most value from how I choose to spend mine. It also signals to my employees to do the same.

If you’re wondering how to optimize this simple habit, here are some expert-backed tips on how to take good notes.

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1. Be Old-School — and Use Your Own Words

Like the chicken or the egg, it’s a fundamental question: should I use a paper notebook or a digital note-taking app?

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel strongly advocates for digital note-taking. She argues that taking notes with an app like Evernote is the most efficient use of time and makes later retrieval quick and easy.[3]

Not everyone agrees though. According to Maggy McGloin, another Harvard Business Review contributor, research has found that analog note-taking has concrete benefits. In one study, researchers found that digital note-takers took lengthier “transcription-like” notes, as compared to hand-writers, and did significantly worse on later conceptual questions.[4]

Even when participants were explicitly instructed to not take notes verbatim, typers continued to write in a “transcription-like” manner. While typing encourages mindless transcription, handwriting pushes us to create more succinct notes and distill information for increased comprehension.

Using a laptop or tablet opens you up to more distractions, too, like checking your Twitter feed or seeing what’s new on Facebook. Surprisingly, one person’s web browsing can negatively affect the learning of her neighbors. In one study, student participants who could see the screen of a multitasker’s laptop — in this case, looking up movie times — scored 17 percent lower on comprehension tests than students who had no such distraction.[5]

Personally, I’m an analog notebook user — I find it much easier to focus and it forces me to translate information into my own shorthand. Other old-school note-takers include Bill Gates, who prefers a yellow notebook, and George Lucas, who carries a pocket notebook.

But even if you can’t part with your laptop or tablet, avoid transcribing verbatim. Practice not just listening, but processing what’s being said and using your own words.

2. Be Meticulous with Structure

Another matter to consider before you jot anything down: how to structure your notes. Utilizing a consistent organization method is key for referring back to your notes later.

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The Journal of Reading compared different methods and found that the most rigorously structured notes — with hierarchal ordering and numbered subsections — scored highest in terms of quality and accuracy. The second best was a two-column method, wherein writers used the left column for new information and the right column for follow-up points and key themes.[6]

Tim Ferriss swears by indexing, which involves manually numbering the pages of a book or notebook and creating a quick and easy-to-scan index of topics inside the front or back cover.

Maria Popova, creator of the hugely popular Brainpickings.org, tears through many books each week and incorporates her learning into daily blog posts.

She’s able to grasp the concept of an entire book at breakneck speed using an indexing method. As explained to Tim Ferriss, Popova creates an alternate index on the (typically blank) last page, where she notes important ideas as she reads. Next to those ideas, she’ll list the pages where they pop up. Then, Popova uses these analog notes, based on ideas rather than keywords, to synthesize a book once she’s ready to write about it.[7]

I use as many organizational techniques as I can — indexing, headlines, numbering and bulleting. I also leave a margin for my questions, observations and action steps — which leads to my next strategy.

3. Jot Down Your Questions and Insights

Whichever structure you choose, always leave room for your personal reflections. Global CEO Coach Sabina Nawaz recommends using wide margins, where you can jot down “your ideas, judgments, rebuttals, and questions to each of the points you’ve written down.” Nawaz explains,[8]

“By marking them to the side, you separate your own thoughts from what others say.”

This technique not only forces you to continually engage with and analyze the information you’re receiving — assisting with learning and comprehension, rather than rote transcription — it also enables you to organize future follow-up questions and courses of action.

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As soon as I finish a meeting or conference, I review my margins and email myself a list of any next steps — like an email to draft, an appointment to make or inspiration for an article to write. That way I make sure I’m translating new ideas into actionable plans.

4. Record Non-Verbal Behavior

A colleague tells you: “We’re ready to share our new product with the company next week.” But his body language — nervous fidgeting and a worried look — isn’t communicating much confidence. In that situation, note your observations and make a point to bring them up later.

“Hey Neil, you said you were ready earlier, but I was wondering if you’d like to run the presentation by me and iron out any kinks.”

We communicate a great deal with non-verbal behaviors, including our body language, demeanor, and affect. According to Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, in a face-to-face interaction with just one person, you can exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues in less than a minute — probably more than our words alone.[9]

Sometimes, what’s not said is just as valuable as what is. For example, if I give a presentation and get crickets when I ask for questions, that might signal that I’ve done a bang-up job. But it also could mean that my colleagues are unwilling to challenge my perspective. And as I’ve written before, healthy conflict is essential for an organization’s growth and innovation.

Non-verbal behavior can reveal an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Investing a bit more to record and address these observations can save time down the line.

5. Review Later

Taking notes serves two functions: to organize and store new content and cognitively encode that content. In other words, it’s a means of storing and learning new information.[10] That physical storage function is useless unless you actually review your notes later and reflect on what you’ve written.

Research on student test performance highlights the importance of reviewing. One study from the 80s that was published in the Teaching of Psychology Journal found that students made mistakes on exams not because they’d taken bad notes, but because they weren’t re-reading them beforehand.[11]

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Though you’re probably beyond the days of cramming for exams, recalling what you learn is just as, if not more important, to your career — because it no longer pays to forget new information the moment we’re done being tested on it.

As Richard Branson writes:[12]

“Don’t just take notes for the sake of taking notes, go through your ideas and turn them into actionable and measurable goals.”

That’s why I block out time on my calendar at least once a week to read through my notes — from meetings, conferences, calls, you name it. As CEO, there’s rarely a moment in my day that hasn’t resulted in a few ideas jotted down.

6. Prepare Notes Before Meetings, Too

One final piece of advice: never walk into a meeting empty-handed. To maximize efficiency, always prepare notes ahead of time, including material to cover, questions and action items.

No one exemplifies this better than Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. In a profile for Fortune, Miguel Helft writes:[13]

“Her days are a flurry of meetings that she runs with the help of a decidedly undigital spiral-bound notebook. On it, she keeps lists of discussion points and action items. She crosses them off one by one, and once every item on a page is checked, she rips the page off and moves to the next. If every item is done 10 minutes into an hourlong meeting, the meeting is over.”

These might be the only kind of notes that you don’t need to keep for later review (unless you record more notes on the same page).

Together, these note-taking strategies can help you organize meetings and streamline your workday.

More Note-Taking Tips

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Aytekin Tank

Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.

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Last Updated on August 10, 2020

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

Life can be difficult. It can seem like nothing goes your way and the world is against you. The world can be a very cruel and lonely place. But there are things that you can do to begin turning your life around.

Whether you’re in a job you hate, struggling with a loss, or just not on the path you expected, only you hold the key to turning your life around. Here are 15 simple things you can do to turn your life around.

1. Read Daily

Reading lets you escape to a different place within your mind. It can be relaxing and calming. And it helps stimulate brain activity and keeps you sharp.

Reading daily can help you spend time away from the problems of the day and allow you to escape into a world of endless possibilities. Changing your perspective can help you turn around your life, and reading is a great place to start.

Here’re some recommendations: 20 All-Time Best Motivational Books to Inspire You

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2. Put Your Goals in Writing

When thoughts are banging around in our heads, they can easily slip away. Walk from one room to another and you forget what you were doing!

Make sure your goals are concrete and written down. This will help you stay accountable to yourself and is the first step in completing your goal. By writing it on a piece of paper, you must put in the thought of how you should word it, what exactly you want to accomplish, and will make you consider if it’s truly worth it.

3. Prune Your Relationships

Too often, relationships can be destructive. This is often looked at through the scope of romantic relationships, but also consider life-long friends, family, and acquaintances. Are the people you spend time with bringing you down? Are they helping you achieve your goals or hindering? It can be difficult, but pruning your relationships can be the quickest catalyst in turning your life around.

4. Make New Friends

Don’t underestimate how a new person or group of friends in your life can change your outlook. Be open to meeting new people, both at work and in your personal life.

5. Get Healthy

When you feel great, good things seem to come your way. Working out helps you feel better about yourself and can help change your outlook on life. Eating right can help you have the energy to do more. Getting healthy can improve your entire outlook on life and help turn your life around.

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6. Start Saving

For many, financial struggle can weigh heavy and be the cause of many problems. Without a change of job or career, changing your financial situation will take time and effort. Start saving with each paycheck to help build toward your future. Even if it’s a small amount each check, consistency in saving can help you change your path in the future.

7. Start a Business

Working for others can be tough. You may be underemployed, under-utilized, and under-appreciated. Starting a business can help you take control of your financial future.

Understand that you don’t have to quit your current job to start a business. Find something you love and have skills at and do it in your free time. If you’re in creative services, freelance. If you’re great at carpentry, build tables to sell. If you are a talented painter or crafty, start an Etsy store.

You may find that your side passion business can turn into more. Or, if you have the opportunity and skills, take the plunge and go all in. Working for yourself is challenging, but a great opportunity to change your life.

Here’re some tips for you: How to Start a Small Business with Little to No Money

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8. Find Opportunities to Help Others

Helping others can change your outlook and help turn your life around. Changing the way you think about the world can play a part. But helping others can also open up doors you never had available. Being a good person can help you get out of a funk and can be the catalyst for change.

9. Learn a New Skill

When you have more skills, additional opportunities will be presented. If you’re tired of your blue collar job, take classes to learn computer skills. If you’re struggling to move up in your company, find a skill that makes you more valuable. And if you want financial freedom, learn a skill that can help you change your life. Knowledge is power.

10. Stop Watching TV

Watching TV can keep you distracted and take up a lot of time. Cutting out the time you spend watching TV and replacing it with more productive activities can help you accomplish more and stay focused.

11. Listen to Inspirational Content

You can learn much about yourself from others. Find inspirational and educational content that matches your needs and give it a listen. You may find that the advice from others in similar situations can give you the boost you need to change your life.

12. Stop Complaining

Negative thoughts and talk can turn people against you and make your outlook grim. Stop complaining so much and make the best out of your situation.

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13. Find or Rekindle Your Passion

Doing what you love can change your entire outlook on life. When you’re doing things you hate, you can be more stressed and make life much harder than it needs to be. Find things you’re passionate about and rekindle the love for what you enjoyed in the past. Doing what you love can turn your life around and make each day more rewarding.

14. Take a Vacation (or Staycation)

Sometimes, hitting the reset button is all it takes to improve your situation. Taking a vacation, or staycation, is a great way to get away from the stress of the daily grind and recharge your battery. A vacation can give you the perspective you need to change your life.

15. Re-evaluate Your Attitude

How you view the world will often reflect in how you treat yourself. Re-evaluate your attitude and ensure that you’re doing all you can to make the most out of every situation. A change in how you view your situation can often be the push that helps you change your life for the better.

More Tips to Help You Change Your Life

Featured photo credit: Conner Ching via unsplash.com

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