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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

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Aytekin Tank

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

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021

14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

Everyone has heard the term productivity, and people talk about it in terms of how high it is and how to improve it. But fewer know how to measure productivity, or even what exactly we are talking about when using the term “productivity.”

In its simplest form, the productivity formula looks like this: Output ÷ Input = Productivity.

For example, you have two salespeople each making 10 calls to customers per week. The first one averages 2 sales per week and the second one averages 3 sales per week. By plugging in the numbers we get the following productivity levels for each sales person.

For salesperson one, the output is 2 sales and the input is 10 sales: 2 ÷ 10 = .2 or 20% productivity. For salesperson two, the output is 3 sales and the input is 10 sales: 3 ÷ 10 = .3 or 30% productivity.

Knowing how to measure and interpret productivity is an invaluable asset for any manager or business owner in today’s world. As an example, in the above scenario, salesperson #1 is clearly not doing as well as salesperson #2.

Knowing this information we can now better determine what course of action to take with salesperson #1.

Some possible outcomes might be to require more in-house training for that salesperson, or to have them accompany the more productive salesperson to learn a better technique. It might be that salesperson #1 just isn’t suited for sales and would do a better job in a different position.

How to Measure Productivity With Management Techniques

Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to fine tune your business by minimizing costs and maximizing profits:

1. Identify Long and Short-Term Goals

Having a good understanding of what you (or your company’s) goals are is key to measuring productivity.

For example, if your company’s goal is to maximize market share, you’ll want to measure your team’s productivity by their ability to acquire new customers, not necessarily on actual sales made.

2. Break Down Goals Into Smaller Weekly Objectives

Your long-term goal might be to get 1,000 new customers in a year. That’s going to be 20 new customers per week. If you have 5 people on your team, then each one needs to bring in 4 new customers per week.

Now that you’ve broken it down, you can track each person’s productivity week-by-week just by plugging in the numbers:

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Productivity = number of new customers ÷ number of sales calls made

3. Create a System

Have you ever noticed that whenever you walk into a McDonald’s, the French fry machine is always to your left? 

This is because McDonald’s created a system. They have determined that the most efficient way to set up a kitchen is to always have the French fry machine on the left when you walk in.

You can do the same thing and just adapt it to your business.

Let’s say that you know that your most productive salespeople are making the most sales between the hours of 3 and 7 pm. If the other salespeople are working from 9 am to 4 pm, you can potentially increase productivity through something as simple as adjusting the workday.

Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to set up, monitor, and fine tune systems to maximize output.

4. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate!

We’ve already touched on using these productivity numbers to evaluate and monitor your employees, but don’t forget to evaluate yourself using these same measurements.

If you have set up a system to track and measure employees’ performance, but you’re still not meeting goals, it may be time to look at your management style. After all, your management is a big part of the input side of our equation.

Are you more of a carrot or a stick type of manager? Maybe you can try being more of the opposite type to see if that changes productivity. Are you managing your employees as a group? Perhaps taking a more one-on-one approach would be a better way to utilize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Just remember that you and your management style contribute directly to your employees’ productivity.

5. Use a Ratings Scale

Having clear and concise objectives for individual employees is a crucial part of any attempt to increase workplace productivity. Once you have set the goals or objectives, it’s important that your employees are given regular feedback regarding their progress.

Using a ratings scale is a good way to provide a standardized visual representation of progress. Using a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 is a good way to give clear and concise feedback on an individual basis.

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It’s also a good way to track long-term progress and growth in areas that need improvement.

6. Hire “Mystery Shoppers”

This is especially helpful in retail operations where customer service is critical. A mystery shopper can give feedback based on what a typical customer is likely to experience.

You can hire your own shopper, or there are firms that will provide them for you. No matter which route you choose, it’s important that the mystery shoppers have a standardized checklist for their evaluation.

You can request evaluations for your employees friendliness, how long it took to greet the shopper, employees’ knowledge of the products or services, and just about anything else that’s important to a retail operation.

7. Offer Feedback Forms

Using a feedback form is a great way to get direct input from existing customers. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when using feedback forms.

First, keep the form short, 2-3 questions max with a space for any additional comments. Asking people to fill out a long form with lots of questions will significantly reduce the amount of information you receive.

Secondly, be aware that customers are much more likely to submit feedback forms when they are unhappy or have a complaint than when they are satisfied.

You can offset this tendency by asking everyone to take the survey at the end of their interaction. This will increase compliance and give you a broader range of customer experiences, which will help as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

8. Track Cost Effectiveness

This is a great metric to have, especially if your employees have some discretion over their budgets. You can track how much each person spends and how they spend it against their productivity.

Again, this one is easy to plug into the equation: Productivity = amount of money brought in ÷ amount of money spent.

Having this information is very useful in forecasting expenses and estimating budgets.

9. Use Self-Evaluations

Asking your staff to do self evaluations can be a win-win for everyone. Studies have shown that when employees feel that they are involved and their input is taken seriously, morale improves. And as we all know, high employee morale translates into higher productivity.

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Using self-evaluations is also a good way to make sure that the employees and employers goals are in alignment.

10. Monitor Time Management

This is the number one killer of productivity in the workplace. Time spent browsing the internet, playing games, checking email, and making personal calls all contribute to lower productivity[1].

Time Management Tips to Improve Productivity

    The trick is to limit these activities without becoming overbearing and affecting morale. Studies have shown that most people will adhere to rules that they feel are fair and applied to everyone equally.

    While ideally, we may think that none of these activities should be done on company time, employees will almost certainly have a different opinion. From a productivity standpoint, it is best to have policies and rules that are seen as fair to both sides as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

    11. Analyze New Customer Acquisition

    We’ve all heard the phrase that “It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.” And while that is very true, in order for your business to keep growing, you will need to continually add new customers.

    Knowing how to measure productivity via new customer acquisition will make sure that your marketing dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. This is another metric that’s easy to plug into the formula: Productivity = number of new customers ÷ amount of money spent to acquire those customers.

    For example, if you run any kind of advertising campaign, you can compare results and base your future spending accordingly.

    Let’s say that your total advertising budget is $3,000. You put $2,000 into television ads, $700 into radio ads, and $300 into print ads. When you track the results, you find that your television ad produced 50 new customers, your radio ad produced 15 new customers, and your print ad produced 9 new customers.

    Let’s plug those numbers into our equation. Television produced 50 new customers at a cost of $2,000 (50 ÷ 2000 = .025, or a productivity rate of 2.5%). The radio ads produced 15 new customers and cost $700 (15 ÷ 700 = .022, or a 2.2% productivity rate). Print ads brought in 9 new customers and cost $300 (9 ÷ 300 = .03, or a 3% return on productivity).

    From this analysis, it is clear that you would be getting the biggest bang for your advertising dollar using print ads.

    12. Utilize Peer Feedback

    This is especially useful when people who work in teams or groups. While self-assessments can be very useful, the average person is notoriously bad at assessing their own abilities.

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    Just ask a room full of people how many consider themselves to be an above average driver and you’ll see 70% of the hands go up[2]! Now we clearly know that in reality about 25% of drivers are below average, 25% are above average, and 50% are average.

    Are all these people lying? No, they just don’t have an accurate assessment of their own abilities.

    It’s the same in the workplace. Using peer feedback will often provide a more accurate assessment of a person’s ability than a self-assessment would.

    13. Encourage Innovation and Don’t Penalize Failure

    When it comes to productivity, encouraging employee input and adopting their ideas can be a great way to boost productivity. Just make sure that any changes you adopt translate into higher productivity.

    Let’s say that someone comes to you requesting an entertainment budget so that they can take potential customers golfing or out to dinner. By utilizing simple productivity metrics, you can easily produce a cost benefit analysis and either expand the program to the rest of the sales team, or terminate it completely.

    Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge and boosted morale by including employees in the decision-making process.

    14. Use an External Evaluator

    Using an external evaluator is the pinnacle of objective evaluations. Firms that provide professional evaluations use highly trained personnel that even specialize in specific industries.

    They will design a complete analysis of your business’ productivity level. In their final report, they will offer suggestions and recommendations on how to improve productivity.

    While the benefits of a professional evaluation are many, their costs make them prohibitive for most businesses.

    Final Thoughts

    These are just a few of the things you can do when learning how to measure productivity. Some may work for your particular situation, and some may not.

    The most important thing to remember when deciding how to track productivity is to choose a method consistent with your goals. Once you’ve decided on that, it’s just a matter of continuously monitoring your progress, making minor adjustments, and analyzing the results of those adjustments.

    The business world is changing fast, and having the right tools to track and monitor your productivity can give you the edge over your competition.

    More Productivity Tips

    Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

    Reference

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