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How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways

How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways
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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).

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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 July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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