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Published on February 4, 2020

6 Ways to Take Good Notes at Work

6 Ways to Take Good Notes at Work

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.

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?

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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.

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]

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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.

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.

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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]

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.

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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 May 28, 2020

9 Things Successful People Do To Always Get What They Want

9 Things Successful People Do To Always Get What They Want

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to take on the job of hosting my own weekly radio show. My radio show is about finding some of the most successful people in the world and bringing them on my show to ask them about what they did to become so successful in life and business.

In this article, I’m going to share with you some of the key takeaways I’ve picked up from talking to – and reading about – thought leaders from various fields about the things successful people do. Here, you can get some insights on how to get what you want.

Ready to dive in? Let’s go.

1. They Know What They Want

The first and most important thing that successful people do to always get what they want is so simple that most people forget about it: they figure out what they actually want.

When you know what you want, you will also know how to get what you want. If you’re unsure about what you want in life and business, I’d suggest picking up some career and self-improvement books to help you gain some clarity and focus.

2. They Are Assertive

Successful people know that they need to be both bold and sincere. Balancing these two characteristics is the essence of assertiveness.

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Oh, and by the way – being assertive is not a natural talent someone is born with. Assertiveness is a learned skill and anyone can do it, including you!

3. They Learn

You may have heard of the old saying, “great leaders are readers”. For the most part, I’d say this is true.

Let me give you an example. On my radio show, I regularly ask successful people about their habits that lead to success. Do you want to know something really neat? Every single one of them reads books.

Successful people read and learn as much as they can about what they want so that they can get what they want. If you’re curious about how to get what you want, then start reading a book. If you’re low on time, subscribe to a book summary site to get the core concepts of the books in your industry quickly.

4. They Make Things Meaningful

One of the most powerful things successful people do to always get what they want is that they make things meaningful. That is, they ensure that whatever endeavor they decide to embark upon is meaningful to them (and not necessarily to anyone else). They know and understand that it’s only worth it if it matters.

5. They Ask

One big thing that successful people always do to get what they want is this: they ask.

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Most people are too shy to ask for what they really want. If you are too shy to ask, you may never know how to get what you want. So, don’t be like most people.

Here’s an exercise you can do to get over it: next time you’re buying something, regardless of what it is, ask for a discount. Just do it. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll get a chuckle from the Barrista at Starbucks. The best-case scenario is that you’ll get comfortable with negotiating when it’s time to buy your next car.

6. They Take Action

Insight without action is useless. Successful people know that to always get what they want, they’ve got to take massive action.

One of the most powerful exercises I’ve ever discovered is this: never leave the sight of a goal without taking some kind of action towards its achievement. In other words, as soon as you decide you want something or as soon as you set a goal of some kind, do something – anything – that shifts you closer towards getting it.

7. They Use Their Time Wisely

Have you ever heard of NET time? It stands for “No Extra Time”.

For example: when you’re driving and sitting in traffic, are you listening to Mylie Cyrus? Or are you listening to an audiobook?

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Successful people take NET time seriously. Get yourself some audiobook so you can start listening to the best business and self-improvement books available – all while you’re on your way to work in the morning.

8. They Choose to Lead

You don’t need to have formal authority to become a leader. You just need to choose yourself. All successful people know this, and so should you. Knowing how to get what you want requires knowing how to lead the way for others and yourself.

Don’t wait for anyone else to do it, because the truth is that most people want to be led anyway. So, just step up and claim authority. Be the leader you wish you always had.

9. They Contribute

Successful people know that to get what they want, they have to be willing to help other people get what they want.

What happens when you stop doing your job? What happens when you stop caring about your schoolwork? What happens when you become emotionally disconnected from a relationship?

You suffer – that’s what happens. Successful people know and understand that in order to succeed, they need to contribute. They need to add value to the lives of others. They need to do their best so that they can become the best.

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So, Now What?

I hope this article has re-ignited the fire that you already had within you to be successful at any endeavor. The reason why I’m stressing the fact that you’ve already got everything you need to succeed and get what you want is that you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already motivated to be successful.

At the end of the day, however, all the insights in the world are worth nothing unless you combine them with action. When it’s all said and done, it’s your decision what you do with this list and how you apply it to your life and career.

But if I may, here’s what I would suggest you consider as you get started doing the things to help you succeed:

Review this list of the 9 things successful people do to always get what they want and then compare it with where you currently are at each one of these 9 things. Rate yourself in each one of the 9 things. Next, pick just ONE of them to work on every week.

For example, if you find that you’d like to learn more about the business side of the company you work for, then go read the best business books to help you do that.

Never stop learning. Always feed your mind with the knowledge you need to become as successful as possible within your area or industry. It doesn’t matter how busy you are. We’re all busy. Make the time to expand your knowledge.

And remember: every key learning should be immediately followed with action.

More Tips About Leading a Successful Life

Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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