Productivity

Take better notes

I am constantly in search of the ultimate way of taking notes during meetings. I have tried a lot of different approaches. I used to take my laptop to every meeting and take notes directly in OneNote. I’ve tried using an iPad with a stylus. And of course I’ve tried taking notes in the traditional way countless times, with a notepad and a pen. Each time there were various obstacles and challenges. And today I am writing about why I’ve typically failed in the past and what I do today to take notes in a more efficient way.

For a long time I was taking notes on my laptop. I had it with me at all of my meetings. I would open it in the beginning and start to type. That approach had many advantages:

  • my notes were legible (I have terrible handwriting),
  • they were instantly digitized and available on any device (with OneNote),
  • notes were searchable (very handy),
  • it was easy to share notes just after the meeting,
  • I had a spell checker on hand (very useful),
  • I was able to take notes fast and still be able to read them afterwards.

You might ask “Why did you write that taking notes with a laptop this used to be your preferred way of taking notes?” You’re right – there are many advantages of note-taking on a laptop. Unfortunately, there are two big disadvantages. I will start with a minor one: if the meeting was boring, I had a tendency to read or write emails, browse the web, and so on. It was very easy to get distracted. But the major disadvantage of taking notes on a laptop is that it distracts other people in the meeting. The sound of keyboard strokes is distracting, as is using the laptop itself. I was perceived as a person who didn’t pay attention in meetings. Many people thought that I just did other things. So I stopped doing it. In the end, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages.

For awhile I gave the iPad and stylus a chance. But that was a failure too. It was nice to have notes available in an electronic version right away. Undo functionality was also very useful. The biggest pro was the ability to take a picture and write notes on it. Unfortunately, I had many problems with the stylus. I tried lots of different ones, but none were as precise as a classic pen. My notes were shaky, unreadable, and ugly (even uglier than my handwriting with a pen). So I stopped taking notes in that way too.

After trying what I described above, I went back to an old school notepad, a pen, and a little bit more.

First I want to share with you what my problems were with handwritten notes in the past. And there were (maybe even are) many:

  • As I wrote before, I have a terrible handwriting style. Sometimes I laugh at myself that my notes are self-encrypted so well that after some time even I can’t read them.
  • I had to take a picture of each note and send it to OneNote – it was and is a very cumbersome process.
  • I kept forgetting my notepad when going to meetings, and ended up writing on sticky notes and then losing them.
  • It was very hard to search for relevant information within notes.

All of those resulted in very poor notes and my eventual attempts to go digital. But after each try, I kept coming back to the old-fashioned way of taking notes. Why? A few reasons:

  • I am a person who remembers things in a very visual way. With handwriting it is very easy to make notes more visual. Adding small drawings, side notes, arrows, symbols, etc. is easy and fun.
  • Taking notes in a notepad is widely accepted and no one has any issues with me doing this. Everyone does it.
  • I learned how to make the most of my handwritten notes.

The last point is the most important one. I created my own style of taking notes, and I try to use it every time I am taking notes. There are only a few things I’ve changed:

  • I use “bigger font.” I just write with bigger letters. Even with my terrible handwriting, I am able to read my notes even a few months after taking them.
  • I have a new routine of adding a “process notes” task to my todo list after each meeting. I spend some time on all my notes to process them and:
    • move action points to my todo list;
    • digitize them if they are important.
  • I have my notebook everywhere I go.
  • And last but not least, I learned to use symbols in my notes which allow me to:
    • quickly scan my notes when I search for important content;
    • easily extract tasks, important remarks, information to share, and so on from all of my notes.

What symbols do I use? Only four:

  • Important – This is an indication for me that this is something worth highlighting and reviewing after the meeting.
  • Person – I mark information related to a given person in this way. I add a name to it so I can find a reference to that person just by looking for a person symbol.
  • Envelope – When there is anything in notes that I need to share with others it is marked with a small, blue envelope.
  • Checkbox – Every time I note an action to be done I add a green checkbox to it. When I review my notes and see this symbol I add it to my todo list.

I try to use these five principles with a limited number of symbols every time I take a notes. It took some time to get used to this way of taking notes, but it was worth it. I have the impression that I am better at taking notes and following up on them. They are relevant for me now; I use them often, come back to them, and review them. I feel that I am more efficient thanks to this and that my meetings are more productive now.

Now I am on a quest for the ultimate notebook… My current candidate is the Ecosystem notebook. I want to order one and try it. I just need to finish my current one first. So I am taking a lot of notes ;)

Do you have a special way of taking notes? What do you do to make the most of them?

 

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  • Michal Golda

    As always very nice article. Small suggestion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En9NaKqtwlE

    • dominik

      Thank you Michał :)

      I use OneNote every day, I just haven’t found a good enough stylus. I haven’t tried the one presented in the video you posted though… Yet ;)