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Posted
09 July 2007

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Verisimilitude Personal

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Take My Notes. Please.

Oh yes, I'm writing a blog article about the importance of note taking. That's right, note taking.

Why? It's a skill that I have been working hard on recently, and so at meetings I often find myself the only person who is doing it. This article is an attempt to evangelise note taking, a possibly dying art amongst all you young whippersnappers with your fancy tablet PCs and your screencasts and whatnot. Why in my day ...

In my day — that is back in university where you're supposed to learn about these things — I was completely clueless about note-taking. In retrospect, I think the reason is that I had high standards. Waaaaay too high. Ever seen a notebook in the movies? It's invariably full of incredibly beautiful and detailed scribblings, with nary a correction or a wasted page. Works of art on the page for the protagonist to pore over and gain insights into the mind of the author. Some of my fellow students carried such items around university with them. For many years I held my own note-taking to the same high standard and, inevitably, wrote nothing unless it was perfectly formed in my mind first. It never occurred to me that the other students went home and deliberately rewrote their notes to their own high standards, as I'm sure some of them did. And, well, screw that.

For a while in the late-90s/early-00s I carried a PDA. What a disaster that was for note-taking. Those things were, and still are, completely hopeless. You can't write notes on these things. Paper is the winner baby. Hey, if it's good enough for air-traffic controllers, it's good enough for you. More testimonials here.

So recently I've been trying to teach myself how to take notes again, mostly at meetings. Here is what has worked for me so far:

  • Get a nice, bound, notebook and put your name on the front. Lose scraps or pads of paper are OK for reminders, brainstorming or other throw-aways. Your notebook is going to going to contain information that is not stored elsewhere. It's for keeps. Get something that can hold your notes properly. And a nice pen to write with.

  • Start every meeting with a datestamp and (preferably) a list of participants. This helps to get your mind into the note-taking mould, and avoids the mental speed-bump of "is this important enough to open my notebook for?", which is the adult equivalent of "is this going to be on the exam?" Commencing the meeting with an open notebook and a few preliminary scribbles signals to everyone else that you are there, and not just a passenger. (Conversely you might deliberately leave the notebook closed in certain meetings, just to make a point...)

  • Don't try to record the decision making process. It took me a while to realise this, but if you're at all participating in the meeting, you probably won't have the bandwidth to write it all down as well. Instead focus on noting problems (unless you're the one with the problem), decisions, and actions. (Hey that's just about catchy enough for me to base an entire self-help book on.) But you get the idea: knowing when not to take notes and just participate is important, and a bit of an artform. In some cases you may need to stay after the meeting to jot down any particularly important discussion points that you didn't have time to note at the time.

  • After the meeting, send an email round with the actions, including your own, and any important decisions. Don't make it a formal record of meeting minutes, because that's just too much work and rarely justified. (Or it's mandatory, in which case you have to do it anyway.) It's not really related to note-taking, just a good habit to get into.

  • Notes aren't just for during the meeting. I often find it useful to jot down agenda items before going into the meeting. Doing this makes you appear to be incredibly organised, and in fact you are.

That's it really. No I'm still not the best note-taker by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm slowly learning how to focus on the important stuff, and that's making me far more effective at work.

Maybe you have some note-taking tips you want to share?

4 Comments

Posted by
Chris
2007-07-09 12:48:00 -0500
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My hand-written notes are hopeless. Partly, this is because my handwriting sucketh, but I also find that when I'm really engaged in a meeting I am so focussed on the discussion that I completely neglect to put pen to paper at the right moment to accurately capture the decision, problem or action I need to recall. I have to say that making a note of problems isn't something I've consciously thought of before. I also have a nasty habit of abbreviating my notes to get back to the discussion, making them even more inscrutable when a couple more words could have turned them into the Gettysburg Address of notes.

I tend to only note problems if they're directly or indirectly my responsibility. If they're my problem, they're filed under action.

When I do manage to capture notes on paper, I use a couple of symbols to call out important items on the page. "A" with a box around it is an action, usually for me unless I write someone else's name there.

A "*" means something important -- like a decision or a revelation. Duh!

I use my paper notepad as a capture device, and reference -- but I've taken to working out of EverNote and Todoist for long-term capture, prioritization and progress tracking.

If I ever finish catching up on Battlestar Galactica I'll enthuse about them at length.


Posted by
Garth
2007-07-09 12:48:00 -0500
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Listen also: Manager Tools: How to Take Notes. Mike and Mark's main point: if you write down only the things you should, you can slow down and write legibly. Then they tell you which bits to write down. It's a good match for Alastair's list. What happened when? Who will do what by when?


Posted by
Sunny Kalsi
2007-07-09 12:48:00 -0500
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I've been working hard on my notetaking, and found that taking notes has major suckage. There are two things that notes are good for:

  1. Remembering and understanding what it is you're all talking about during the meeting and about 20 minutes afterwards: "Note: Enter base, kill mans"
  2. Slowing other people down and repeating what they're saying in a nutshell: "So what you're saying is, you want to enter my base and kill my mans"

Notes are worthless about an hour after they're written. Giving a date doesn't help, because as a key it's not useful (at least, I don't think "what were we discussing on the 25th?", I think "What do we do after entering my base again?"). Any good notes will be all over the place, and will need to be re-written (which I highly advocate, probably in a digital format). However, I do like your Problem/Decision/Action paradigm a lot, which I think will help organise meeting notes a fair bit. I think these three items feed into other systems, however.

Notes are supposed to be good for writing, not for reading. You must translate them into another format to make sure the data you gleaned becomes information, whether it's an email, a wiki, or anything else.

In short, disagree with the first two points, agree with the last three. Additional points include making a big deal of what you're writing in the book to slow the meeting down and get people to think, and understanding that if it's in the book, you're probably never going to read it again.

Amen on PDAs being the anus of note taking.


Posted by
bjkeefe
2007-07-09 12:48:00 -0500
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I agree with much of your philosophy, Alastair. I, too, use a spiral-bound notebook and start each entry with the date. I usually use a heading.

I have found that just writing, even scribbling, stuff down makes it stick in my memory much better. Also, once I write something in the notebook, it seems easy to find, the next time I flip through -- all kinds of weird memory stuff happening that may not apply for everyone.

I agree, a bit, with Sunny about writing things up/transcribing the notes. For me, that really helps it stick in memory, and also improves my understanding. But I don't think notes are worthless, and further, I have long remembered something I heard once about writing down directions: never through away your original notes, even if you rewrite them. There is something about the cues that are present when reading the original.

Finally, a notebook near the computer is the ultimate backup. Things don't crash nearly as much anymore, but being able to refer to error codes and recovery instructions is invaluable.

Ultimately, I wish I could go back in time, and learn how to take shorthand. The one thing bad about notes is that writing stuff down can be distracting, especially during meetings.