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?