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Note Taking

Note taking is a valuable skill. Most people can’t remember all the details they are deluged with every day. Having a method to record the important morsels of information without getting buried in all the noise can mean the difference between being effective at your job and being a black hole for information.

In meetings, people are constantly taking notes. They jot down a slew of information, or type furiously on computers. So, what happens to that info?

Read more about this topic below.

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Note-taking is a skill that can greatly increase your capabilities and set you apart from your peers. It is hard to imagine, but countless career progressions have been slowed because people were not good at taking notes. The most common missing points? Deadlines and key requirements. Missing on either one lowers a person’s stock.

The Benefits of Note Taking

  1. The simple act of writing things down makes one pay attention.
  2. The more senses you use, the better something sticks to memory. Listening is one sense. Writing adds two more—touch and vision.
  3. It makes people learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Information comes flying at you, and you can’t write fast enough to get it all. Note taking teaches you to mine for the nuggets.
  4. You don’t forget as much. You have a written record.
  5. You have a history of events. Notes can help you trace a chain of events to address problems.
  6. You can save information for later. This is most relevant when consolidating lessons learned.
  7. Sometimes you miss what is said while you are writing down notes.
  8. You have to write legibly and coherently. Often, people go back to notes and can’t figure out what they say. The problem is not only chicken scratch. Confusion also comes from poor abbreviations or cryptic comments.
  9. You might get the note wrong. If you do, you have might have more confidence that it is correct than you otherwise would. It’s written down, after all…
  10. You may not be able to find what you wanted. Again, you put confidence in your note taking ability, so you might not go and enter a meeting time in your calendar right away. When you can’t find it later, you miss the meeting.
  11. Notes are abridged forms of what was said. Sometimes they get taken out of context when they are read later.
  12. People don’t have standard note processes. Sometimes they can’t figure out their codes.
  13. Notes take time to go through later. Writing it down is not the end—it needs to be put to use or it was a waste of time.
  14. Notes are not taken with a purpose. People take notes with no clue as to why they are doing it. Purpose changes how notes should be taken. Think how different note-taking is for a student who will be tested later and a manufacturing supervisor who is going to relay information to her team.

The Pitfalls of Note Taking

  1. Sometimes you miss what is said while you are writing down notes.
  2. You have to write legibly and coherently. Often, people go back to notes and can’t figure out what they say. The problem is not only chicken scratch. Confusion also comes from poor abbreviations or cryptic comments.
  3. You might get the note wrong. If you do, you have might have more confidence that it is correct than you otherwise would. It’s written down, after all…
  4. You may not be able to find what you wanted. Again, you put confidence in your note taking ability, so you might not go and enter a meeting time in your calendar right away. When you can’t find it later, you miss the meeting.
  5. Notes are abridged forms of what was said. Sometimes they get taken out of context when they are read later.
  6. People don’t have standard note processes. Sometimes they can’t figure out their codes.
  7. Notes take time to go through later. Writing it down is not the end—it needs to be put to use or it was a waste of time.
  8. Notes are not taken with a purpose. People take notes with no clue as to why they are doing it. Purpose changes how notes should be taken. Think how different note-taking is for a student who will be tested later and a manufacturing supervisor who is going to relay information to her team.

Note Taking Strategies

Find a process to take notes, and practice it. Refine it until it gets to a point where it is making you more effective. Over the years, I have used a few different methods. One is the stack of index cards method. The top one was my synopsis of what I wanted to do that day, and the others were for writing notes down. At the end of the day, I would review the notes, update my calendar, and enter any long term notes into either a running Word document (lessons learned), or into Outlook (pending tasks, ongoing projects, and deadlines). In addition to the calendar and tasks, Outlook has a notes feature. I organized those into different folders, making information easier to retrieve later.

I also, at other times used a small notebook (about 5” x 8”) to record information. I would date the top of the page where I was taking notes. Any action items that I had would go on the last page. When it overflowed, I would work inward towards the second to the last page, and so on. When pages were complete, I would tear them out, so the last page was always my current ‘To Do’ list.

I also used a basic code with my notes. Action items had a box to the left, which I checked off when I was done. Questions to follow up on had a question mark. I would leave some space below for an answer, and when I got it, I would write it in, and put a slash through the question mark. I would also date the answer, and note where it came from, if that was relevant. Important items got an asterisk. I didn’t add any other codes, just to keep things simple. I considered added something to indicate which notes were short term, and which were knowledge base types of entries, but simpler worked better for me.

At the end of each day, I would update my Outlook calendar with action items that had a deadline, leaving the rest of my action items in the back of my book as a running ‘To Do’ list.

Technology, though, has made note taking much more sophisticated over the years, and will likely continue to do so. Microsoft OneNote is a good tool for those who take a substantial quantity of notes. It helps people organize their notes better. It also lets you cut and paste, so it is fairly easy to add information, and shuffle similar notes into one location. Most importantly, though, it has a search function.

The downside? It requires that you have a computer with you in meetings all the time, or it creates a second step in a process when you go over your notes and transfer them into the program.

One way I battle this issue is with technology. Tools migrate as now products become available, but for the last few years I have uses a Livescribe pen. It uses special paper and a camera to record everything you write, both text and images. It also has a recording function which is syncs up with what you are writing. The desktop software has some nice tools for sharing, and again, most importantly, for searching you library of notes, including archived notebooks.

Voice to text technology is also well past its infancy. Voice recognition is better than ever, and can turn the spoken word into documented notes. I have dabbled in voice recognition software over the years, and it is close, but I still find myself being a bit more productive typing. I suspect that will change over time as voice recognition software gets better, namely in accuracy and quality.

Smartphones are the next frontier in note taking. People are seldom without their smartphones now. Note taking apps are available, but the input methods on small screens still lag behind using a full sized keyboard. Smartphones do, however, work great for adding tasks and calendar entries, eliminating the need for some notes.

Note Taking Quality Check

The old expression “garbage in, garbage out” applies to note taking. Make sure that the content is accurate using a technique like a brief back. It prevents accurately recording the misinterpretation of a comment.

  • Don’t try to write down everything when taking notes. There is a fine balance between getting enough, and losing focus on the speaker.
  • Write neatly. Illegible notes are worthless.
  • Limit appreciations when writing notes that will be shared.

  • Get good at note-taking. It is probably the most under-rated skill in continuous improvement.
  • Search functions are a great tool that has come with new note-taking technology.

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