Recovering the Lost Art of Note Taking

I spend most of my work-life in meetings. Note-taking is a survival skill. Yet, I am surprised at how few people bother to take notes in meetings. Those who do sometimes express frustration at how ineffective the exercise seems to be.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/webphotographeer, Image #5468594

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/webphotographeer

In this post, I’d like to expound on why I think you should take notes in meetings and then offer a few suggestions on how to do it better.

  1. Note-taking enables you to stay engaged. The real benefit is not what happens after the meeting but during the meeting itself. If I don’t take notes, my mind wanders. I daydream. As they say, “the lights are on, but no one is home.” However, when I take notes, I find that I stay more alert, focused, and actively involved. My contribution to the meeting is thus more likely to add value to the topic under discussion. This is why I take notes even if someone is officially taking minutes.
  2. Note-taking provides a mechanism for capturing your ideas, questions, and commitments. Not everything can be resolved in the meeting. Some ideas require incubation. Questions require further research. Commitments require follow-up that cannot be done until after the meeting. Regardless, note-taking provides a way to capture the content of the meeting, so that I can processes it after the meeting.
  3. Note-taking communicates the right things to the other attendees. When someone takes notes, it communicates to everyone else that they are actively listening. It also communicates that what others are saying is important—it is worth making the effort to record their insights. If you are in a leadership position, it also subtly establishes accountability. Your people think, If the boss is writing it down, he probably intends to follow-up. I better pay attention. As a leader, your example speaks volumes. If you take notes, your people will likely take notes. If you don’t, it is likely they won’t.

But how can you more effectively take notes? There are numerous note-taking systems. Here is the one I use:

  1. Use a journal-formatted notebook. If you have something else that is working, great. Stick with it. If not, I recommend one of the Moleskine notebooks. The name (officially pronounced mol-a-skeen-a, although it can vary) comes from the French spelling of ‘moleskin,’ which the oilcloth covering resembles. I have used the Large Ruled Journal for years and never go anywhere without it.
  2. Keep your meeting notes as a running journal. I give each new meeting (or topic) its own heading, along with the current date. The notes run continuously until I fill up the journal. Then I begin a new one.
  3. Use symbols so you can quickly scan your notes later. I indent my notes from the left edge of the paper about half an inch. This allows me to put my symbols in the left margin. I use four:
    • If an item is particularly important or insightful, I put a star next to it.
    • If an item requires further research or resolution, I put a question mark next to it.
    • If an item requires follow-up, I put a ballot box (open square) next to it. When the item is completed, I check it off.
    • If I have assigned a follow-up item to someone, I put an open circle next to it (similar to the ballot box but a circle rather than a square). In the notes, I indicate who is responsible. When the item is completed, I check it off.

    Here’s a slide I use in my speaking when I teach this method:

    smart-notes.008.jpg

  4. Schedule time to review your notes. This is the secret. I scan my notes immediately after the meeting if possible. If that is not possible, then I do it at the end of my workday. If I miss several days, I do it during my weekly review. Regardless, I take action on those items that I can do in less than two-minutes. Those that will take longer I enter into Entourage (or Outlook for you PC users) either as a task or an appointment.

Note: I originally wrote a version of this post several years ago. However, it was buried deep in my archives. I think it is as relevant now as when I wrote it. So I have dusted it off and published this new version.

Question: What do you find helpful when you are taking notes? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://levittmike.wordpress.com levittmike

    I cannot count how many times my notes have saved my backside.  In most of my roles, I have had so many things/ideas/comments thrown at me, if I didn’t write them down, they would either be forgotten, or not dealt with in a timely manner.

    Note taking also (for me anyway) reduces those 3am wake-up from a deep sleep, fretting about something I forgot to do.

  • http://www.LaRaeQuy.com/ LaRae Quy

    Thanks for validating the old tradition of taking notes! I do it all the time because it “sets” the information in my mind. I find that if I write a mission or goal down, it’s set in stone. Our ancient ancestors had something there! 

    As the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California, I was beset by reporter demands, meetings, public debriefings followed by  classified debriefing (and please, do not get the two confused!), and a host of other conversations. All in one hour, and then on the next hour . . . the point being, keeping notes kept my life organized. I could always flip back to my earlier pages to accurately reflect upon what had transpired. I’ve tried it with my “devices” but they are simply not as efficient – at least, for me. Who knew . . .

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    I am trying to integrate audio of the meeting with the notes I actually take during a meeting. Evernote makes that easy though I hardly use the Audio because it is at such a low quality and often I don’t listen to it anyway. Learning how to take notes effectively is on my (to-do) list.

  • Jon

    I use a separate notebook for each major project at work.  I’m often the only one who has a complete record of what was discussed at project meetings or teleconferences. n Has saved my bacon many times!

  • Amelia Cabealotu

    Thank you very much for this great advise and I totally agree on taking notes when in a meeting.We tend to forget a lot after a meeting especially when you have a busy day or behind in your daily task at work or even home.And mostly I dont have time to go through those follow ups or some very key issues raised during meetings.But what I have learnt and tried to follow or keep up with is,never to miss what I termed as ‘MY QUIET TIME’ where I lock myself in my room after a days work and retrack or recollect all that I that I had done on that day and thanking the Lord for his guidance and grace.Thats when I was able to note down and recall those follow ups from the days meeting and was able set my tasks and plans for the next day.Trust me this has really worked for me and and thankful about it and when I am not able to do it in a day or two ,I made sure that Sunday before going to bed is my best quiet time.It has indeed helped me in understanding my life ,my learning new things and ideas and and at the same time exercising my brain.Once again thank you for this reminder ans inspirational piece.I love it.

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  • Carol Johnson

    If you keep meeting notes in the moleskin – how do you keep everything for 1 meeting or an ongoing project together if they are all randomly in the notebook and you don’t tear them out and file for future reference?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Here’s a post I wrote after that one. It will give you my current workflow. Thanks.

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  • http://emuelle1.typepad.com/ Eric S. Mueller

    I started a new job 2 months ago. My supervisor appeared to be taking notes on his iPad. I asked him which application he was using, and he pointed me to Noteshelf. I bought it and a stylus, and they have made it much easier for me to take notes. They’ve also made me more effective.

    One great feature is I can export my notes to Evernote.

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  • Kathleen Thompson

    If I’m on a conference call, I type my notes as a reply to the meeting invitation, and send them to myself.  That way the action items can be more easily added to the Outlook Task List.

  • Drlees

    I love using mind maps for note taking, especially for more complex discussions. It allows me freedom to make connections between ideas and to insert my own thoughts for later follow up.

  • http://twitter.com/sadejjackson Sadé J. Jackson

    I find the symbols most useful.  I refer to them as “tags”.  They allow me to quickly pinpoint all of the things that I need to do, all that requires further research, and all of my ideas which I later transfer to, say, Microsoft OneNote.  (By the way, OneNote has some really useful tags for anyone who may need some help deciding what symbols to use in hand-written notes.  Consistency is key!)

    Thanks for the advice, Mike!

  • Blanca Velasquez

    Thanks for a very helpful post. Note taking is valuable. But while I’m taking notes, I can find myself distracted from the presentation. How do you bridge or avoid that pitfall?

  • Aacrocker

    I have found this to be true in.every aspect of the article.

  • Dennis, muddypuddles.blog.com

    Michael,
    I’ve made a note about taking notes and about reviewing notes that I took (note pun intended).  Thanks for your great advice.  And thanks for the awesome star,?,square and circle symbol advice.  I made a note of that too (and even reviewed it), and, will absolutely and positively  start using those great tools on a regular basis.  God bless!  Dennis Ensor

  • Alan J Leeds

    I’ve bounced back and forth between analog notes in a moleskine and digital notes (currently iPad/iThoughtsHD mind-mapping) and can’t really land on just one approach.  I use the moleskin when speed is important, or when meeting with senior management.  I use the iPad for longer or more detailed technical meetings.  

    Where my system breaks down is in the discipline to transcribe my handwritten notes into digital form so I can get them into my database and make them searchable and organized.

  • M_love

    I love all your ideas but could you tell us which equipment you use for scanning.  I try to use my HP printer but it works so irregularly – need one that works all the time – have also tried NEAT and that is not an option.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Here’s what I use and how I do it. Thanks.

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    I’m not sure I could survive with taking notes.  I’m such a visual learner, that if I don’t take notes, I’m not going to remember the meeting or the subject very well.

    My strategy is trying to boil down what a person says/or the topic at hand to a statement.  Almost like a topic sentence.  Some times people can get “wordy” in their explanations.  If I can distill the message in my notes, chances are I can retain it in my mind.

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  • Deborah Burdzy

    Ha. Funny…I actually had this up on my computer and was refreshing my memory on this post…hmmm…wonder if “someone” is trying to tell me something?!

    I should tell you my husband has been an committed note taker for years. His “little black notebook” has actually caused some to start to sweat and turn pale when he’s taken it out in some situations. Scotland Yard has even been known to have benefited from his note taking (…story for another day). I’m sure I already passed this one to him but I’m going to do so again. He’ll love it.

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  • Christelle

    I love taking notes too, and I agree that it makes me more focused on what happens during the meeting. I first ralized that when I was in class a few years ago. One day I was doodling on my page, so you could think that I was not listening, but by the end of the class I realised that I had actually retained more than usual, because my mind wasn’t wandering all the time. So last year I researched the topic a little bit and found out about sketchnoting, where you take notes in a more visual way. Great for conferences. A pro at this is Mike Rhode, check his notes they are amazing: http://www.rohdesign.com

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  • Helen Murdoch

    I’m a BIG note-taker too – and isn’t it funny how you can always find that specific idea from a meeting way back in one of many journals. I also have a theory that note-taking aids retention of information – it travels up from the pen through the hand and arm straight up to the brain!! Well how else would it work? (I’m sure I’ve got a note somewhere on that…………………)

  • RichardHaralson

    Note taking on the iPhone.
    To help make it faster I found an app called path input. With it you can slide your finger from letter to letter to spell each word. Rather than tapping each individual letter. So, if you must use iphone for your notes this is pretty quick. Then you copy past it out of and into evernote.
    Thanks

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Cool app, Richard. Thanks for sharing!

  • Bob LaForce

    Most important: Star, block, circle the important points that need your action, follow up immediately on what you can do in less than a few minutes, and review meeting notes often to keep things in front of you.

  • Cyrus Mavalwala, ABC

    Great points Michael and I totally agree that the key is to review your notes after the meeting. In fact, we send out a Contact Report that provides an update on the discussion and list of action items (including the champion and due dates etc.).

    As for technology, I use Notability on my iPad so I can write notes as well as record audio. And the beautiful thing is that the audio is tied to my notes so I can press a word and it goes directly to the point in the audience that’s related to that text.

  • Lewis Looks-Twice

    I’ve been taking notes in business for many years. Sometimes I think it’s my greatest value to any company I work for, and you would not believe how many VIPs at every company are so grateful for *anyone* who takes notes during meetings. It seems to be a job that nobody wants to do, and therefore is very prized.

    I have found the following things help me a great deal when taking freehand notes:

    - date in top right corner, because I keep them all
    - I surround any action item with a cartoon speech bubble, which means “action” – they are very easy to pick out on a page afterwards. I scratch them out then done
    - I surround names and forgettable details in a box with four circles around them, ie., a nameplate – again, easy to pick out later
    - I abbreviate meeting with an oval and two bumps (a round table with two chairs)
    - I abbreviate person with a tiny stick figure

    When taking official notes for a meeting on a computer, I use a variant of the MIT meeting format, which I find extremely handy. The format is:

    Heading
    | n | Discussion | Action | Owner | Due-By |
    | …. |

    - So, a series of tables, each with a header – the topic or speaker
    - n is the line number, but I use this rarely
    - Discussion is where I take down the points of the converation, so most of the notes. When I hear an action being assigned/self-assigned, I note on that same line, in those columns:
    – Action to be done
    – Owner – all caps
    – Due-by – the date it was promised, or “NEXT WEEK” or “END OF DAY”
    – Action and Owner are both bold.

    I find this format very easy to read afterwards for myself and those concerned, and it is very easy for people to spot action items assigned to them in the notes

    -LL2

  • Vicki

    I am a full time student so note taking a like a full time job for me. I use a modified form or shorthand (I don’t know why or when I modified it, but it seems to work for me) when I am in the class, and I have to re-write the notes the next day or I usually forget something! I choose to use the shorthand because I can keep up with the speed of an instructor speaking, and I was noticing when I wasn’t using it that I was missing what was being said because I was concentrating on writing. My job this summer included a weekly meeting. I started taking notes at these meetings (more out of habit than anything else) and I’ve noticed that 3 people there (all higher up than the summer intern, but who isn’t) started taking notes after I did. I also noticed that throughout the week people started talking about points from the meetings during the week. I even had one lady ask for a copy of my notes when she was on holidays – notes that I have not yet converted from shorthand. This was a lesson that my modified shorthand is complete gibberish to everyone else. I love to see that the skills I’m learning work in the business world and that I can continue to improve them as I grow in my education and work experience.

  • Kim Breen

    Whenever possible I type my notes vs. writing them, when on a conference call, for example, becuase I can type faster than I write! ….And they are easier to read…

  • ronnie0111

    Great post and refreshing reminder for me to apply focus to my note taking. I love the symbols concept and will incorporate that into my military meetings and personal life as well.

    Ronnie

    http://www.ronnietabor.com

  • Melissa Carroll

    Thank you! I am constantly made fun of for taking notes. I have always done this and used a spiral notebook in the same format you describe – an ongoing journal. Its great to know I am not the crazy one!

  • http://www.KenChristensen.com Ken Christensen

    While I can appreciate that note taking is important, I’d like to add a seemingly absent perspective to this dialog. I’m more likely to miss something because I tried to take too many notes. What I’ve discovered is that I need more help remembering the key action items from a meeting, or a talk, than all the details.

    I hasten to add that my aversion to notes does not mean my journal is empty, or that these tips will not help me be more productive. I’m merely pointing out that we need to adapt these ideas to our own unique situation by remembering what the ultimate goals are.

    If one of those goals is engagement, and my curiosity keeps me alert and focused, then I don’t need note taking to do that.

    If another goal is to capture questions, ideas, and commitments, then as I indicated above, I’d better take notes or I will find some rabbit trail to follow. I’ll become distracted, and my questions and ideas won’t become a part of the discussion. And my teammates will be frustrated because I haven’t kept my commitments.

    As for being an example, I’d really like each person to figure out what level and method of note taking works best for them, than to force what works for me on somebody else.

    At the risk of taking one of those rabbit trails I spoke of, I’ll share this recollection. I still remember the study skills class in seventh grade where I was told I needed to take notes. I remember being instructed in the mechanics of note taking. Listen for the overarching theme, the main points, and key supporting details. Sounds simple enough now, but back then I was overwhelmed. It took everything I had to understand the note taking process. I don’t remember ever catching the “why”. I certainly hope they taught that, but I cannot be certain they did. Sure, I remember the implied poor grades I would get if I didn’t take notes, but that was hardly a good “why” for me. Imagine my surprise when better notes produced poor grades, and simply reading the textbook produced better ones.

    I would be lost without my journal. It solved a huge workflow problem I had. I would find notes on my desk with no date, and no story around them. What good is a phone number and a name? Or a company and an address? Or a book title without the author’s name? Or a random idea, question or commitment without context? My journal provides context!

    One of Michael’s SmartNotes symbols is going to help improve my organization! Squares don’t roll, so they’re things I need to handle. Circles do, so I’ll use those when I’m delegating a task to someone else. With that I’ve identified what I’m taking away from this blog post, and showing you how I’m going to remember the difference between the two. I hope that helps somebody else in their own implementation, because at long last nothing I’ve written here, or Michael wrote in this blog entry will matter unless you act on it.

  • http://kamilegreen.com Justas Serstkovas

    Great tips. Thanks Michael. I came here after listening to episode #30 episode of your podcast on 9 rules for leading more productive meetings and I found it very useful as well.

  • Duane

    Years ago I used a spiral bound watches log with pre-numbered pages and an extra column on the left. I documented everything I did at work down to the minute. It made sense for the job I was doing at that time and it got my butt out of a sling many times. I left it on my desk when I wasn’t at work and my supervisor was even able to use it to status jobs and decisions that were made for a job. I was able to defend my position with others on numerous occasions. I need to return to that level to some degree. Notes are the key to success, in my humble opinion.

  • Giacomo Gustatili

    Personally it is the iPad that has changed for better my way of taking note. Thanks to a productivity app called Beesy I completely changed my way of note taking. Now I take notes adding actions which I assigned to collaborators, deadlines and priorities. At the end of the meeting, everything beeing systematized, I can generate a meeting minutes in less that a minutes thanks to its smart note system. You should have a look a its concept:
    http://www.beesapps.com/how-to-use-beesy-ipad-note-taking-app/