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://www.sixbluedata.com David Isaak

    I heartily agree on the lack of note-taking during meetings/phone conversations now days (even my own lack at times!). I particulary add visual aids symbology to enhance and draw my later attention to what I have recorded. I have also found one of the prime values is that it engages my attention actively during the communication, insteand of drifting towarcs passive inattention

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail

    Thanks for this reminder. I love taking notes—for all the reasons you sited, especially, "…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." You know this is true about me. <grin>

    However, I've fallen down on reviewing them. The idea of reviewing them, first immediately after the meeting (or sermon, or seminar, etc.) and again at a scheduled time is brilliant. I rarely, if ever, review my notes. Hello. Seems like a no-brainer.

    Thanks for this reminder. I'm purposing to kick my notetaking up to the next level.

    And, oh, by the way, have I told you I love you today? … I DO!!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I love it when my wife comments! You are a great note-taker—in fact, one of the best I have ever seen. I sometimes can't believe the volume of stuff you write. You're my hero!

  • http://www.successfulfreelancewriter.com Kathryn Lang

    Great tips – I try to take notes any time some one is speaking. You never know what may come from their words. I think reviewing the notes is probably one of the most important steps. Otherwise you just have a notebook of notes and nothing comes out of it.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. Reviewing is as important as the note-taking itself.

  • http://www.aspiretolead.blogspot.com Mary Jo Asmus

    Hi Michael,

    I feel as though I retain so much more when I take notes! They can also provide inspiration for blog posts (as when you are at a conference).

    I love the tactile-ness of writing notes. I've often wondered if the "feel" of note writing has any effect on learning and memory.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I don't have the proof, but I have to believe note-taking does improve your
      learning and memory. It's another way to \”imprint\” the content on your
      brain.

    • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I don't have the proof, but I have to believe note-taking does improve your learning and memory. It's another way to "imprint" the content on your
      brain.

    • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I don't have the proof, but I have to believe note-taking does improve your learning and memory. It's another way to "imprint" the content on your brain.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

      Studies have shown that simply doodling while listening helps people retain what they hear.

  • http://www.john-gallagher.blogspot.com John Gallagher

    Mike, Thanks for sharing. I do use the ballot box, but I like the idea about the circle for those items you delegate.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/estephen estephen

    Great thoughts, Michael. Personally I use the A4 plain Moleskine now and rely on Mind mapping as my way of taking notes.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That is a great way to do it.

  • Colleen Coble

    Author Denise Hunter gave me some of those moleskine notebooks a couple of years ago and I'm hooked too. I most often use them for jotting down ideas for a new book. There's something about the activity of pen to paper that links to creativity for me. I have to use my notebook and pen for that but then switch to my MacBook to actually write. The human mind is so strange. :-)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I do that, too. I often take notes for blog post ideas. They hit me at the weirdest times!

  • http://emilysteffel.blogspot.com/ Emily

    Good topic! I have a wonderful mentor and one of the first things I learned from her (by watching her — can't remember her outright telling me to do so) was note-taking.

    Things that are helpful to me: I circle an "A" by action items that require follow-up on my part, and I place a large G next to remarks made by superiors when expressing strategic goals and focus.

    I also type up my notes after a meeting and place them in a 3 ring binder by topic for easy reference later (make sure to date and list who else was involved!!). I place all "A" items in my Outlook tasks.

    Thanks for the article!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I like the "G" designation. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.davidteems.com David Teems

    I was at a meeting just yesterday and was asked if I had a steel trap memory because I wasn't taking notes. But an iPhone with iProRecorder or Voice Memos is an efficient way (a quiet and surreptitious way) to take notes and maintain eye contact with the person speaking. I think the trick might be, with notetaking, to maintain that balance between eye contact and active engagement (etiquette), and acquiring an ear for the real salient points of her presentation, those things that definitely need jotting down. Hence, the word "art" as you defined this. Excellent. [Of course, speaking of etiquette, it might be nice to ask permission to record].

  • http://www.paulwallis.net Paul Anthony Wallis

    Michael, Thanks so much for this. So practical. It's amazing how we often assume these basic skills are out there! Like Gail I find note-taking enables me to stay engaged and attentive and like you, Michael, I always schedule time to sit down and review my notes. We miss so much when we don't take time to think and reflect. Often it's only on that later read-through that you have the mental space to note "That whole discussion was based on such and such an assumption", or to ask "Why didn't we pursue that thought further?' or to register, "Say, Brian was pretty quiet during that part of the meeting. I wonder why!" etc. Some of us (especially we males) take time to really register what we have picked up in a meeting. So that sitting down later with notes, I think, is critical.

  • http://sandraking-beholding-god.blogspot.com/ Sandra King

    Excellent! I have been a notetaker for as long as I can remember – in meetings, in seminars, in classes, in sermons, watching TV. There truly is something about putting a real pen to real paper using my God-given anatomy that helps focus and retain.

    Reviewing ASAP is important because sometimes I write so fast it is almost illegible or forgotten in context if I wait too long. Then I may recopy and organize.

    I use symbols while studying the Bible. It makes sense to use them in my own notes, too – as well as in books since I'm also an underliner and marker upper.

    Oh – if I have a personal insight during the notetaking or in a book, I jot it down and scribble a cloud around it.

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/MudandCoffee @MudandCoffee

    I like the ballot box idea. I am a serious note taker, too. For speakers who inspire a lot of commentary, I draw a line down the page to create a 1/3 margin. Quotes and direct notes from the speaker go on one side, my own thoughts and ideas go on the other. This eliminates the need to initial for each tidbit.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

      MudandCoffee, you might want to google graphic organizers for note-taking. There are multitudes of them available. I use many different graphic organizers in my high school English classroom to help students understand concepts

  • Faye

    Thanks for reposting this. I recently found it in your archives and read then, but it was helpful again. I am probably the champion note-taker and a benefit is that I always come up with wonderful ideas during the meeting. Like others, my review process could be better, but I know that I can recall things from past meetings just because I wrote it down. People often look to me in meetings for historical reference on our business and I can usually recall the information on the spot. I do not think I would be able to do that if I had not taken notes.

  • Joel Widmer

    Another great way to capture you notes is Evernote. You can take a pic of it and it lets you search your handwriting. (and it's free)
    My question is how do you store your notes?

  • http://www.creationinspirations.com Cheryl Pickett

    Most of the time when I take notes, I use a style I learned on the first day in my first class in high school (or a modified version). The teacher, one of my strongest mentors in life, gave us a simple outline technique. I start at the left with the main topic and indent to the right for sub-topic points and details. I also occasionally add symbols or margin notes to draw particular attention to an item.

    I think this topic also leads to another-if you're speaking or presenting be aware that people may take notes and present your materials to make it as easy as possible to do so. I find it frustrating when speakers jump all over the place. I can modify my note taking strategy to fit a presentation style, but there's a point where if someone's too hard to follow, I give up completely and that doesn't help anyone.

  • Tommy Lane

    I’ve heard it said that when you see, hear and write it down, you will remember and learn better. There is some kind of connection from the pen to the brain.

  • Scott Macdonald

    Certain meetings can be captured well with a mind mapping tool – I use Mind Manager from MindJet.

    It does not end itself to smaller groups or certain topics, although I occasionally use it after the fact as a way to document and rethink even this type of meeting. It does fit well for a planning discussion or larger group meetings and is especially effective at capturing thoughts and ideas that are outliers t the current conversation ,but important not to lose.

    The biggest plus is that it enables you to organize your notes well and quickly. I find that I usually come out with 4-6 "buckets" that the notes logically fit into, one often being a follow up bucket. The negative is that you are using a computer and it can create the perception that you are not focused on the meeting. When I use this tool, I am clear up front about what I am doing and why, and then I distribute a PDF version to the participants soon afterward so they can see the results.

  • Aaron

    I just decided to do this about two weeks ago after reading your weekly review post. I've always avoided notes because I'd forget to review them, but that gave me structure within which to do it. The weekly review has been a huge game-changer for me across the board.

    Very useful post — and I was glad to see I had ordered exactly the right Moleskine notebook from Amazon :)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patalexander patalexander

    I saw a Moleskine for the 1st time a few years ago. At the time I thought I could take and keep all my notes on my laptop. However, time proved that was not the case. I ordered a Moleskine and now I never leave home without one. You just never know when a thought might come to mind that needs to be captured in addition to those all important meeting notes. I have learned that I receive so much information each day that I can't keep it all in my memory. As a blogger and writer, it is important that I capture those ideas when they occur.

  • http://terlinhart.blogspot.com Terry Linhart

    I remember in 1992, when I walked in to the national training event for Youth for Christ as the newly-minted national Campus Life instructor. I went to observe an in-progress session, feeling confident in my new "status." In the back row of that session was youth ministry veteran and guru Bill Eakin, one of the "creators" of Campus Life 30 years prior. What was he doing? Scribbling notes, learning, and communicating to this full-of-himself youngster that you're never too old to learn from others – and note-taking is a chief way to do that.

  • http://twitter.com/KLOlund @KLOlund

    Mike, I was just introduced to http://www.livescribe.com and its Pulse Smarpens. A bit pricy for me, but they come in 1GB or 2GB, and they work with special paper that has almost unnoticeable dots, which help record everythign you write and convert it to electronic documents. It also records audio, so you can capture an entire conversation and find certain clips by tapping on a word in your notebook. I won't say anything more since I don't know that much and, therefore, don't want to say anyything incorrect. My friend, though, said that the idea began with someone who was affiliated with the company that makes LeapPads computer educational toys for kids. It started out for PCs only but is now available for Mac. Have you looked into this?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/DerekDRobertson DerekDRobertson

      I saw this at target. Looks like a great tool. Someday.

    • http://twitter.com/KLOlund @KLOlund

      I need an editor! Oh wait, I am one. How embarrassing! BTW LiveScribe has notebooks that are similar to Moleskin ones. They also offer spiral-bound, college-ruled paper for students.

    • http://www.usefulfruit.com/ Chad Sellers

      I write a Mac app called Pear Note ( http://www.usefulfruit.com/pearnote ) that has some similar concepts to the Livsecribe pen (recording audio and being able to click on your notes and jump to that point in the audio). It might be something worth checking out for the Mac users out there that would prefer something cheaper and able to do many things the Livescribe can't due to the fact that it is a physical pen.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Clear2Go Clear2Go

    Great Article and it is timely for me. I have never been a great note taker, notes I take I forget to follow up on, or I loose, or whatever. I try to organize them, but it ends up not being organized over time. One thing I do is add all notes to either my laptop or my PDA during the meeting — that way they are search-able and i find this helps.
    Recently we hired a new employee. One of my tasks was to mentor her. Her initial assignment was to work on a project I was leading. She has less experience than I in the work force, but her note taking skills are amazing. She constantly takes notes and is very organized. What amazed me is she used the notes constantly afterwards. She was one of the first people to make it actually work. I may have been mentoring her, but I also learned a lot about how to take notes and make them useful. I am still not an expert and not as good as her, but I've improved my note taking skills immensely as a result of working with her.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DerekDRobertson DerekDRobertson

    I think if I would have done better in school if I had applied this. Now I just need to apply it period.

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  • http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com Lauren Yarger

    I can't imagine not taking notes at a meeting (and for a journalist, old habits die hard). I might as well not even attend if I don't take notes. Notes are the starting point for me for actions that come out of the meeting. If I had to stop later and try to remember assignments, follow ups, leads, deadlines and other vital information in my notes, I'd be very unproductive indeed. On the other end, I probably wouldn't have a lot of patience for an employee who didn't think my information was important enough to note. If I had to keep reminding him or her of information they should have noted, it might lead to termination.

  • http://forrestlongart.com Forrest Long

    I'm addicted to note taking- at meetings, when I'm reading, when I'm online and come across great ideas or quotes. I find it so helpful in retaining what I hear and enables me to process it later. I also write down book or article ideas and enlarge on them in the notebook until I want to begin the real thing. I've been note taking for years. Thanks Mike for the article.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jasondtaylor Jason Taylor

    This is a great post and very timely. In coaching, I've been encouraged to use the computer for taking notes and have found it to be cumbersome. It's certainly easier I guess but for some reason, writing down on the page, the key thoughts, tasks, actions and using a system of symbols (much like yours) has been more helpful to me of late.

    I'm also working on being more intentional about my tweeting and blogging so I specifically purchased a little Moleskin in addition to the one I use for my journal, that I carry with me everywhere. I put notes and thoughts and quips and ideas in it and so far it's been one of the best habits I've established of late.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Love this post!! I am a copious notetaker. Sometimes I do it, as you mentioned, simply to be an engaged listener. The kinesthetic activity of writing it down tends to imprint the information more indelibly in my brain, even if I do not hang on to the notes.

    Also, I affirm the necessity of review for information you intend to archive. I have discovered that shortcuts I felt sure I would understand are not as clear as I suspected when I review them. Therefore, it is essential to review early when the information is still fresh. That way you can supplement your notes where necessary so that a few weeks down the road, they will still make sense.

    One other thing I have found helpful with regard to keeping a moleskine is an index once the moleskine is complete. That way I can find pertinent information quickly.

  • Linda

    I've been using an "analog work journal" for notes, which was inspired by http://www.diyplanner.com/node/4534. The index he has in the back has been very useful. I don't just use it for meetings, but for things that I need for reference but would be clutter.

  • http://CarryingDaily.blogspot.com Martin Richardson

    I think notes are very useful, I often use my netbook to take notes, or a regular spiral notebook if necessary. I prefer the netbook because my penmanship is very poor if I’m jotting quick things. I even try to use old receipts or something from my wallet if it’s small and important.

  • http://jezmanugue.blogspot.com Jez

    This art should also be restored in church. People shouldn't be just listening to the pastor as they preach as if they have 160GB of memory storage.. :D
    We have been reviving this note-taking to our youth church, and their participation and growth has never been the same.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/makasha makasha

    I am an extreme note taker – my planners have been used as evidence in court cases. I used to rely strictly on my Frankin Covey planners for note taking. Since I don't have as large a budget as I used to I use $0.15 spiral notebooks from Wal-Mart.

    I have had my eye on a Moleskin for a while. I might just treat myself to one now.

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  • http://www.laurindaonleadership.com Laurinda

    Great post. I use a cheap composition notebook (great deals on them now with the start of a school year), different symbols but very similar methodology. I would not survive without it.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/kathrynd kathrynd

    Will you talk about short hand or how to best capture notes. I think what trips me up sometimes is trying to write down a hole sentence. Used to be able to take notes like that not able to anymore.

  • Dave

    Outstanding topic. As a former journalist now manager of a broadcast operation, I'm always taking notes in meetings, while on the phone etc. I use many of the techniques described by others. But I use a 81/2 x 11" yellow pad. When I'm done with a meeting I file them by project into a folder. So when I go to a meeting, I have all my notes related to the topic. Putting all projects and all meetings into one journal doesn't work well for me. Some folders have notes dating back a year or more. I tried to use Microsoft One Note which is outstanding as the search function is invaluable but I don't like carrying a laptop to meetings. It's not part of our culture. Altho' a laptop would mean I'd carry less folders to meetings particularly when I travel. In my son's workplace everyone carries a laptop wherever they go, so One Note is much more valuable. I'm not ready to make that leap. Keep the good ideas coming…..

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I jot notes down whenever I'm in a meeting or listening to a speaker. Somehow just doing that helps set the information in my mind. I don't always physically review my notes, but I start mentally reviewing them as I write them down.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/toddmckeever toddmckeever

    I think notes are extremely valuable and program into my Monday schedule (as this is my admin and review day) every week. I have found that my "LiveScribe" pen (http://www.livescribe.com/) is one of the greatest tools in my tool belt. It allows me to sync to my mac or pc if that is what you choose to use, email out the notes and audio from the mtg. and even transcribe my written notes. Plus a great search field as well.

    Before this I used a journal style Moleskin though.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/richgoidel richgoidel

    Excellent post and comments! I also feel strongly about "the lost art." So much so, that I created a system much like yours, but with the extension of metadata in a column on the right. You can check it out here (free): http://www.mightynotes.net

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jaycaruso Jay

    This is a good post. An excellent alternative to the Moleskin notebooks (which I believe are rather pricey) is the Markings notebook by CR Gibson. The paper quality is just as good and they also have the elastic and bookmark. They're about $6-$7 cheaper than Moleskin.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Beaconhillnw Jim

    i use my Moleskine and Evernote (on laptop and blackberry)

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  • Saurabh Daga

    Note taking is one of the simple things which if done perfectly can fetch amazing results in our daily work routine. note taking helps us to keep track of things during a meeting and also when a person comes to a meeting with a note pad and a pen and raring to scribble it just shows how important that meeting or conference is for him. There are lot of minute details or small but important information which can be recalled and recorded and reproduced whenever needed if a person is in habbit of scribbling down notes.

  • http://www.madebymark.com Mark McElroy

    Used to take beautiful handwritten notes, but now find they're not useful, because they don't easily make the jump into my electronic ToDo and information storage/retrieval systems. So: back to typing notes into a keyboard, which never seems to quite capture information at the same level of detail.

  • Mary West

    I find it helpful to take notes everywhere I go. Even at work which doesnt require much more than greeting folks who buy from us. It helps me remember the good times and reminds me not to repeat mistakes of the past. Also I can concentrate better as I write where as if I didnt precious moments would be lost in time gone by. Mary

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patalexander patalexander

    My notes used to get really old and mean nothing by the time I got to them. I started using a Moleskin journal 2 years ago and it has greatly improved my skills. I feel compelled to take neater notes in this beautiful journal. I finally learned to take time within a few days to review those notes and eliminate those that don't apply

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  • http://www.cherylblemine.wordpress.com Cheryl B. Lemine

    I like the phrase "active listening." I use it when teaching my middle school creative writers how to listen as their peers are sharing written works orally with the class. They are not taking notes but I explain to them that listening is a skill and that it is easy to become distracted. I remind them to have their hands empty, to sit up and look at the speaker so they can focus. THEN I have to watch myself becaue sometimes I'll pick up my pen to jot something down before I realize that I need to be practicing the skill as well – and setting the example.

    I have finally purchased my first moleskin journal and wonder now why I waited so long. Now I want to write all the time!
    My recent post Family and Faith: My Favorite Christmas Gift

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  • http://twitter.com/healingsoul @healingsoul

    I am an avid note-taker. I started in college and can't seem to stop. I sometimes go back to them but mostly it helps me to be totally engaged and active in the speaker's points. I even write down sometimes a line I hear in a song if it speaks to my heart. I have been known to have to pull my car over to write notes down when the radio host is saying something too good to miss.

    I too notice that very few people take notes, even when they are given paper to make notes on. I wonder if students in HS and college take notes or if the teacher gives them handouts?
    My recent post Tea Party Convention in Nashville Truth

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  • Heather

    Thanks for the ideas and suggestions. I'm a huge fan of Levenger's circa notebooks for note taking and organizaiton – especially for meetings that require a series of discussions. Because the paper can be removed and inserted elsewhere in the notebook, I can always keep all my notes in one place – and include tasks lists, project reports, etc.

  • K.C.

    thanks for the tips! I try to take notes in meetings, but haven't always been effective.

  • http://www.evokingchange.com Anna S. Christie

    Great article – thanks for this!

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  • http://twitter.com/LaureeAshcom @LaureeAshcom

    i love to take notes!!! i don't understand people who don't take notes. one symbol i use is a light bulb when the speaker or discussion starts my brain down a side path. that way i can get back to the present and come back to my thought at a later time.

  • Tobi Roberts

    Do you have an app on the iPad that will replace the moleskin while adding the search feature?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I highly recommend Evernote. I use it on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. It all syncs transparently in the cloud.

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  • Adrienne D.

    At one time I had a manager who took especial pleasure in those who took notes. On one occasion he expressed his pleasure to me by passing on a tip he had once received from his boss: “Those who take notes get to say what happened!”

    I believe he viewed note-taking as a power-position because those who took them could speak with authority about the company’s issues since they had the documentation at their fingertips. Note-taking communicated to him that someone was serious about meeting their responsibilities in the company and interested in growing. Note-takers were marked by this manager for increased responsibilities because there was an underlying assumption that they were dependable. All of this was unspoken, of course.

    I use different symbols than yours but they connote generally the same things. I also put a B or Bk in the margin whenever a book or resource is mentioned that I may want to look into after the meeting.

    Thanks for the article! I always enjoy your tips!

  • http://openid.stevepelletier.net/HumbleOpinion Steve

    I don’t remember where I read it first, but the following quotation speaks to me.
    “I don’t take notes to remember it later – I take notes to remember it now”

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  • http://twitter.com/wahradio Allen

    Great ideas on taking notes. Looking forward to trying this. 

  • Davidaburke51

    I take a MacBook to meetings on which I have loaded MindManager software. I record notes, needed actions using a mindmap which can be adapted to suit as I go and then filed, diarised, exported to others etc.

    The great thing about a mndmap is that you can overview the whole and easy flex the record as the meeting unfolds.

  • http://twitter.com/ConnieMcKnight Connie McKnight

    Michael,
    What a great topic to write about. I refer to my notes years down the road. The notes I take are like a favourite book.

    One of my mentors, Bob Schmidt, was a leader that everyone admired. He passed away suddenly a couple of years ago, and I am so grateful I took good notes at all of his presentations. When I read them, his words come to life all over again.

    Thanks for sharing you thoughts on note-taking, especially the idea on putting symbols in the left margin. I’ll implement that idea.

    Connie

  • Joe Lalonde

    Michael, thanks for sharing this post on Twitter. I find myself wanting to take notes but it is a hard thing for me to do. My biggest issue is I cannot seem to concentrate on the speaker as I’m writing down my note.

    However, I really liked your idea of indenting notes and using a symbol to notify what kind of note it is. I can see that being pretty effective.

  • Anonymous

    Great tips Michael! In my effort to eliminate ‘paper’ I use an app on my iPad called Soundnote. It allows me to record the meeting and type bullet points of significant thoughts during the meeting.  Soundnote syncs what I type and when with the audio recording. Later I just tap a word and it rewinds the recording to the part that was being recorded when I typed the word.  I will be applying what you said in your article to how I take notes. Thanks!!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That sounds ver similar to the LiveScribe Echo SmartPens. Thanks.

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  • Anonymous

    Names and addresses, including internet sites.  Words I hear…heard the idea of the subconscious as incognito.  This sets me on a path of study.  I like to do doodle art while I listen.  

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  • http://www.walterwillis.net Walter

    Michael,
    Have you had any thoughts on how to adapt this (and your other post on How to Read a Non-Fiction book) to the Kindle (or Nook, or any e-reader)?

    Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lucas-Grohn/1143321456 Lucas Grohn

    The note taking systems link above did not work. The correct address is at the bottom… some really interesting information.
    http://www.sas.calpoly.edu/asc/ssl/notetakingsystems.html

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for catching this. It is always a challenge to keep these up-to-date with things moving around on the Internet. I have corrected the link in the post. Thanks again.

  • Henry Patterson

    Great reminders about note taking and reviewing! I’ve used moleskines for years(consistently as a travel journal/sketchbook), but I always find myself going back to simple 5×8 index cards. I like the simplicity, plus they come blank, ruled, grid or colors. Only trouble is finding a consistent means for storage, I recently started using the spiral bound and found a binder cover that fit well.

    I’ve consistently used mindmapping to take notes, incorporating more sketches/doodles in with the notes to help with recall. This past year ~80% of my note taking has been on the ipad with ithoughts mindmapping tool I create templates for types of meetings, use photos in the photo app to insert into the notes and This has worked very well for me.

  • Sevenseat

    I refer back to this article all the time. I always take notes in meetings, and people taking notes on their laptop during a meeting drives me nuts. I can never tell if they are taking notes or responding to email. The ckickety clack on the keyboard just drives me up the wall.

    I tried the Moleskine thing, but that didn’t seem to fit my work style well. My work tends to be project oriented, and having all of my notes in one book resulted in them being disjointed. Since I started my professional life as an engineer, I went back to 8.5 x 11 engineer’s computational pads. I like the green color, and I can keep all of the pages for a specific project in a folder or binder specific to that project. I can also scan them easily to eliminate paper. I still keep a Moleskine for team meetings that are not linked to a project, at least until the one I am using gets full.

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  • Anonymous

    I just blogged about this today on my Mompreneur blog. Thanks to your suggestion on using Evernote, I’ve had recent success with it. Especially the audio note. It’s easy for me to dictate and come back to edit in my document, especially if it’s book/chapter related. 

    Years ago I was an executive assistant and did tones of note-taking to create minutes for employees. I loved it. Between the good-old Moleskin occasionally and Evernote, post-it stickies help me take brief notes when I’m in a hurry. They can come in handy too, especially when I’m on a conference call and need to take a quite note.

    I appreciate your blog-post!

  • Steven

    I used to use graph-ruled moleskine notebooks until I found the Note Taker HD app for my iPad. I follow just about all of Mr Hyatt’s techniques exactly as he lays them out. The app allows me to go the notebook one better by allowing me to keep all notes on a topic in a separate file.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000238970767 Cecilia Marie Pulliam

    The other great skill I am working on for note taking, is speed writing, enabling me to get down what I want to remember within a short time frame. I do love your idea of the symbols for follow up, and the journal. Great tips, thank you, Michael. 

  • http://www.powerfeedback.com/ Scott Gingold

    Perhaps my memory is bad, but as for item #2, I thought that you went to a notebook system with removable pages so you could scan notes into Evernote as part of your paperless office quest. Am I wrong?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, but this post was written before I was using Evernote.

      • http://www.powerfeedback.com/ Scott Gingold

        Gotcha, thanks for the calcification. 

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  • http://twitter.com/DooneyPug Lori Finnigan

    Great post. I am a very visual/hands-on person so I’m always writing things down. It’s nice to have validation that taking notes is always a good thing.

    I tend to doodle during meetings, which helps me focus. People don’t usually understand that, and I can never explain why it helps. It just works for me.

    I like the Smart Notes idea the best. I’ve always used a star for important things but tend to get them buried in the notes themselves.  Four symbols is the perfect number and covers all the needs in any meeting.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Lori F

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  • Boshoff Home

    Very insightful Thank you.  I have the bad habit of writing notes on small pieces of paper and it is everywhere… need to get into the discipline of writing all in a moleskin note book.  Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • Karen S. Elliott

    Meetings are a lot easier when you know shorthand. Which I do know. I take notes, review them immediately after the meeting, make notes on the notes, and highlight those tasks I need to perform myself. When all tasks are done, file.

  • Jack Malcolm

    Several years ago I started using the Columbia note-taking system.  I simply draw a line down the page, with about 2/3 of the sheet on the left and 1/3 on the right. The left side is for recording things said; the right is used for writing down my thoughts about what is being said. It seems to help to process and retain what is being said. It also allows me to review my notes after the meeting, and write down any additional ideas that I may not have thought of during the meeting.

  • 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/