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 ©, Image #5468594

Photo courtesy of ©

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:


  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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