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Taking Notes You Can Actually Use

Your guide to taking better notes

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Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash
Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash

Just like you might be great at making lists but not so great at doing the stuff on the list. You might also be great at taking notes but just not so great at finding those notes when you need them.

Today I want to share some best practices for note-taking.

So if you’re currently finding that you take a lot of notes, but they live in scattered notebooks that you’re terrified to toss, but in which you can never find what you’re looking for, or you’re living in a sea of post-it notes, then read on for a few tips to uplevel your note-taking skills.

Note Storage Methods

Let’s start at the beginning: where should you store your notes?

Your task app

Lots of people default to a stand-alone notes app, but I personally like to limit the number of systems I am using (and, therefore, places I have to look), and so I like to ensure that my notes are well integrated into my single trusted task system. That way, when I go looking for my notes, I know exactly where they’ll be. And when I need information about a task or a project, I know it’s going to be located in the same place as that task or project. When you store your notes in your task system, everything is searchable and there’s only one place to look. It saves A LOT of time overall.

Stand-alone notes apps

If you’re not using a task app (yet), or if you just prefer a stand-alone notes app, then here’s what I’ll suggest:

Evernote

This is obviously the big one. If you’re using a notes app, it’s likely Evernote. It’s a good one; there’s a reason it’s popular.

StandardNotes

After a lengthy vetting process, my husband came down on using StandardNotes as a lightweight, easy to use notes app that syncs on all his devices (Android and iOS). I don’t use it personally, but I saw how much effort went into finding the “perfect” notes app. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it here so that you can reap the rewards of his research.

OneNote

If you’re in the Microsoft world, then OneNote is built in, your colleagues are likely using it, and you might as well too. There’s collaborative value in using the things that others are using in your org.

If you’re a paper person:

If you take notes on paper, if you consider yourself a “paper person”, I get it. I am too. I ALWAYS have a notebook next to me. But paper is a temporary system; it’s not where your notes should live in the long term because they’ll be impossible to find, and you could lose them (the horror!).

And if you’re thinking, “why would someone whose primary focus is around productivity and efficiency take paper notes only to transcribe them later? What a waste of time!”, there is a fair bit of research finding that taking notes by hand actually helps you to synthesize, retain and learn information better in the long term.

Another option is to use a digital paper notebook, like the Remarkable. Many of my clients and friends, are huge fans of the Remarkable digital notebook, as it combines the ability to take handwritten notes with a digital storage system. However, there are 2 primary drawbacks to this method: 1) the notes aren’t IN your task system, so it’s still a separate system and 2) the notes aren’t searchable, so you’ve got to have a good method of naming your notes files (you can search the file names).

If you don’t like typing or hand-writing:

Perhaps voice notes would be easier for you. If so, Gsuite now has speech to text capabilities; you can you speak directly into a document, and the output is text that you can copy and paste anywhere.

And many task apps, including my favorite, TickTick, have voice entry capabilities. I can enter a task by voice, and also enter my notes into the comments by voice.

Note Types

Let’s talk about the common types of notes and how you can best keep track of them.

1:1 notes

If you’ve got direct reports, you’ve got 1:1s. And if you don’t have directly reports, well then, you likely have a weekly 1:1 with your manager. If you need a simple way to keep track of your 1:1 notes, I suggest that you use…wait for it…your task system.

Create a task for each person you have a recurring 1:1 with. Set that task as recurring for the date/frequency of your 1:1s. You can use the “description” field of the tasks for the agenda items you want to cover in the next 1:1, and then after each 1:1, you can add your notes into the comments field of the task, hit enter, and your notes are now timestamped and searchable.

Meeting Notes

Coming out of a meeting with pages of notes? I’m also going to suggest using your task system. If it’s a meeting related to an ongoing project, simply add your notes to the comments field of the related task/project and add any new action items as “next actions” for that task or project.

If the meeting is a one-off, and not about a particular task or project, you can simply create a task for the meeting, add your notes in the comments and mark as complete. Now your meeting notes are searchable!

Project Notes

If you’ve got notes related to a task or project, they likely fall into 2 categories: 1) things you have left to do and 2) other information, decisions made, etc. Things that need to be done become next actions for the task or projects and live in the description field, or subtasks. Other information lives in the comments. When it’s in your task system, all of it is searchable and in one place.

Reading Notes

If you tend to take notes while reading, because you want to remember specific passages, or salient points, you can also create a task with the name of the book or article, and then add your notes in the description or comments, field. My favorite task app, TickTick, actually has a specific notes function, that I use for this purpose.

Parsing your notes (aka deciphering a tasks from notes)

When you take notes, the information tends to fall into 3 distinct categories:

  1. Information you’re going to want to access later (decisions made, links to relevant info or emails, etc., research referenced)
  2. Tasks and action items
  3. Information you actually won’t need later (it just helped you to process by writing)

Whether you’re taking notes on paper or by typing, I find it easiest to use a simple symbol system as I’m taking notes so that it’s easier for me to parse my notes later.

In my case, I simply add a checkbox in front of anything that’s a task (something I have to do, follow up on, etc.) so that I know it needs to be turned into a task.

I add a star in front of info I’m actually going to need.

What’s left doesn’t need to be transferred or transcribed.

Pick a simple symbol system that works for you, no matter how you take notes.

Finding your notes when you need them

If you’re a paper person, you’re going to need an extra step when you take notes: a method to get those paper notes into a digital system (preferably, your task system). Why? If you want to find your notes easily later, they need to be searchable.

Google Keep has a special feature that will turn your handwritten notes into text with just a click. To use it, take a photo of your handwritten notes, add to Keep, click the “3 vertical dots” icon and then “Grab image text” and voilà, using the magic of technology, you have text you can now copy and paste.

And the good news is, you don’t even need great handwriting. My handwriting is terrible; chicken scratch, really. (Like, so bad it’s a running joke that my kids will grab my notes and quiz each other to try to figure out what I’ve written, then collapse into a puddle of laughter when I decipher it for them.) And even with my terrible handwriting, Google Keep somehow has about 70% accuracy in deciphering my handwriting. So I can only guess that if you have legible handwriting, it will work pretty darn well.

And if you take digital notes, I think it’s still easier to keep them in your task system, so you only have one place to look. But if you’re using a stand-alone notes app, just make sure that you’re consistent and using keywords that are searchble.

How do I take notes?

People often seem curious about what exactly I do, and I’m happy to indulge 🙂

I’m a handwritten note person. I know this isn’t the most efficient, but it works for my brain. I take paper notes in a notebook (1 only ever use one at a time) and then between meetings and at the end of the day, I synthesize my notes and get them into my task system.

In practice, first I add the tasks into my task system. And then I add the relevant info from my meetings and client sessions into the comments fields of the relevant tasks in my task system. (I have a task for each client.)

When I’ve finished transcribing a page, I draw a big line right down the middle so I know I’m done.

When I get to the end of a notebook, I throw it away, knowing that there’s nothing I need in there.

The goal is that by the end of the day, all notes have been transferred/transcribed into my system.

How long does this take me? About 15 minutes a day.

How should YOU take notes?

You’ll have to experiment and find out! But I highly suggest streamlining and getting your notes integrated into your task system.

Try a method above and see how it works. If it doesn’t work perfectly, iterate and keep experimenting until you get to a system you can stick to.

How can you get yourself to consistently transcribe or transfer notes?

Now, one thing you might be wondering, is how you can get yourself to consistently get your notes into your single trusted system. Day after day.

And I’ll be the first to say that it’s hard. Transcribing my notes is actually my least favorite part of the day (well, other than when my alarm goes off). I might even go so far as to say I hate doing it.

But I do it.

Why? Because the pain of not doing it is far greater than the pain of doing it.

To get myself to transcribe my notes, I have to prioritize my future self. I have to remind myself (pretty much every day) that if I spend a few minutes transcribing my notes right now, I’ll be in a MUCH better position tomorrow. I’ll be starting the day with a clean slate, and I’ll know that I haven’t missed any crucial action items.

Now, does this mean I never fail? Nope.

About once every 6 months, I’ll go a day or two without transcribing my notes. And without fail, when that happens I end of missing something. And the pain of having missed something is enough to get me back on track to consistently transcribe those notes for the next 6 months.

Tell me; how do you take notes? And where do you store them?

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