The Most Important Thing You're Not Doing at Work (and How to Get Started)
“Write this down—it’s going to be on the final exam,” said no boss ever.
Note-taking is an unsung challenge of moving from school to the workplace—we’re in a completely new environment, with totally different reasons for note-taking and different needs for how we’ll use our notes later on, yet most of us are relying on the methods we used in our high school history class.
And while it’s rare that anyone will lose a job for not taking notes on something, the small, ongoing effect of bad notes (or skipping notes completely) can really hurt your career. How many times have you had to email your boss, a colleague, or a client asking a question about something she talked about in a meeting the other day because you forgot it? That’s hurting that relationship—not to mention everyone’s productivity. (Side note: Here are a few more things that bosses really don’t like.)
On the flip side, taking notes is an incredible way to show respect to people. It shows you’re listening and that you think what they are saying is important. Your notes serve as your guide to doing your job better, too; you can easily refer to the important information you need to succeed whenever you need it, without delay.
And a secret bonus, taking notes actually makes you smarter. When you have a collection of thorough, thoughtful notes all in one place (that you actually revisit from time to time), you start to see connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t have seen and have information that other people don’t retain. This is how you’ll get great ideas, form new connections, and become the kind of innovator and leader who makes things really happen on your team.
All in all, taking notes is a really subtle, but powerful, way to make yourself more successful—but very few of us get any guidance on how to transition our note-taking style to work at work. That’s why today I want to share with you a quick-start guide to taking amazing notes in your professional life.
1. Know When to Take Notes at Work
Not every situation at work calls for note-taking, but there are certainly times when I would highly recommend pulling out your pen and paper. In general, my advice is always to err on the side of taking notes and just decide later whether or not you need to keep them, but here are some of the key times when you’ll want to jot some things down:
Whether you’re the boss or the employee, taking notes shows you’re taking the time seriously. It’s also a good time to make note of personal details like your manager’s spouse’s name, which is good stuff to remember to help you form a more meaningful relationship with people at work.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in what’s going on during a big brainstorming or problem-solving session that you actually don’t retain anything when you walk out of the room. Make a point to take notes, even if you’re participating a lot, to ensure you hold on to critical information.
Bringing a notebook is always a good idea so you can record every detail a client or customer needs. Better to have too much information and pare it down later than to miss out on something really important.
Meetings With Your Mentors or Contacts
Even a simple coffee meeting should be recorded. Show the person you value his or her time and expertise by writing it down; plus, if this is a rare meeting, you’ll want to make sure you remember everything since you might not get time with this person again soon. You can also use your notes to follow up in a more meaningful way—like sending a valuable link or article related to something you discussed in your meeting.
2. Find a Note-Taking Style You Love
There are no rules when it comes to how you take your notes. There’s no proof that any style works any better than another style—the best kind of notes are the ones that will make sense to you later, whatever they look like.
Here are a few of the most popular note-taking styles that you can try out to find what works for you.
This is the most traditional kind of note-taking. You start at the top of the page with the main meeting topic, and then continue your list down with sub-heads as other topics come up.
Leave space between sub-heads as you go, since the meeting may circle back to a topic (or you may have questions or new ideas you want to record), and you will want to have space to add information without making your list sloppy or confusing.
You can also create headings for things like action items, to-dos, decisions made, and any important resources or tools you need to hold onto, so you can have a really actionable list to refer to later on.
If you’re a visual thinker, try a mind map. Start by writing the topic of the meeting at the center of the page. From there, draw branches out to every key topic discussed.
For example, you might write “Kickstarter launch” at the center of your page, and then draw branches out for topics like “press outreach” and “launch day timeline.” Continue drawing branches out for subtopics (getting increasingly detailed), and at the end you’ll have a visual representation of the meeting’s most important points.
A Trail of Breadcrumbs
This is the most intensive form of note-taking, but it’s incredibly effective. When you employ this strategy, take notes as if you are going to give them to someone who wasn’t there in the meeting.
Write down every topic as it comes up, and then record every point raised related to that topic. You don’t have to write every word that’s said; use short phrases, and pay special attention to things like specific tools or resources.
This is a great strategy for people who get anxious during meetings, since it’s keeps your hands busy. As long as you make eye contact from time to time, no one will mind you taking such thorough notes.
3. Organize Your Notes So You Can Revisit Them Later (and Become Amazing)
One of the biggest struggles people have with note-taking is keeping their notes organized in a way that they can actually revisit in a valuable way later. Note-taking on its own isn’t enough to improve retention or understanding—you have to actually revisit your notes and cement the information in your mind in order to make it valuable.
This means that if your notes are all over the place or completely disorganized, you might as well not be taking them at all. Here are some of the best ways to keep your notes organized and to make the time you spend with them truly valuable for moving your career forward.
Always Keep Your Notes in the Same Place
The easiest way to keep your notes organized is to keep them in one place. No more typing some things into a Google doc and keeping a random pile of sticky notes on your desk. While there are many options for this, paper is ideal so that you’re not keeping a screen in between you and the person you’re meeting with. Plus, actually writing things out with your hand helps with retention.
So, invest in a notebook—one that you love, that you’ll take with you everywhere, and that has the versatility you need for the many situations you’ll need to take notes in.
Keep the Same Format
Above, we went over three of the top note-taking styles that work well for professional settings. Find the style that works for you and stick with it; this will make skimming over your notes later much easier.
Whichever style you choose, write critical information at the top of every page—the date, meeting attendees, and meeting topic on every page of notes that relates to that meeting—so it’s easy to track.
Make a Weekly Appointment to Go Over Your Notes
It’s hard to find time to revisit your notes, even if you want to, with the constant stream of things that demand your attention and are a higher priority every week. So set a recurring meeting on your calendar to go over your notes once a week. Even 15 minutes is enough time to look at what you recorded.
When you go over your notes, write down any questions you have or any open issues that still need to be resolved. This is also a good time to prepare for any upcoming meetings you have. Write down questions you want to make sure get answered or any important information you think you’ll need to have on-hand.
How much more could you accomplish if you always had the right answer at your fingertips? Consistency is the key to success; the more small, good habits (like great note-taking) that you can develop, the more you’ll be able to grow every single day. This week, try taking notes in every meeting and see if it makes it any easier to have good ideas fast or to get more done.
Kate Stull is the co-founder of Popforms, a company building tools to help technical leaders be more amazing at their jobs. She also just launched a Kickstarter for The Spark Notebook: a notebook that combines the function of a big life-planner into a beautifully designed, professional notebook. You can connect with her on Twitter at @katestull or on her blog at katestull.wordpress.com.More from this Author