Taking notes effectively doesn’t seem to be such a big deal. But sometimes, complex entries make note taking a bit tricky and it’s easy to get lost if you have a lot of information to process.
After taking notes in class when I was a student and attending (too many) meetings as a project manager, I thought I could share some effective note taking techniques I learned from my own experience. Because effective note taking is key to save your time and energy, and to help you make the most out of the hours you spend on meetings.
Pick the right tool
Computer, binder, notebook…Effective note taking starts with effective tools. Chose one that will fit your needs and will help to process your notes afterwards. Go digital if you need to share your notes with others: it will save you hours of hard work typing your notes. If your notes are only for yourself for future reference, you can either use a computer or a notebook.
I rather take my notes on paper. It allows me to mix written parts and sketches if I need to illustrate a concept or an idea. I also find that it’s easier to use abbreviations such as arrows of different types when I’m in a notebook compared to when I’m typing notes.
Effective note taking starts with effective tools… Hard bound notebooks are perfect if you need to have all your notes on hand (pictured: Rhodia webnotebook), but you can also chose a disc bound notebook (pictured: Filofax notebook) or type notes on a computer.
I personally use a disc bound notebook for note taking: it has all the advantages of a notebook, and I can re-organize my notes to sort them out by projects. The Filofax Notebook is typically a great choice as it has dividers, but the Atoma is a nice option too (the quality of the paper is great and it’s a bit wider than the Filofax).
Get ready in advance
Preparing the meeting you attend in advance is a great way to make sure you don’t miss anything. I can’t count the times I left a meeting feeling super frustrated because I realised seconds later that I didn’t discuss a point or didn’t answer all the questions I had in mind.
It doesn’t have to take hours: it can be done in 10 minutes of reflection. Ask yourself “what do I expect from this meeting? How can it help me with my work?”. Make a list of subjects to discuss and questions to answer and you’re done! This list will be the basis of your meeting notes.
Create a system that works for you
Most of people are taking notes chronologically: they write informations as they come, without any classification system to organize them. This basic technique can be improved with simple hacks, such as using abbreviations or using bullets and signifiers. But one of the secret of effective note taking is also to sort out information while you’re writing them down.
Using a template that fits your needs will help you organize the information as you take your notes. Even though you’ll have time later to organize them, using color code for instance, having this work done during the meeting has two main advantages:
- If you know where to find the questions that pop up in your mind during the meeting or the list of next actions to take, it will be much more easier to leave the meeting with everything you need to get to work effectively. An effective template is a great way to save you the energy and stress of emailing everyone to get the info you could have collect during the meeting.
- Effective note taking is also about saving your time: organizing information as you’re taking your notes during the meeting will save you a great deal of time when you’ll have to write a meeting report or process your notes for yourself.
What is following is mainly based on my own experience of note taking as a project manager. So the hacks are perfect if you need to organise information such as facts, deadlines, tasks and any information needed to run a project.
If you’re mainly taking notes for class and lectures, I recommend you to have a look at the Cornell note taking technique. That’s where I took inspiration for my favorite note taking layout and technique, and it’s definitely a good place to start!
If you’re using a notebook or loose leaves, the easiest way is to take great notes is to use bullets and to divide your spread in several sections (2 or 3 sections should cover most of your needs).
Using bullets and signifiers
What I love about paper note taking is that I’m free to use bullets and signifiers to organize the information as I write it. Bullets and signifiers, just as in the bullet journal system, are a quick and simple way to organize information. Most of the bullets I use for note taking are the same as the ones in my bullet journal. it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.
Just think of what kind of information you’ll need to underline among your notes and create a key of your own to match your list. Of course, if you’re not into bullets, you can use color coding, but it can sometimes be harder to keep up with all the information if you have to change pens.
2 sections spread
I personally use a 2 sections layout to take notes in my notebook: the main section is used to jot down notes, and the vertical column on the left is for bullets and signifiers.
For instance, if I think of a question while someone else is speaking, I write it down in the main section, and write a diamond-shaped bullet in the vertical column. Once a question as been answered, I colour the bullet.
This column + bullets system makes it easier to find all the questions I have and make sure I ask them before the end of the meeting. I do exactly the same with tasks and deadlines.
At the very end of the meeting, I just need to scan the vertical column to make sure we didn’t forget anything. The tasks I have to handle are migrated in my bullet journal along with the deadlines and appointments planned.
Taking notes on a computer is something completely different. I find it a bit harder, as bullets are not really an option. If the flow of notes is manageable, you can use a color code to organize information but in my opinion, it’s easier to have 2 files at the same time.
I’ve always seen my fellow project managers use this method for effective note taking during meetings, and that’s probably not just a coincidence.
My favourite way to take notes on a computer is to have 2 files opened in 2 windows that I can see at the same time. The first file is a regular typing file where I’ll jot down my notes. The second one is an Excel file that holds with 3 columns: what, who and when. I basically use the Excel table to write all the tasks and deadlines we have to plan.
I generally jot down the questions on my notebook and then write them in the meeting report as they’re answered.
Once the meeting is over, I simply copy the table at the very end of my meeting notes, and generally send it by email to all the meeting attendees. It works as a summary of the meeting minutes. With this action plan section, everyone knows how to make progress on the project as soon as they live the meeting room. Reviewing this task list is also a perfect starting point for the following meetings.
Effective note taking isn’t hard but ask for some organization and discipline. It’s the insurance that you won’t miss any key information during classes or meetings. In the end, it’s really worth the effort: either you type them or write in a notebook, taking great notes is an easy way to save your time and energy on the long run. It’s also a skill that is highly valuable in (almost) any team.
Do you have some note taking hacks of your own?
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