How to take good notes

Example_note0000I take a lot of notes.  Every day, over and over, I attend meetings and make phone calls that require me to take notes that are useful reference tools for me.  Every day I must refer back to some note I took during a meeting to get my hands on that useful morsel of information that will make my job easier.  If I don’t take good notes then I am just wasting my time.  I work with a lot of people who take copious (but not good) notes on legal notepads.  If you ask them what they do with them they will tell you they tear off the page(s), file them in some folder for a while and then eventually store them in some box somewhere.  They rarely refer back to their notes so over time they stop taking notes that will be useful and just go through the motions of recording stuff during meetings.  This kind of defeats the purpose of notetaking in my view and something I try to avoid.

Lifehacker recently compiled a short list of articles that address how to take good notes.  These articles are good reads as they reinforce successful notetaking methodologies and give one pause to reflect how they could take notes that are more useful.  Those of us who use Tablet PCs to take our notes already have a huge advantage over those who use pen and paper I referred to above.  Our notes are electronic and we can search for keywords and phrases and easily get our hands on that important nugget of information we need.  The methods detailed in the articles above show simple things that everyone can do to take notes that are more meaningful and that will stand the test of time, whether analog or digital.

The Cornell method of notetaking is recommended by more than one of these articles and my personal method of taking notes is loosely based on this method.  Basically you leave a column free on the left of the page where you jot "cues" that draw attention to key points in the notes proper that are written on the rest of the page to the right.  I use a lot of cues this way which help draw my attention directly to the key points that have been noted during the meeting or call.  Using OneNote on the Tablet PC makes this a very powerful method as I use color coding with the tap of a button to make different types of cues.  For example, when I note something that requires an action on my part I draw a star in red in the cue column so I don’t miss it.  This also makes it easy for me to come in later if desired and tag that action as a To-Do to appear in Outlook 2007.  For actions that someone else must do that I must follow up to make sure they do in a timely fashion I draw a green star for the same reason.  This is a highly effective yet very simple way to make sure I don’t overlook action items that become apparent during the meeting. 

I also make a liberal use of drawn arrows in different colors when I want to link one section of the notes to another.  Again, OneNote makes it simple to do and if I want to make them pretty I can use the drawing tools, although I rarely do because I don’t really care how my notes look.  I just care about getting useful information which is why I rarely use complete sentences in my notes, rather I use a  "JK" shorthand that captures only key words and phrases, especially those I am likely to search for in the future.

If you read the articles I’ve linked to above you will see that the Cornell method includes a summary section at the bottom of the note page to recap the main points covered in the meeting or lecture.  This is a great idea although I don’t do this currently.  I’m going to rethink how I can incorporate this into my notes going forward.  Most everyone I discuss notetaking with has their own methodology they use for their notes and it’s always beneficial to discuss them.  How do you take your notes?

Another good source of note-taking tips, especially pertinent to Tablet PCs is this Student Tablet PC forum.  Lots of good tips and discussion of the different software tools to help the notetaking process.

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