Develop Your Own Note-Taking Best Practices

pen-paper150x150For managers note-taking is a skill used every day and like any skill it can be improved on. By developing  your own set of note-taking best practices your notes will be more effective and less time consuming to properly utilize.

In an article to follow I will layout an information management system that will show you an efficient and effective way to manage your notes and other forms of information that are topic related.

You only need to look around a meeting to see the different media used for taking notes. Some people use a portfolio, some a legal pad, some a day planner and others a variety of different notebooks. The media you use should be what works best for you.

What I will show you here is how to take better notes. How to use cues to quickly classify notes for later review. I will also share what I use and how it fits into an overall information management system.

If you are a busy and on the move manager like me read “Management Tools – Time and Problem Management Simplified” for tips on using a pocket list to supplement your note-taking when paper is not always handy.

A Media For All Occasions

One of the challenges I faced with using a notebook for note-taking is I go to a variety of meetings on a variety of topics where I need to take notes. What I ended up with was a notebook of very good notes that I then had to review and often transfer to electronic or other media so I could categorize them.

You don’t want your notes from a IT Operations meeting in the same notebook with your notes from a root cause analysis meeting. So I found myself searching through notebooks and other media for the notes I needed before making a phone call or to take to a topic specific meeting. My solution has been to use a modified single sheet version of the Cornell note-taking method.

I still carry my notebook, but now I have several printed sheets of my modified Cornell notes that have become my primary media for taking notes. The main reason is when I leave a meeting I have a single sheet that is specific to that meeting and that topic that I can then go back and file in my information management system.

No more searching through notes or other media to find what I am looking for. All of my notes and related information for a particular topic are all placed in a specific folder for that topic. Easy to find in a hurry and I can take all of my notes to a topic specific meeting.

Cornell Note Taking

While this method is mainly used by college students it works well for me. The standard Cornell method is based on three areas. The example below is based on 8.5” x 11” paper.

  • 6 inches on the right side of the page is the note taking area is where you record your notes during a meeting.
  • 2.5 inches on the left side of the page is the cue column that can be used to add a symbol or reference cue about the note.
  • 2 inches at the bottom of the page gives you an area to summarize your notes.

My modified template using the Cornell method can be downloaded here MEETING NOTES.DOC. It is in Microsoft .doc format so you can easily modify it to meet your needs.

The only deviations from the standard Cornell note-taking method I use are:

  • A modified header to include the meeting name, or topic I am taking notes on and the date.
  • A modified footer that includes a place to write the folder this note will go in and a place to assign a page number when I put it in a binder.

Here are links to several other templates that use the Cornell method.

Cornell Notes B&W – Microsoft Word

How to create a Cornell notes template – Microsoft Word

Cornell note-taking lined paper PDF generator – customize your own PDF

Using  Note-Taking Cues

Cues are helpful to add when taking notes or when reviewing them. Cues allow you to classify your notes for easier review and follow-up. If your note-taking media is not already formatted for cues, such as the Cornell method simply draw a line about 2.5 inches from the left side of your paper or write your notes 2.5 inches to the right. This leaves room for cues on the left side.

Your cues can be symbols or words. Here are some common cues.

  • [  ] – a square check box notes a to-do item
  • (  ) – a circle indicates a task to be assigned or delegated to someone else
  • * – an asterisk notes an important piece of information
  • ? – a question mark is for an item that needs to be asked about or researched
  • !ACTION – something that requires your immediate action
  • FOLLOW-UP – obviously something you need to follow-up on
  • TO-DO – something you need to add to your task list

Review Your Notes

Many skip the most important reason to take notes by not reviewing them. Regardless of how you take notes or what media you use review is the most important part of the note-taking process. It is where you take action, follow-up, send an email, delegate, create a task or any other action that your note-taking has produced.

You should set aside time each day to review your notes. The best time is immediately after the meeting while it is still fresh in your mind. One of the things I like about using a specific sheet for each meeting is it greatly reduces the amount of time I spend reviewing notes. I have no need to transfer them to another media. I just file them in the folder for that topic in my information management system after review.

Here are some reasons and actions that come from reviewing your notes.

  1. If you take great notes, but never review them then you end up with a notebook or folder full of notes that nothing ever comes out of.
  2. Create a task with a reminder for something you need to follow-up on.
  3. Take care of action items right away or add them to your tasks so they will not be forgotten.
  4. Send a needed email or make a phone call as a result of your meeting with your notes for reference.
  5. Reviewing notes after a meeting allows you to reflect which may bring up more ideas or notes to add.

Take Away

For managers note-taking has become and essential skill that needs to be mastered. Note-taking keeps you engaged in a meeting, shows your boss and others you have an interest in what is being said, and records important information you may need later to reference or take action on.

You should create your own best practice for note-taking since no one method fits all needs or circumstances. The Cornell note-taking method is a good format to use to create your own template for note-taking media. For me using a single sheet or multiple sheets for those detailed meetings is preferable to writing everything in one notebook. The main reasons are all of my notes are not lumped together in one notebook, it saves review time and can be filed in an information management system for quick and easy access.

Reviewing notes is the most important part of note-taking. Regardless of what method or media you use, if you do not review your notes you will end up with a notebook full of notes that nothing productive ever comes out of. Review your notes as soon as possible after a meeting and take actions while the meeting is still fresh in your mind.

You can download my modified Cornell note template MEETING NOTES.DOC as an example. Feel free to modify it to meet your needs. Share with us some of your note-taking best practices in the comments.