You might associate taking notes with students, studying, and school, but you’ll engage in some form of note-taking throughout your career—and probably in your personal life, too. From meetings to interviews to presentations to to-do lists, effective note-taking will serve you well. Here are four note-taking strategies to help you manage your work life:
1. Keep it simple.
When I was in college lectures, the professor would sometimes move so quickly through the material that it was impossible to keep up. In work meetings where I was sometimes responsible for recording minutes, I encountered a similar issue.
To avoid running into this problem, keep your notes as simple as possible. Focus on main points, phrases, and facts. If you’re in a meeting, you probably don’t need to record exact quotes—unless your line of work or manager requires that you do so.
Pay attention to the most important information, particularly plans that require action, unresolved questions, decisions from the meeting, and problems that arise. If someone says something you already know, or it's something you can look up later, it’s probably not necessary for you to write it down in full—just make a notation to remind yourself that it’s relevant to the discussion. You might develop a shorthand system for yourself, creating symbols associated with specific ideas to jog your memory later. These symbols can also serve as indexing system for easy reference, if you’re trying to find a note on a particular topic later on.
If you’re responsible for recording meeting minutes, it’s a good idea to discuss what ideas your manager or the person running the meeting wants highlighted. For example, she might expect you to record specific numbers (e.g. shipments) or names.
2. Typed vs. handwritten? You decide.
In college, your instructor may have had specific rules about whether or not you could take notes on a laptop or iPad. This makes sense for lectures and seminars—students could easily get distracted. But in meetings, there probably won’t be any rules about how you can and can’t record notes.
Some people prefer taking notes on their laptops. If this is you, do it! Keep in mind that there may be certain drawbacks, however. For instance, that will mean having to carry your laptop to work. It also presents a greater risk for distraction, since you’ll probably be able to go online during meetings. If you know you’re easily distractible, it may be a better idea to keep your laptop at home. Some people prefer taking notes by hand, but this style also has some complications. For example, you may not be able to write by hand as quickly as you type.
Ultimately, the decision between typed or handwritten notetaking is yours. You may opt for one way over the other depending on the purpose of the notes. If you’re sending the notes to other people, for example, you might prefer typing, because then you won’t have to transcribe your handwritten notes later. There are also plenty of note-taking apps and online tools provide more ease for sharing. Meanwhile, if you’re in a one-on-one meeting, bringing a laptop or iPad can change the dynamics of the conversation and make it feel less personal, so you might opt for a simple notebook.
Organization is very important for creating clear, concise, readable notes. You might number your pages for easy reference, as well as use the previously discussed symbols to better index and refer to your notes later. If you’re typing, you can edit and create sub-headers for main ideas and key points as you go.
Your organization methods will vary depending on the purpose of your notes. If you’re jotting down notes for a project, and you’re a visual learner, mapping out main points and ideas in a graphic representation, flowchart, or other visual method could be a useful strategy for you. This can also be effective when creating notes for a presentation.
In situations in which you won’t do as much talking, such as a business lecture, class, or seminar, many people opt for the Cornell Method. Many students use this method as well. In this method, the note-taker divides a sheet of paper into two parts, the left-hand side accounting for one-third of the sheet and the right-hand side equaling two-thirds of the page. In the left-hand column, the note-taker writes out a key idea or question, and on the right side, she writes out the details. You might only work on the right side and then go back and fill in the cues or key points in the left-hand column later to summarize important ideas for future use. The Cornell Method is especially useful for learning contexts, because it helps the note-taker synthesize and remember the information later on. Students may go a step further and add a summary of the information at the bottom of the page, which can be useful for studying later.
Going back over your notes and highlighting key points, ideas, or takeaways can is another organization strategy you might use for greater ease in reviewing, reading, and remembering the material and information later on.
For interviews, organization is key. If you’re interviewing for a job over the phone, you can refer to your notes easily. While it’s not the best idea to consult notes while you’re in an in-person interview, writing out some ideas for what you want to say (though not word for word) beforehand can help you remember key points to bring up or ideas for how to answer specific questions.
If you’re conducting the interview, try writing out your questions and leaving space to jot down the candidate’s responses, as well as a section for more general notes. This creates ease in referencing your notes later on.
4. Find a method that works for you.
If you have a tried and true method you prefer, stick with it. After you’ve been taking notes in a particular context for a while, you’ll probably find the strategy that works best for you and your individual situations. Whatever helps you do your best work is the best note-taking strategy for you.