Note-taking just might be your secret weapon.
The people who provide consistent, meaningful value at work are the ones who know what’s going on and where the team is going. They have context, they have insight; in other words, they have information.
Information is all around you at work. Are you harnessing it?
Why note-taking is a critical skill
You have a lot on your plate. Not just at work, but in life, there is a lot to keep track of.
So it is really unlikely that your memory alone would be able to hold all of the information that you could possibly need to stay informed and prepared at work.
That’s why note-taking is so amazing. By just writing down key information as you hear it, you are harnessing it to be used anytime you need it, which will make you a superstar on your team.
But are you taking the best notes you can?
If you’re like most people, you take notes “when you remember” or maybe you’re still using the old note-taking style you used in high school. It might be time for an update!
Note-taking is most valuable when it is done consistently, and the most helpful notes to you will be ones that match your information processing style.
If your note-taking style doesn’t match your information processing style (or if you aren’t taking notes all the time), then your notes aren’t doing the work for you that they should. Check out the list below for new ideas on how to take notes and why each one might work for you.
Our favorite note-taking styles (and which ones will work for you!)
Lists are the perfect note-taking style for minimalists and auditory learners who don’t have trouble retaining information they hear.
To create a list, all you need to do is start recording key information — it is most valuable if you record just the main points of a discussion and keep them to one line each. Try summarizing what each person said in just one line, or writing as few words as possible on each topic, to keep the list simple and skimmable.
You can also create bullet points for subtopics if necessary, to help organize information by importance and keep related topics together.
The nice thing about lists is that they are super customizable. For example, at the end of the meeting, you can take a minute to add things things like action items, questions, followups, etc to your list. By recording these things right after the meeting, along with your notes, you’ll have all the context you need all in one place!
Lists also work well because the loose structure format means it isn’t likely to become disorganized if the meeting meanders; you can simply draw an arrow from one point to a related point later on, or add information to a line.
Drawbacks of lists:
- This style works well for people whose thoughts are already pretty organized; if something is brand new to you, or you’re not an auditory learner, a more structured style will work better for you.
- If you aren’t committed to keeping it minimal, a list can become too dense with information to be really useful to review later.
Mind maps are visual notes that work well for visual learners and analytic thinkers.
The basic structure of a mind map starts with a main idea or topic written in the middle of the page, with branches coming off of it for different subtopics (with branches coming off those subtopics for details, etc).
This method works great if you’re brainstorming a project, because it allows you to visualize different areas of the concept; it’s also helpful if you’re processing a large volume of notes from previous meetings and need to organize your thoughts.
Drawbacks of mind-mapping:
- It can be time consuming, and it doesn’t work in every scenario. For example, taking meeting notes in a mind map can quickly become chaotic and the time spent organizing it can draw your focus away from the conversation at hand.
- It doesn’t work for everyone; for many people, a visual style of notes is actually more confusing to look at, so don’t get frustrated if this happens to be you.
If you’re still using your high school note-taking style, you’re probably making outlines.
In an outline, you create a heading naming the first topic at hand, and then create a list of details underneath that topic that relate to it, often in a bullet point list. When the topic changes, you go to a new line and write a new topic heading, recording the details relating to that topic beneath that heading.
This makes outlines super easy to review later on, because details are organized by category, so they are right where you need them.
Outlines are particularly helpful if you’re working independently, trying to organize your thoughts on a topic or create a structure for a project.
Drawbacks of outlines:
- Meetings don’t always follow a logical order, which can clutter up an outline or put the information in a hard-to-process later format. (However, this can be remedied by simply typing up a new outline that follows a sensical order.)
- Because you’re organizing the outline headings and sections as you go, it requires some thought to keep it organized, which can cause you to fall behind if the meeting it moving too quickly.
Sentence Method or the Trail of Breadcrumbs
If you’re taking notes for someone who couldn’t be in a meeting, or if you have trouble listening and won’t be able to remember much information without writing it down, this may be the strategy for you.
This style of note-taking entails writing down information as you hear it — as abbreviated as possible, of course, to save time and energy. You can try to keep it organized by making it look like an outline or a list, so that it is easier to skim later on.
This note-taking style could make you look like a superhero in the right circumstances, if everyone is struggling to remember some minor detail from a meeting and you happen to have it written down (because you have basically everything written down).
Drawbacks of trails of breadcrumbs:
- Unless you go back and summarize/re-organize your note at some point, these notes will be really time consuming to reference because there is so much content to get through.
- It can make it hard to participate in a meeting if you are writing everything down the whole time; don’t forget that speaking with the team is an important part of being a valuable player too.
- The amount of detail you end up with may or may not be worth it. If you really can’t remember things, then it may be worth it; however, if you have pretty good retention and want to look more present during the meeting, a different style will help you meet those goals better.
Paper vs. digital note-taking
Most of these note-taking styles are best-suited to writing on paper, although something like a list or an outline could certainly be done on a computer.
Of course, at Ink+Volt, we here are fans of writing on paper. There are a few reasons for this:
- Paper is more personal. When you’re in a meeting, a laptop screen creates a physical and psychological barrier between you and the other people around you. While that may not seem like a big deal, staring at your screen, instead of people, does separate you from the group and can make you seem like less of an active participant.
- Computers make distraction easier. When you’re typing on a laptop, no one knows if you’re also chatting, checking email, or working on another project at the same time. While that can be nice for a super boring meeting, it is better to be fully present so you are absorbing the conversation at hand. (And if you’re in a meeting so boring you want to work on other things, maybe you should consider getting uninvited and simply borrowing an attendee’s notes later on?)
- Paper is easier (for most people) to customize. Unless you have a digital note-taking program that you are an expert on that you can manipulate to do whatever you want, most people find it easier to be completely free in their note-taking style on paper. You can have the whole page in front of you — how will you fill it up?
What is most important, though, is that you choose a style that works for you and helps you to understand as much as possible of what is going on at your work.
What is your favorite note-taking style? Do you have tips that can help make the strategies we shared here even more useful? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or share them with everyone on our Facebook page!