Improve your Note Taking System and Increase Work Productivity

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Return to April 2010 eTalk: US edition | Canada edition

by Jeff Doubek, Day-Timer Spokesperson

Jeff Doubek, Day-Timer SpokespersonWe’ve all been in this pickle. You get a sudden reminder of an upcoming project but can’t remember the deadline. You page through batches of notes, memos scribbled on the backs of stapled documents, and project folders. Stress mounts with the turn of each page. It’s no use, you’ll have to admit you lost the information.

Not being able to retrieve information is as bad as not taking notes at all.

The good news is, you’re not alone. We all have a tremendous amount of information complicating our day. Notes can easily get lost in the constant shuffle. But, we exist in an information factory, and we have no choice but to keep up.

Dedicate Yourself to a Better Solution

The answer lies in your system. Having a dedicated, practiced note taking system should play a major role in an individual’s time management system regardless of your occupation or role in life. To be honest, calling it a note taking system is an injustice because half the battle is how the notes are organized once the note taking is complete.

Let’s break down the elements of an effective note taking system. Consider the following:

One capture device: a majority of problems stem from the fact that information gets written everywhere… various notebooks, legal pads, sticky notes, backs of envelopes, business cards. Choose one primary tool and stick to it. If the occasional note does get written elsewhere you can transfer the information into your primary capture tool, or just staple the note inside.

Keep it with you: take it everywhere you go, so that every meeting note, random thought, and passing conversation gets captured. I use a Day-Timer desk-sized planner for my system, which I enjoy because it offers decent writing surface yet remains quite portable. It’s easy to write in while standing, and 8 ½ x 11 inch documents can be folded in half and inserted. Find what’s comfortable for you, and commit to it.

Use a fresh page: on every topic, whenever possible. This enables you to easily organize your notes by context. Sometimes you’ll have full pages and sometimes with just a few thoughts, but the important idea is that you can quickly visually identify the note with its topic. A meeting that covers many topics can be written on one sheet because action items will be separated out later. For this element, I prefer Day-Timer’s Desk Notation Pads.

Create headings: every sheet of notes I take has two headings, topic and date. The topic, such as “product launch,” goes on the top left line, and the date goes on the right. You may prefer to include time and location, but only if it’s relevant to the context of your notes. Make consistent use of headings a habit – it can be a lifesaver down the road.

Use symbols: notes are useless without the use of symbols, because later they will establish intention – the reason you wrote the words in the first place. I draw little boxes at the beginning of major thoughts, and bullets for each supporting idea. In my system all actionable thoughts are assigned an “@” in front, an idea borrowed from the Getting Things Done system. Dates to be scheduled are assigned a star. These two symbols are my visual cues of vital information when I process the notes later.

–  Process and file regularly: probably the most important step in your note taking system. Whether it’s once a week or once a day, you must set aside time to go through your notes and retrieve the vital information. I quickly scan my topics for the key symbols, and then add action items to my task list and starred items to my schedule. Then, current project notes (2 weeks worth) are stored in tabbed pages in my planner, while other notes are left inside my two-pages per day on the date of entry and later archived.

That is my system in a nutshell. It’s simple, but it works for me. And, as I said earlier, your preferences may differ. Through this all, the main objective is to create a system that’s comfortable for you, and commit to it. A good system may take time to become habitual, so give it some time. Personal organization is a flexible concept, and that’s why Day-Timer offers a wide variety of tools from which you can create your unique system.

Having a better note taking system may not fulfill your complete organizational needs, but it can certainly keep you out of the pickle when the deadline approaches.

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