The 7 Time-Saving Rules of Note Taking

better note takingIt likely sounds familiar to you – the boss stops you in the hallway to discuss an important project. You scribble madly as she rolls-off a half-dozen action items.

Later, back at your desk you spend the next half hour trying to decipher what you wrote.

Taking quality notes can be what separates you from success because you are recording the present for future reference. It’s your extended memory.

I used to be a scribbler, until I developed my own system. That’s why I can tell you now that there’s a way to save time and get more out of your note taking.

Here are seven essential tips for better note taking:

  1. Be robotic: Using automatic, routine processes saves you time because you can skip having to remember details such as date and context. Each notes page should have a title, date, purpose statement, and the people involved when a meeting is concerned. A consistent set of notes can be quickly scanned at a later date.
  1. Keep it together: Where you write things down is equally as important as what you write. Take your notes on one consistent and reliable tool, and not on random notepads and easily lost scrap paper. A planner becomes your single-best option because it combines your notes with your calendar and task lists, giving you a single, consolidated reference. Here’s a great post on the value of a single note taking tool from the Time Management Ninja blog.
  1. Use a hierarchical system: Make a habit of structuring your words on your page in outline form. Write each main topic flush-left, and then write bullet points below for each supporting detail. This is a tremendous timesaver because it’s easily scanned, and it organizes your thoughts as you write so you won’t need to later.
For example:
better notetaking
  1. Skip unnecessary words: Whether you’re handwriting or typing your notes, there are always speed limitations on how much can record. As a shortcut, you should skip over passive and trivial words like “a,” “and,” and “the.” Streamline your sentences into phrases with action words and descriptive nouns.
  1. Write neatly: Don’t save your neatness for everyone else. Notes are one of your most valuable resources. Start at the top of a page, give yourself some proper writing space, and use decent penmanship. You’ll thank yourself later.
  1. Use symbols: There’s no better timesaver than using symbols to represent words and phrases. Develop a set of “go-to” symbols that you can easily remember. For example: put a * by an important concept, @ for action-items, # for activities to be scheduled, and question mark before issues and concerns. Consider arrows, circles, and underlines as well. Use symbols consistently and don’t make them too complicated to integrate into your flow of writing.
  1. Filter out the unimportant: Save time and improve your comprehension by only writing down what’s necessary. It may take a bit of practice, but make a habit of actively listening and understanding the message before writing it down. Start by focusing on the key words and phrases of each concept. For example, in a project discussion you should write down the objectives, the tasks, the issues, and the deadlines.

And, a bonus tip:

  1. Review, ASAP: Go back through your notes at the earliest possible opportunity. This will enable you to clarify thoughts, expand on sentence fragments, and schedule tasks and appointments while your memory is still fresh.

These are the top rules of note taking for you to consider, however the final rule is to design a system that works best for YOU. The key is to make it consistent and make it a habit.

The next time you go into a meeting, phone call, or hallway conversation, your notes can offer you valuable instructions for successfully achieving your goals.

What note taking tips can you offer others? What works best for you? Please share by commenting below.

[photo by SportBusiness]
Day-Timer Spokesperson Jeff Doubek can be reached at

6 thoughts on “The 7 Time-Saving Rules of Note Taking

  1. Early in my old journalism career, I bought a book and taught myself shorthand. It comes in handy every day, as much outside of news reporting as it was capturing quotes. I’m teaching my 14-year-old daughter shorthand now – I wish I’d known it in high school!

    1. Elizabeth, I’ve always thought that shorthand could come in handy for me but never took time to learn it. It’d especially be valuable when doing interviews or taking class notes. Thank you for the comment.

  2. I’m going to teach my students this!
    Really great information. Thanks so much!

    Wish I’d become a better note-taker before I finished college :-)

    1. Glad you liked it Jorinde. It’s a shame that more students aren’t given valuable productivity lessons such as this. You’ll be setting them up for success all through life. Good luck!

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