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Taking notes - why, when, and how I do it


Notes iconTaking notes improves your ability to focus on interactions and ideas, reinforcing your engagement and comprehension.  Take notes to increase your productivity when planning and managing tasks & projects, having "administrative" conversations.


"Administrative" conversations are those you have when you're managing daily administrative tasks and chores, like scheduling appointments, planning vacations,  reporting an insurance claim, calling to change your mobile phone plan, etc.



Notes are useful while you're taking them as well as for future reference

The value of taking notes is often realized after you've taken them, but even the act of taking them has several "real-time" benefits.  Notes help you:

  • clarify and structure your thoughts & actions
  • keep track of what's happening
  • reference what has happened
  • plan what needs to happen next
  • keep an accurate record of ideas, facts, and information
  • reinforce your understanding of information
  • improve your access to information



The more you take notes, the more you'll benefit from doing so

I take notes all the time; for example, when:

  • talking to my tax guy
  • researching something I want to buy
  • setting up & scheduling my mom's Mother's Day spa treatment
  • changing my insurance deductible
  • calling to report a cable problem
  • planning a project at work
  • listening to my mortgage guy explain the details of our refinance
  • solving a problem, so I don't have to hope I can remember the solution if it recurs

You don't have to wait until you have a "project" or a meeting to take notes; they're valueable even for minor tasks.


You'll always know where you put the information

Think of all the times you get a confirmation number for something; if you're already taking notes, you are ready to write it down as soon as they give it to you, and you always know it'll be in your notes, as opposed to on some random scrap of paper or one of the 47 cloned Post-It notes around your desk.

Make your interactions more efficient

I often start a notes file before I begin a task or interact with someone, so I can plan what I want to do and prepare what I want to say.  If I'm calling someone and I have several questions or issues to discuss, writing them down in advance, frees me from having to keep everything in my head while I listen.  I try to summarize & write just facts while listening, then expand later with my commentary/thoughts if necessary.  That way, I can just move on to the next issue or question without pausing to try to remember it under time pressure.  This is a very nice way to work, and I recommend you try it out.


Save information in a more reliable place than in your head 

I try to take advantage of downtime at work to write down my thoughts.  Chances are, I'm thinking about things I need to get done anyway, so I might as well record those thoughts so I can start figuring out how to do the things rather than what I need to do.  I almost always find that the result of doing this is a great sense of relaxation. David Allen talks about this idea (getting stuff out of your head) in more detail in his book, Getting Things Done.

No more wasting time refreshing everyone on details 

Have you ever forgotten the details you agreed on with someone while planning something with multiple phases?  Taking notes while you plan (or preparing them beforehand) relieves you of having to try to remember the details, which is often not the best use of your mind.  That's why they invented writing!  Sure, it's usually not a big deal, but you can be much more efficient in your interactions if each conversation doesn't have to begin with "Can you  refresh my memory and go over your recommendations on implementing the third phase again?"

Sometimes having a record of the details can give you the advantage; many people don't have a precise record -- especially from memory --  and when there's a dispute, it's hard to argue against someone who took notes.

My approach and implementation

Some of my thoughts & tips on taking and managing notes

  • Consider using plain text - There are many systems and software packages out there, and I don't want to start a religious war, but at least consider the value of plain text files.  I've never had to convert from plain text, and I can use plain text files on any platform/device/interface; it is truly portable.  (That said, HTML & XML are technically plain text, but I digress...)  Sending an email message to yourself is effectively plain text too, though I have other reasons why not to use email for that, which I'll discuss another time.  If email works for you, use it!  As David Allen says, (I'm paraphrasing) have as many systems as you must, and no more.
  • Use a standard header - Notice that email messages have a "header" section that includes information about the message.  This has several benefits, and they apply just as well to notes.  Consistency  and standardization will almost always serve you well.

    EXAMPLE 01 - Header information ("metadata")

        SUBJECT: Refinance 2005
           TAGS: home, house, mortgage, refinance, money, credit
         STATUS: OPEN
    NEXT ACTION: Call to get a status update
        CONTACT: Joe @ Mortgage Broker Co. 800-555-1212
           DATE: 09:00 2005.04.01

  • Add your own tags - Tags are very useful for organizing and finding information.  You can add your own tags to most documents and start realizing the benefits immediately, such as the ability to create relationships between your various sources of information.  See the example of tags above; I don't have to remember where I filed my notes on the refinance -- I can search for it using various related words, and several of the words I think of will lead me to the notes file, as well as all the other files that have the tags.  You can  experiment with using multiple tags to develop different levels of tag intersections.  (I'm sure that soon goes down the path of data search theory...)
  • Sidenote: I'm going to add this point about creating relationships to my article on adding your own tags to your documents; the idea had not yet occurred to me at the time I wrote that article.  This is one of the things I love about blogging; it helps me refine my thinking and consolidate the information and knowledge in my head.  I guess I could say blogging is like taking notes on my thoughts!
  • Add a "STATUS" tag to your header - This lets you search by status (e.g. find all "open" or "closed" issues)
  • Add a "NEXT ACTION" tag to your header - David Allen's "Getting Things Done" method emphasizes thinking about your tasks in terms of what is the next action you need take.  Including this tag in the header section (and in the body, as needed) of your notes lets you search for all next actions, and enables you to scan just the header of your notes and know what you need to do.  (Added: 2005.06.28)
  • Use a standard file naming convention - Use whatever convention works for you, but consistency is key, especially for searching (e.g. "notes * 2004" to find all my notes from last year). 
    • I recommend you include the date at the end of the file name; depending on the type of notes, it may be better to use only the year, or to use the full date (use YYYY.MM.DD, and it will sort nicely on your computer).  Putting the date at the end lets you use the beginning of the file name for sorting by Name; if you have several files with the same beginning but different dates, you can sort them by Name and you'll get automatic date sorting for free.  I begin the file name with "NOTES" because I put notes files in various folders, and want to be able to find the files easily, even just by looking at the names.
    • The convention I'm using now is:

      EXAMPLE 02 - My notes file naming convention

      NOTES - Refinance - 2005.txt
      NOTES - Cingular - 2005.txt
      NOTES - Exploratorium Outing & Picnic - 2004.08.24.txt

  • Use one file per vendor, not one per issue with each vendor  - This way, you know that everything related to a vendor (e.g. Cingular), whether it's changing service plans or resolving problems, is in one place. (Credit goes to Ania for this idea.)

  • Put the most current info at the top - I keep my notes in "reverse chronological order".  This is useful because the most current (and often most relevant) information is at the top, and I don't have to "move" very far to get it or start adding new info.  I'm curious to know whether anyone has a good argument for putting newest at the bottom.  If you do, leave a comment!

  • Add a timestamp to each entry - Sometimes, the when is just as important as the what, or more so.  Timestamping -- which should always include the date -- is incredibly valuable, and you should do it even when you do jot something down on a Post-It.  Timestamps increase the richness of information, and help you search.  Again, consistency is key,so use a standard format & location/structure for your timestamps!

    EXAMPLE 03 - Timestamps & consistency

    16:20 2004.04.20
    + This is another sample entry

    13:15 2004.04.19
    + This is a sample entry in my notes file

    • I use plain old Notepad (on Windows) to take notes.  One nice feature of Notepad is that the "F5" key will insert the current date and time.  (I know, I know, there are all kinds of other, better tools.  I'll get around to finding one I like, but for now, Notepad is everywhere, free, and really fast.)
    • Note that the timestamps in the example above are in the format, HH:MM YYYY.MM.DD HH:MM.  I generally believe it's best to go left to right, from most significant (year) to least (minute), but  Notepad insists on inserting the timestamp using the format above.  The more I use it, the more I don't mind, since in practice, the most significant info is often the time, if I make multiple entries in a single day.  So maybe it's not so bad.  In any case, using F5 is extremely convenient, so I'll live with it.

More thoughts & ideas

Search your notes for more than just words & phrases

  • Use a search tool - Modern search tools (e.g. "desktop search" tools from Copernic, [my favorite] Yahoo, and Google) let you apply custom, dynamic filters to your information.   Whichever you prefer, a search tool can be extremely powerful.
  • Don't limit searching to the idea of finding a document or phrase - Think of your search tool as a way to apply filters to your data, or see information through different "lenses".  This enables you to identify and make use of patterns and groupings (e.g. find all notes with "STATUS: OPEN").


Managing & archiving notes files

  • Keep only what you currently need right at hand - You probably don't need to frequently refer to notes about something you dealt with in 2003.  Consider creating an "Archive" folder.  The ideal solution would be if we could have something like Picasa's date range selection slider in file system browsers:
SCREENSHOT - Picasa date range selector 

Future additions

  • Structuring & formatting entries
    • Consistency
    • Simplicity
  • Paper's okay, but digital has compelling advantages
    • No holy war please!  I know some people love papger, and it has its uses, but I want to present some facts for consideration.