How to Take Good Notes

It is important that you can review what you’ve been told as quickly as possible, particularly in a technical position where things can get very complicated.  You might be tempted to attempt to memorize a list of requests or even recall a technical discussion from memory, but I’m going to tell you right now that you will not always be successful.

I have been in the IT field for many years, and I’ve seen too many people rely on memory to recall technical details and they are just never 100% accurate. You need to write down everything, and even that will not be 100% successful, but your success rate will be higher than using just your memory. It is also helpful in disputes about what was actually said during a meeting. You say they asked you to do “x”, and they say that they told you to do “y”. If you pull out your written notes and they say “x”, you will probably win that argument.

Steps to Note Taking

  1. Buy a notebook – No matter how you want to store your notes, you need a notebook. Even if you plan to electronically store your notes for easy searches and printing, you want to start with a paper notebook. This will give you a platform for quick notes, drawing diagrams, etc. Never cross your personal notes and business notes. One notebook for work, and if it isn’t related to work it doesn’t go into that notebook. This can be a simple composition notebook, spiral notebook, cheap ruled pad of paper, etc.
  2. Blog your notes – Once you have completed the work day, or even the next morning, copy your notes to a private blog site. You want this private blog to be blocked from public access, but this blog will allow you to easily search through your notes and find keywords. This is also the perfect time to clean up your notes and add details you might not have thought important during the actual meeting. You want to do this while the events are still relatively fresh in your mind.
  3. Structure – As the meeting starts, you need to be prepared for the meeting by having turned to a blank page in your notebook. Write the subject of the meeting at the top of the page, along with the date and time of the meeting. Note who is attending the meeting, including people connected remotely. Take notes about questions asked, answers provided, and action items assigned to each person. Take notes like you might be asked to recreate the meeting by a police investigator a year from now. You want to take enough notes that you can speak intelligently about what was discussed, who was asked to do which tasks after the meeting, the names of everyone attending, and any unresolved items from the discussion. Never assume you will remember all these items 1 week later, much less a year from now.
  4. Listening – By listening to everyone else in the meeting, you should be able to pickup on important items for that person. If it seems important to them, maybe because they are stressing the item, you should probably write it down for your notes. Even if nothing important is discussed, your notes should say that.
  5. Write Neatly – You will probably need to read these notes again really soon, especially if you later move them into an electronic format later, so make sure you write in a way that you can read the notes later. When possible, write in complete sentences and use bullets and numbers to note important items. Don’t be afraid to underline important notes, using stars to point out assigned tasks or questions that you need to answer later. Use diagrams or sketches to illustrate important concepts or to copy whiteboard discussion notes.

Once you get into the habit of taking useful notes, you will develop a system that works best for you and the way your brain works. As your responsibilities grow and you are expected to manage more complex and expensive projects you will want to have already developed the skills to keep track of those projects without getting lost in the details. Start early and develop a system now that allows you to record all the important information now, and it won’t be so difficult later. People will quickly lose confidence in your abilities if you forget assigned tasks from your meetings, can’t remember what was discussed from week to week, or can’t remember who made important decisions from 5 meetings ago.




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