Taking notes

Taking notes

The success or failure in our work may depend on a simple note. Taking notes correctly is a simple task that ensures the understanding of the topics listed, as well as productivity and labor efficiency that comes later.

You’re in an important meeting. You start taking notes. You don’t want to loose any detail. However, the orator speaks very fast compared to your typing speed. The orator has started another important point, but you have not finished the previous note. You are delaying and you choose to leave the point half finished, with the assurance that you will remember it in a break. When you end the meeting, you let your notes for later. When you check the notes for writing the minutes or to start the tasks that have been generated in the meeting, you realize you don’t have the things fresh in your memory. The notes have no consistency in some points. It costs you link your notes to understand what was said. You also realize that you wrote down things like a robot, not understanding anything, you only were concentrated on writing and writing …

There are several techniques or methods for taking notes, but here I will describe the technique that I use, which is a mixture of best practices of preparation, organization and note-taking. This technique can be applied to any field (work, studies, etc), and does not require advanced knowledge or tools.


  • Study and learn minimally on the subject before the meeting. With the concepts in mind, taking notes will be much easier and quicker. By understanding what the speaker is saying, you pay more attention, better understand the exposure and write less unnecessary things.
  • Material:
    • No technological tools:
      • Paper. I recommend notebooks, notepads or sheets, with a minimum size of A5, A4 recommended, and, if it is possible, with lines.
      • Pencil When writing notes, both the orator and us, we can make mistakes and their correction may be needed.
      • Eraser.
      • Pen. If you have no a pencil, use a pen, preferably blue or black.
    • Technological tools: A word processor.
  • Organizing the page:
    • Title: At the upper left, write uppercase, the subject matter. For example: “FOLLOW-UP MEETING …”, “COMMITTEE …”, “CONFERENCE …”, “COURSE …”, “WEBMINAR …”, etc.
    • Date: At the upper right, write the date.
    • Page: At the bottom, centered, write the page number.
    • Areas for the notes (Cornell method):
      • Keywords: At the left, reserve, approximately one quarter of the width of the page to write keywords about notes that are in the notes area.
      • Notes: At the right, the three quarters of the width of the page are reserved for the notes.
      • Synthesis: At the bottom, reserve a sixth or seventh part of the height of the page and the total width, to write the synthesis or summary of the notes. It should not take more than 3 or 5 lines of text.
  • Define your abbreviations. In order to win speed taking notes, using abbreviations is a great help. Define a simple and easy set to remember, and, above all, natural with your expression style. For example: “=” for “equal (a)”, “>” for “greater than”, etc..
Organizing page for notes

Organizing page for notes

Taking notes

  • Listen before take notes. Do not write down everything like a robot: summarize relevant things with understanding. Pay close attention to what the orator says and note only small short phrases with the most important sense. Is better to understand what the speaker is saying about a particular point and have it summarized in one phrase, than have written a whole page and don’t understand anything. The best notes are the result of a good listening.
  • Schematize your notes. Organize the topics and subtopics, indenting the text, in a bullet form. To gain clarity, I recommend a maximum of three levels, highlighting the issue. For example, the first level would be preceded by a filled square, using uppercase text and underlined. The second level would be preceded by an unfilled circle, using uppercase for the subject text, but not underlined. The third level would be preceded by a hyphen and normal text. Levels can also be numbered (1, 1.1, 2.1.2). The purpose is to organize notes by subject and gain the understanding to relate them at different levels.
  • Take advantage of the preliminary resources. If the agenda of the meeting has points of the day, use them as a structure or outline of topics for your notes. If the meeting uses a presentation and it is well organized by points or important themes, use them for the same purpose for your notes.
  • Identify the notes from verbal and nonverbal language of the speaker. The orator gives you clues to identify what things we have to write, identify as themes, etc. There are expressions such as “this is important”, “annotate this”, “in short”, “in conclusion”, “it should be noted that”, “we must keep in mind that”, “do not forget that”, etc.. We must also pay attention to changes in voice, the words or phrases that are repeated, or when the orator make gestures very emphasized.
  • Annotate the obvious. Some things are obvious to be annotated, such as dates, events, goals, important o urgent tasks, speaker’s notes on the board, schemas or diagrams on slides, examples, formulas, etc.
  • Use your abbreviations set. You will gain a lot of speed and you will write more words that may be necessary and useful.
  • Identify and highlight the useful notes. There are notes with a special and important meaning, which are used for specific purposes in our work. Berto Pena, productivity expert, identified and proposed to following ones:
    • [ ] Task / Action
    • ! Important
    • * Idea / Proposal
    • @ Assign to (other person)
    • # Reference / To Consult / To Investigate
  • Whenever you can, draw. Take advantage of breaks and repetitions in order to draw. This task is very creative, conveying the concepts to a simple visual language for interpret and understand (visual thinking). You don’t need to be be a Leonardo Da Vinci. You only need to take scribbles, symbols or shapes, along with arrows that relate concepts and ideas. Another advantage of drawing is refresh your brain, provide more perspective to understand the data, and prepare yourself for annotate more information.
  • "Drawing Hands" -  Maurits Cornelis Escher

    “Drawing Hands” – Maurits Cornelis Escher

  • Reserve space for your notes. Do not try to take advantage of all space of the paper. Every time you start a topic or subtopic, reserve some space. If you have to go back and add something (eg, clarification or additional information, when reviewing the notes), you can do it in the proper place, not apart.
  • Summarize your notes with keywords. When you finish your notes, summarize each topic in one or more keywords, writing them down on the left, in the keywords area. This allows you to quickly find your notes, as an index. Also, when you classify, this helps you remember and understand the notes.

Utility of the notes

Taking notes is important, but what is much more to know what to do with the notes.

  • Process your notes immediately after taking them. Cuando acabe la reunión, la conferencia, la clase, etc., When the event ends, with all fresh concepts, review and process your notes immediately, or you will forget most of them in less than an hour.
    • Review your notes. Review your notes to refresh your memory, find and correct inconsistencies, consolidate and add details that complement the information, understand the full range of issues, stablish relationships, consolidate the structure of the scheme, add keywords to the left and / or summarize everything in the area of synthesis.
    • Process your notes. Once you have the image of the set, you can make decisions about what to do with each note. Check again the notes and highlight the most important ones (using a highlighter pen, underlines with a pen, write the most urgent with a red pen, write using different colors, etc.)
    • Organize your notes. Classify the notes according their utility.
      • Organize using a cuadrant Berto Pena proposed organize notes in a single quadrant (square divided into four squares by a cross), according to their usefulness. His proposal was to use it as a tool for taking notes. Personally, I prefer to use it after the processing, once you have processed the notes and you have the vision of the whole. The proposed quadrants were: IDEAS, TASKS, ASSIGN TO and INVESTIGATE.
      • Organize using a table. This is a variant I implemented to classify and see at a glance the most relevant notes. The concept is a table whose rows represent each first level topics. The columns are as follows: IMPORTANT, TASKS, IDEAS, TO CONSULT, (and, exceptionally, if applicable, OTHER). This configuration is very useful to me, but you can configure the table according to your own needs.
      • Mind Mapping. I love mind maps, because they allow visually organize the thoughts and the notes. In this case, you can draw a mind map, taking the subject (meeting, class, etc.) as the central point, create the first branches from the first level of topics, the second branches from the second level, third branches from the third level, and a summary of each note as the last level of the map. If the nomenclature of mindmaps is used well, this opens new possibilities which were not taken into account. For example, if one of the notes was: “Preparing Project XXX”, each word corresponds to a level / sublevel in the same branch, but you can open the node “Preparing” for more sublevels, such as “Project”, “Report” or “Migration”. In turn, these nodes can open unexpected new nodes. For example, the node “Project” may have more sublevels, like “XXX”, “YYY” and “ZZZ”.
    • Manage your notes. Write the minutes, make decisions on needed points, move tasks to the Calendar or to the corresponding lists, generate and plan projects (sets of tasks), delegate actions to people, classify the ideas, search more information about the annotated references, ask doubts, registry the decisions taken, etc.. If the notes are study notes, sort and organize them using the study material.
  • Check the notes. The notes are information compiled from which decisions are made and actions are generated. For the case of studies, the notes represent an information base and the study material. Due to their importance, it is necessary to check and update their contents, until all of them are no longer needed. In addition, the notes can be useful as historical reference at a given time, so it is useful to know that certain information was registered in a note.

Have you tried this method to take notes efficiently? What do you think? Do you think it can be improved?



Leer este post en EspañolLeer este post en Español