Notes on Notes: How to Become an Expert Note-Taker

Gusto Editors

Author Tim Ferriss has eight feet of notebooks lining the walls of his house.

As one of the biggest believers in the art of note-taking, Ferriss’s devotion to scrupulous notes is what allows him to remember the important parts of his life. “I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory,” he says.

To help you join the ranks of note-taking aficionados, we pulled together some advice that will streamline your process and make you remember more.

Analog or digital?

Before getting into the fundamentals, first let’s talk about the tools. Going analog or digital depends on the type of material being covered and whether or not you need to share your notes with the rest of the team. If you do need to make them available, using a cloud-based application like Evernote or Google Docs is the fastest solution.

Once you think the sharing part over, figure out the mode. Typing out notes is best suited for situations where you need to capture a large amount of material, while putting pen to paper may be better for creative brainstorming sessions, so you can sketch out thoughts in a nonlinear fashion. In fact, research from Princeton and UCLA found that college students who wrote their notes out by hand had a stronger grasp of the material than the typers did. Depending on the setting, writing out your notes can also be less intrusive than using a device.

If you choose to go the paper route, there are plenty of apps and programs that will convert your notes to digital files – Evernote and OneNote are two of the most popular. Of course, you can always capture your analog notes the old-fashioned way: just snap a photo and send it to yourself.

A few notes on notes

Whether you’re scribbling on a notepad or clacking away on your laptop, tips for taking useful notes apply across the board:

Capture key words

Don’t try to transcribe the conversation word for word, because you’ll end up losing the thread of the discussion. Instead, listen and watch for cues (i.e. “this part is important”), gestures, repetition, and emphasized statements. Collect just enough information to jog your memory later. If there are pauses in the conversation, take the time to flesh out the keywords with supporting statements.

Break notes up by topic area

Unless you have an outline in advance of the discussion, you won’t know how the conversation will go. Use your notes to indicate logical breaks or new topics by bolding text, adding bullets, or underlining your handwritten notes. This will make it easier to understand when you revisit your notes later, says research from the Contemporary Educational Psychology Journal. Here are a few keyboard shortcuts that will also help speed up the process of structuring your notes:

  • Bold: Command + B (Mac) / Control + B (Windows)
  • Underline: Command + U (Mac) / Control + U (Windows)
  • Italicize: Command + I (Mac) / Control + I (Windows)

Highlight key points

This is a helpful step for both handwritten and digital notes. Either highlight as you go, or highlight key concepts after you’ve digested the whole discussion, because you’ll already know what’s meant to stand out. Similar to structuring your notes, making a piece of text pop out will increase your odds of being able to recall it later.

Add notes to a slide deck

If you’re able to obtain slides before a meeting, take notes directly in the document. With a copy of the presentation in hand, you won’t have to waste time writing down what’s already on-screen — you can capture what the speakers are actually saying, which is way more important.

Even if your college days are well behind you, being able to take impeccable notes will help you better synthesize the glimmers of genius that float by you each day. So pick up your pen, take some notes, and cement the ideas you care about into memory.

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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