In the modern landscape of smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and digital personal assistants, it’s tempting to think that paper and pencil are obsolete. But there are a number of reasons to consider building old fashioned memory aides into your routine. Or, if you’re a hardcore technophile, take old-school note taking strategies and adapt them to you digital tools. So to help you make the most of your time and memory, here are top tips for effective note-taking practice in the workplace.
1. Choose your tools: digital vs. pen and paper
The choice between digital note-taking tools and the traditional pen and paper approach comes down to comfortability, ease of use, and just plain nostalgia for many people. In terms of managing time, tasks, and data, both ways have distinct advantages to suit different situations and work styles.
Distractions – Pens and notepads offer practically zero distractions compared with their digital counterparts. If you’re someone who can’t resist peeping at Twitter or responding to a text message, note-taking on a phone, tablet, or laptop is probably a bad idea. Or if you manage employees, asking that they bring notepads rather than computers to a meeting will boost attention. A major benefit of note-taking is that it enhances focus and digestion of information, so that you actually retain it longer than by passively absorbing it. If you’re distracted, though, that advantage disappears.
Reliability – Digital note-taking tools always require electricity, and often make use of a network connection. Pen and paper are immune to these vulnerabilities. However, it’s important to weigh the hardiness of traditional note-taking methods against the greater storage and accessibility of digital, cloud-based note-taking tools.
Consider your needs and personality. Will you be more comfortable with a notepad as your trusty sidekick to keep you focused and present? Or would you prefer greater accessibility of your notes at the risk of distractions and network or power failures?
2. Know why and when to take notes
It’s important to consider the purpose of note-taking. Writing things down frees you to use mental energy for analyzing information and solving problems, rather than simply trying to remember facts, ideas, and tasks. Numerous highly successful individuals are avid note-takers for just this reason. In fact, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, is rarely seen without his notebook and credits this as one of the things that has made him so successful.
So when should you take notes? Any time you encounter more information that you trust yourself to remember. And that’s going to be often. Be prepared to take notes at meetings, during phone calls (another reason not to rely on your phone for taking notes), while checking email, and pretty much any other time you communicate with another human being. You’ll be amazed at how much you were letting yourself forget before.
3. Have a system
Develop a note-taking system that fits your way of thinking best. For many people, hierarchical numbered and lettered structures (think outlining) are most effective. But columns for notes and analysis work quite well, as can more free flowing techniques like mind maps. Learning shorthand won’t hurt either, as it’ll significantly speed up how much you can take down. The important thing is to find a system that makes sense to you.
4. Review your notes
The simple act of taking notes goes a long way toward helping you remember information. “Generative” note-taking, in which you summarize, paraphrase, or otherwise conceptualize the information you receive is even better, especially compared with taking things down verbatim. But if all that just gets shoved into a desk drawer to be forgotten, you’ve missed out on a major cognitive benefit of note-taking. Research shows that even when students take equally high quality notes, it’s the ones who review their notes who do best on exams. So don’t let those great ideas, contacts, or tasks get lost in the shuffle – review your notes regularly so that you’re making connections, seeing the big picture, and never forgetting a thing!