Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Take better notes: Top tips for students and professionals

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time in meetings, and you can't remember everything that happens.  That means you take a lot of notes, right?  Unfortunately, many of us have had to learn how to take notes via "trial by fire" exercises - in other words, you just have to figure it out on your own.

Note Taking 101: Have a system in mind

I recently discovered a great resource with information about taking notes:  an article from on "Note Taking 101" which does a great job of covering the basics of good note taking, focusing on tools and systems you can use to take better notes.  This is in the "student resources" category of their site, but I think their tips will help whether you are a student or working out in the business world.

One of the techniques they outline, "the Cornell Method," is similar to one I was taught about 10 years ago.  This system involves breaking your page up into "zones" (as shown in the illustration, which I have borrowed from their article).  Essentially, you create a systematic way of capturing different elements of a talk or meeting in each zone which makes it easier to reference an process the information after-the-fact.

I noticed that Moleskine has recently begun offering "Moleskine Folio Notebooks" that have similar organizational blocks pre-printed on the page (see right, and click for a larger view.   The Moleskine structure is a bit different, in that the summaries are at the top of the page, but I think it can be used in a similar way.  I also like that the "Cue Column" is always on the edge of the page.

I like this model, and augment it with my own shorthand, like noting things I learn about clients and people with whom I'm trying to build relationships. For example, prefixing something as "BG: " means it is a business goal of theirs, "PG: " precedes a personal goal, etc.  In the "Cue Column" I use little boxes to denote action items, "RD" for things I want to Research & Develop; F/U for things requiring Follow-Up, etc.  You can, of course, evolve your own nomenclature for this to suit your needs.

Electronic Notes

With the advent of tools like Evernote and OneNote (both of which are mentioned in the "Note Taking 101" article) I have taken more notes electronically over the past several years.  Using an iPad Keyboard has helped a lot - both in terms of accuracy, as well as share-ability (I can immediately email my notes to other attendees via Evernote, or even share an electronic notebook for team collaboration).

The elements of note taking are similar to those outlined in the article, but the structure is different because of the nature of the online "page" structure.  This is another area where coming up with consistent  nomenclature is a key factor in making the notes usable over the long haul.  

Note: I've been experimenting with adding hashtags to my notes for better search ability,  such as "#BG:" for business goals, and "#PG:" for personal goals.  I like that approach and will likely switch to that standard in my handwritten notes, just to make the habit more consistent.

A Hybrid Approach

Of course, I switch back & forth between paper and electronic notes, for various reasons.  Evernote has been making it easier for the last year or two, but joining forces with Moleskine to create Evernote versions of the Moleskine notebooks.  These have special stickers and special colors on the Moleskine pages so that your notes and drawings can be process and indexed more easily by Evernote (which can decipher most handwriting and make it searchable, by the way).

These notebooks are nice, since you can write in them with any old pen and convert them to digital by taking a picture of them with the Evernote app on your smartphone.

Much More in the Article

I've focused on some of the tips in the article that are more relevant to me, but there is a lot more there, including:

  • 12 Tips for standardizing your notes
  • How to use Mind Mapping to take better notes (I'm a big fan of mind maps, since I'm a visual learner)
  • Audio notes
  • Outlines as a note taking tool

Note Taking 101 is a great resource - go check it out, and let me know how it goes.

Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success.