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3 Note-Taking Methodologies To Help With Productivity

By Sam Hickmann

Date Published: Jul 8, 2021

As a business leader, you might find yourself asking, “What is a good note-taking system?” As Jeff Su put it, “The less friction you experience, the more effective the note-taking system.” He explained how friction can be judged on three different aspects:

1. Before: How easily can you start taking notes?

2. During: How quickly can you write everything down?

3. After: How easily can you resurface relevant notes?

There are hundreds of note-taking methodologies leaders can choose from, but I’ve found the following three to be especially helpful. Consider using the above framework to help you compare, rank them and find the method that works for you and helps with your productivity.

3 Note-Taking Methodologies To Help With Productivity

1. Note-Taking During A Company Meeting

Goal: to capture the essence and share it with the participants

Let’s dig into the basic method that I call the "common-sense methodology." If you’re in charge of documenting a meeting with your team, keeping track of these five sections can help achieve the goal:

1. Topic

2. Meeting details (date and time, participants, location)

3. Takeaways

4. Action items

5. Notes

Your takeaways and action items will usually be written at the end of the meeting, but I suggest placing them at the top of your notes, as they can be good summaries when you read the document a few days or weeks later.

2. Note-Taking For Private Use

Goal: to capture quick private notes about personal life and business life, with to-dos and reminders

A lot of people still use physical notebooks and a trivial system of notation: Each page is a note, with the date at the top and voilà! I can’t blame them; it’s quick and fun (and you can sketch and doodle). It’s perfect to brainstorm.

However, it can require a lot of effort to retrieve and understand these notes because they’re written chronologically. What if you need a note that’s in a previous notebook tucked away somewhere? These notes can also have virtually no organization — one note might be about a hobby, the next one about a professional meeting.

Considering that most smartphones and computers come with a pre-installed note-taking app, many people tend to replace their notebooks with the digital version. Here are my recommendations for your digital notes:

Create stacks: Stacks are the virtual equivalents of your drawers where you put your old physical notebooks. The two obvious stacks are personal and professional.

Create notebooks within the stacks: In each stack, create notebooks named after the different categories. These act like folders. For instance, in the personal stack, you can have several notebooks like finances, hobbies, to-dos, etc. In the professional stack, you can include HR, business development, marketing, etc.

Use hashtags in your notes: Even though search features are getting better, I recommend using hashtags in your notes because more and more apps offer powerful filtering systems or even graph views based on hashtags, making it easier to find notes grouped by sub-topics.

For your to-dos/reminders, use the Eisenhower Matrix: Many phones have separate apps for to-dos, reminders and notes, which can make things confusing. I suggest managing everything in your notes. A note can contain action items, and certain action items must be done by a certain date. I recommend using the Eisenhower Matrix methodology. Use one of the following tags to append your to-dos:

• #Urgent #Important: things to do ASAP

• #Urgent #NotImportant: things to delegate to someone else

• #NotUrgent #Important: things to do by you in the future (set a date!)

• #NotUrgent #NotImportant: things that you can usually archive

3. Note-Taking As A Second Brain

Goal: to document your life

If you’re a researcher working on a grant proposal, an author writing a new book or simply someone interested in productivity and who wants to minimize the time and effort to remember interactions and information, you may be interested in a more sophisticated system.

New technology has made it easy to adopt new methodologies. For example, I’ve found the Zettelkasten methodology, which is a process that helps connect a web of thoughts, helpful when taking notes. Created by Niklas Luhmann in the 1950s, Zettelkasten helped him publish over 50 books and 600 articles.

Each note contains a unique identifier, a body and a footer with references. When using the Zettelkasten method, look for note-taking software that allows a network graph visualization, making it easier to navigate the notes and find patterns and constellations of topics.

I recommend organizing these notes with the P.A.R.A. structure: projects, areas, resources and archive.

Project: a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. E.g., submit grant proposal, preparation for quarterly meeting

Area of responsibility: sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time. E.g., finances, professional development, personal growth, future planning

Resource: topics or themes of ongoing interest. E.g., project management, runbooks, logs

Archive: where you store inactive topics from the other categories. E.g., past projects that were completed

Whatever note-taking system you use, it’s important to remember that notes aren’t essays or transcripts. Make the effort of summarization. Not only you will better remember what matters, but it will be much easier to dig into your notes later, which is the whole purpose of note-taking. I personally force myself to write one micro-note that is under 300 characters per notable item. A one-hour meeting often results in only five or six micro-notes.

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