Jun 22, 2022

Why Taking Notes Helps You Grow

Why Taking Notes Helps You Grow

Why Taking Notes Helps You Grow

Nathan King

Many executives show up to interactions with others unencumbered by a notebook or laptop, discuss matters of importance, and leave without writing anything down. They cultivate an aura of omniscience.

Lowly people around them, aspiring to one day become executives (and reach their God-like status), send the same signal, and abandon note-taking.

Not writing anything down has two main problems.

Problem 1 | As David Allen so eloquently put it:

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

Anyone working on anything of importance faces a range of complex information. The human brain simply cannot achieve anything worthwhile unless its owner animates the ideas that swirl through it. The simple process of animating it requires writing, either on paper or digitally.

We will not retain what we don't record. The Executive (capital "E" - he's omniscient, remember?) doesn't write down anything for one of the following reasons:

1. An assistant writes down everything he needs on his behalf.

2. He delegates so effectively that the people he interacts with have authority and accountability to do all of the note taking.

3. He is an administrator, coasting through work without seriously grappling with any issues.

Problem 2 | You can't think unless you write.

An interviewer spoke with Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in his office.

Interviewer: (Referring to Feynman’s journals) “And so this represents the record of the day-to-day work.”

Feynman: I actually did the work on the paper…It’s the doing it – it’s the scrap paper.

Interviewer: Well, the work was done in your head but the record of it is still here.

Feynman: No, it’s not a record, not really, it’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper.

The insight from Feynman in this exchange: writing is thinking.

Think of a time when you took notes in a meeting - with a client, a supplier, etc., and later updated someone by writing an email. You probably noticed new insights and possible actions than you originally did as you wrote. Now try taking daily notes for a week, and at the end, write a summary to yourself of what was significant. You will notice new insights, and it will feel creative and free.

We can't avoid taking notes, if we are serious about making things happen and thinking through complex problems.

But there's one more problem.

The effort of taking notes often seems pointless. We go through our days consistently taking notes, and fill a shelf with full notebooks. But we never really use what we wrote down. In a meeting, person A said X, which sounded important, so you write it down. It's how I use my phone camera: "This is a good moment, I'd like to remember it."

And as with the photos on my phone, they just stay there forever: rarely reviewed and not used for any purpose. 

It is intellectually expensive to go to the trouble to take many notes when only a small percentage of them are ever reviewed.

Many people give up on taking notes for this very reason. For those executives who cultivate an aura that they don't need to take notes, this is the actual driver: they have failed to use writing things down to their advantage.

The logic? They are paid to create outcomes (sales deals, projects, etc), not to create an archive. They conclude, "if it's important I'll remember what to do with it later."

But the result is living in a world of first drafts. Those projects, outcomes, action lists contain value, but they are incomplete. The people who've given up on taking notes on the encounters with others, about the problems and decisions they face, are people who accomplish far less than they otherwise could.

The place to start with that is to take notes, and review them. In the review, your focus should not be on what happened, but on what was meaningful and interesting in the events of the day.

How to Make Notes Work for You

  1. During meetings, clarify and note action items by writing them down

  2. Throughout the day, record your observations, a simple method called interstitial journaling.

  3. Set aside 15 minutes a day at the end to review your notes: what happened, what went well, what seems to need more attention, and what are the priorities for tomorrow.

  4. Once a week, do a weekly review of the notes you took, along with action items, your calendar, etc. Here is a straightforward explanation of how to do that in an hour.

The best way to build your personal brand and create opportunities for yourself is through clear thinking. That starts with your willingness to take notes and use them to advance your thinking.




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