How to take and organize notes for work

notes for work

What do Bill Gates, George Lucas, and Tim Ferriss all have in common? They’re all note-takers! Many people associate note-taking with school, but taking good notes at work can help you boost productivity, get the most out of meetings, and build meaningful relationships — all of which we’ll get into in this article.

There are many different note-taking methods. While the best note-taking strategy is the one that works for you, there are some general tips and guidelines that can help you take better notes. Which note-taking techniques work best will often depend on the situation. But before we get into the weeds with note-taking techniques, let's talk about the benefits of taking good notes in meetings.

{{try-free="/in-house-ads"}}

How will meeting notes help you?

How many hours each week do you spend in meetings? Whether they’re one-on-one meetings, team brainstorming sessions, client consultations, or informal, meetings are happening all the time. By taking notes, you’re more likely to remember action items, due dates, and other important points.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term, “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.” He found that unless regularly reviewed, people forget, on average, 40% of what they hear within the first few days of hearing it. There are several factors such as environment and how important one feels the information is that can have an impact on memory retention. From his research, the best way to combat this is by reviewing the information within the first 24 hours of hearing it – taking notes is a great way to be able to do this. 

Taking your own meeting notes, even if there’s a designated team member taking meeting minutes, will likely help you feel more organized, productive, and engaged with the discussion. Take a notebook and pen to the meeting so you can jot down the key points as they come up. In the time leading up to the meeting, write down any questions that come to mind so you don’t forget to bring up something important in the moment.

Note-taking shows that you’re engaged in the conversation and less likely to send a follow up email with a question already addressed. You can also write down any personal details they tell you about their life so you can ask a follow-up question later, or better remember the name of their spouse. This adds a personal touch and can help show the person you’re speaking with that you care about them.

When possible, let the coworker, client, or boss you’re meeting with know that you’ll be taking notes — this is especially important if you opt to do so on a computer. Without that clarification, it may seem as though you’re disinterested and responding to emails during the meeting. Whether you opt to take handwritten notes or use note-taking apps, be sure to look up and make eye contact from time-to-time.

There are lots of great note-taking strategies to choose from — find the one that works for you and the situation you’re in! Here are a few different note-taking methods with their unique pros and cons.

The pros and cons of 4 different note-taking methods

Does your brain work in mind maps and doodles, or do you prefer to-do lists and spreadsheets? Or maybe you’re still trying to find a note-taking tool that works for you. There are lots to choose from, and each kind of note-taking is great for different situations. Here are four of the most popular methods in alphabetical order.

1. The bullet-point method

Start by writing who you’re meeting with and the primary meeting objective at the top of the page. Then, write the most important topics or questions on the left-hand side of the page. Indent each of the sub-points or action items under this.

Pros:

The bullet-point method is a great option for when you’re unsure of what to expect going into a meeting. It typically has more information included which makes it a great option for those times when you’re taking notes for a coworker who wasn’t able to make it.

Cons:

You may be tempted to write everything that is said — remember to synthesize the ideas and action items in your own words. It is probably the hardest method for seeing at-a-glance what was talked about.

2. The Cornell Method

Many people associate the Cornell Method with school, but it can be helpful in the professional setting as well. Start by drawing a vertical line closer to the left-hand side of the page.

While in the meeting, take notes on the larger, right-hand side of the page. When the meeting is over, review your notes and jot down the most important points on the left-hand side of the page.

Pros:

The Cornell Method makes it easy to find what you’re looking for in your notebook. You can see the main points at a glance and then dive into more details once you find what you’re looking for.

Cons:

It takes more concentration during the meeting than some alternatives. Also, if the speaker is jumping between ideas, it may be difficult to stay organized.

3. Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a great note-taking method for visual thinkers or creative brainstorming sessions — it feels similar to doodling. There are apps like Coggle which is great for mind mapping beginners, or Mindly, a mobile-friendly mind mapping app.

Start with the main idea in the center of your page and then draw branches ending in circles that contain the subtopics connecting out from there. Write bullet points within each of those bubbles to help you keep track of everything you need to remember from the brainstorming session.

Pros:

Great for keeping track during brainstorming sessions where a lot of ideas are thrown out. Makes scanning back over meeting notes very quick and easy.

Cons:

Can be more time-consuming than other note-taking methods, and you might run out of room to write all the subpoints.

4. The Template Method

Before the meeting, create a template or chart that you’ll later fill with content from the meeting. Think about the meeting’s broad talking points and add those into your template as subheadings. This is where it’s really handy to have a meeting agenda to refer to! When the meeting comes around, all you need to do is expand on each talking point beneath the respective subheading.

Pros: 

The Template Method is a very organized approach to note-taking. Finding important information later will be very easy. It also helps you only jot down the most important points — you can’t fit the word-for-word transcription into a spreadsheet.

Cons:

Sometimes you don’t have time to prep a template before heading into a meeting. It’s only possible if you have a good idea of the meeting agenda before you get there.

Simple action items to help you become a better note-taker

There aren’t any “right” or “wrong” ways to take notes, but if you’re wanting to level-up your note-taking, try out these tips. If something isn’t working for you, don’t worry about it — no two people are the same, and just because something is “good practice” doesn’t mean it will be the right fit for everyone.

Take handwritten notes

While lots of people enjoy using note-taking apps like Evernote, researchers have found that taking notes by hand is better in the long run for retention of important points and synthesizing information. For one, your paper doesn’t have distracting notifications popping up on the screen. The other reason is that while taking notes by hand, you’re forced to synthesize the information in your own words, whereas when taking notes on a Google doc, you’re more likely to write a transcription of the meeting. In the long run, that’s less helpful to your brain in retaining the information.

In terms of non-verbal communication, an open computer divides the space between you and the person you’re meeting with. This isn’t ideal when you want to appear more personable. A notebook shows your coworker, boss, or client that you’re taking notes and not getting distracted by anything else.

If you don’t want to carry around a stack of notebooks to keep track of your thoughts, try using a tablet! You can silence the notifications and write with a stylus on the screen. Some apps, like Evernote, can change your handwritten notes into typed notes so you can share meeting minutes with coworkers without worrying about someone not being able to read your handwriting.

Summarize the big ideas

Instead of writing everything word-for-word, stick with writing the most important points. This helps you process the information and remember the key points and action items from the meeting.

For example, if your boss is talking with you about the upcoming launch of a campaign for a client, jot down keywords, action items, and takeaways.

Maybe they say:

“We’re getting ready to launch the X campaign for Y client on Monday, and there are a few things I need you to take care of before then. I appreciated the work you did on the ‘target client profile’ and with finding influencers to work with. We still need to finalize the content calendar and copy for social media posts. Everything is on the drive, could you just make it reflect the tone and voice the client has asked for? Please get it done by Thursday and email both me and Anna with the draft. Also, have we touched base with the client recently to confirm the posting schedule?”

Synthesize that to look something like this:

  • Target client profile
  • Influencers
  • Content calendar (confirm posting schedule with Y)
  • Social media copy
    Due Thursday
    Info on drive
    Send to Anna and boss

All the details are there — you can see what has already been done and what still needs to happen before the campaign launch. But by writing only the key ideas, it is much easier to skim than if you were to write everything word-for-word.

Jot down questions as they come up

If your coworker is giving a presentation at work and a question comes to mind, jot it down before you forget. Try underlining or circling anything that you want to ask a followup question about. If you’re worried that this won’t be enough to help you remember what your question was, try scribbling down a few keywords that will help you remember.

This way, you won’t derail their train of thought by interrupting them, but you also won’t forget about your question. They may answer the question later in the presentation, but if they don’t, you’ll be ready with a thoughtful follow-up question once they’re finished.

Write down details that will help you build relationships

Good notes can help you not only be productive and efficient but also thoughtful. Jot down your coworker’s dog’s name or where they’re going on holiday. The next time you talk to them, you can show that you were listening by asking a specific followup question like, “How was Yosemite?” or “How’s Milo doing?”

Re-read your notes

Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to glance over your notes. Make sure you’ve taken care of all of the action points and follow-up with anyone that you needed to touch base with. Add those items to your to-do list for the following day so that you can go home without worrying that you’ll forget important points.

If you’re finding it hard to schedule note-review time in your day, use Clockwise to automatically block out 10 minutes at the end of each work day.

Use a bullet journal to keep track of your to-do list

Take the action items from your meeting notes and transfer them into a bullet journal or project manager app like Trello or Asana. This way, you can keep track of everything you need to accomplish without forgetting about anything. Try breaking larger tasks into the smaller subtasks. This can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the large tasks and keep track of what still needs to be done.

Give note-taking a try!

The next time you’re heading into a meeting, grab a pen and paper and try out these tips. Like any skill, effective note-taking might feel awkward at first, but stick with it for a while and see if it helps your productivity and attentiveness during meetings.

We built a way to take our time back.

Clockwise optimizes teams' calendars to create more time in everyone’s day. See why more than 10,000 organizations run on Clockwise.