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Taking Killer Notes That Keep You On Top Of Your Game

Taking useful notes that apply to learning, presentations, and meetings.

By
Stever Robbins,
Episode #016

Note Taking for Memorizing (Presentations or Tests)

Sometimes you'll take notes that you have to memorize. Think: "test" or in the work world, "presentation to important client." Here, you're making notes from your own material, so you can take some time with it. My greatest success is when I summarize everything on one side of one piece of paper. I started doing this when a sadistic college professor only let us bring a single sheet to the final exam. And I discovered that after writing the page, it would be burned into my memory. Often, I wouldn't even need to pull out the sheet. Keep it to one page, and your brain stores it all as one memory. To fit as much as possible on the page, get a fine-point pen and learn to write small, very small. (Once again, size matters!)

Remember the filing tips from the episode Better Filing? The same applies here. Group notes on the page according to how you expect to need them. For example, in physics, I would put all the constants like "G = 9.8 m/s^2" in one area.  Then I would put formulas in another place, and letter them so I could refer to them in the third place. The third place would have space for notes on when to use which formulae, how to set up certain kinds of problems, and so on.
 

Note Taking in Meetings

Lastly, meetings. I love meetings! ... No, I don't. I hate meetings. But I take notes in meetings so later, I can take action. In meetings, you'll find facts, reasoning, and "to-dos." We call those "action items." I always think of action figurines like G.I. Joe or Barbie when I hear that term.

So listen for the to-dos and write them down. I put a box next to each to-do and check it off when I've dealt with it. Sometimes, I put to-dos in one area of the page for easy scanning, usually the bottom right-hand corner. If you're the meeting scribe (see Meeting Madness Two) or you don't trust your scribe, you might also note decisions that get made and the key reasons why or why not. But always record your own TO DOs so you can get going instantly.

And I just like drawing, so I mark more than just to-dos. I use arrows for problems (like "Doc Octopus stole prototype flying machine from lab. Development schedule delayed.") and little stars for facts. One of the best things about being grown up is you can give yourself gold stars whenever you want. All those symbols help me quickly scan my notes when I'm reviewing them.

Let's recap: how you take notes depends on why you take notes. For learning, it's all about facts and reasoning, with reasoning being key. Skip the short words, engage the whole brain, and relate notes to things you know. For recall, get all the info into one mental image. And for action, note to-dos, decisions, and problems to review.

Just be sure to keep those notes organized; see my Quick Tip on Note Organization for help.

This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS. 

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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