The complete guide to taking notes effectively at work

March 20, 2013
March 20, 2013

The value of note-taking—or notebooks at least—gets a stock market capitalization in the coming weeks with Moleskine’s planned IPO. The Italian stationery firm has boosted the profile of note-taking at companies around the world. But is all of the scribbling on nicely bound paper actually helping business people? And what are the best ways to use note-taking—in notebooks and on digital devices—to actually boost your productivity?

Here’s everything you need to know about taking notes at work, but never bothered to ask:

To have or to take?

Many of us take notes in meetings and never go back to read them again. Does that do enough to organize and cement our memory of the essential takeaways? Likely not on its own—re-reading notes later does make a difference, according to experts. Research published in the Teaching of Psychology Journal in the ’80s concluded that students were messing up on their tests not because they’d taken bad notes, but because they weren’t re-reading them before the exams. And researchers at Keele University in the UK found that three-quarters of academic studies on note-taking concluded its chief value was storing information so it could be consulted later. The takeaway: if you have a bunch of pads or notebooks filled with meeting notes that you never consult, your note-taking isn’t providing the most value over time.

Your boss might judge you if you turn up to a meeting with a paper pad

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel said that if she turns up to a meeting and sees a paper notebook tucked under her colleague’s arm, she’s not impressed. Seriously not impressed. Samuel is a digital note-taking extremist. She believes electronic notes are vastly superior to their analog equivalents. She dismisses the argument that having laptops and tablets in meetings tempts distraction, saying it’s the meeting leader’s responsibility to keep his or her audience sufficiently hooked on their every word. Not everyone agrees with her.

Digital vs. analog notes

There’s little research into the benefits of digital note-taking over handwritten notes. The bulk of studies focus on whether typing out notes or copying and pasting them–taking whole chunks of text from pre-prepared digital materials and pasting them into notes–is better. A team from Carnegie Mellon looked at best practices for designing note-taking technologies and found that typing out notes improves later recall, while copy and pasting text into notes is actually detrimental to learning because it encourages wordiness.

The US Air Force Academy teamed up with West Virginia University to work out the art of electronic note-taking. They were particularly curious to learn whether scaffolding notes horizontally across a row of cells, or down a column made a difference in terms of subjects’ ability to recall the information. It didn’t.

And if you’re worried about the environment, Slate weighed the green implications of taking notes on an iPad. The bottom line is it’s complicated, but using recycled paper is better for the world under most scenarios than buying a battery-powered gadget.

Supercharge your notes

The more OCD you are about organizing your notes, the better. The Journal of Reading compared different note-taking methods and found that the most rigorously structured–those with hierarchal ordering and numbered subsections–were of the highest quality and accuracy. A two-column method came in a close second; these notes were arranged such that the left column contained the information from the given event (i.e. the meeting, lecture or talk) and the right column was used later to fill out follow-up points and highlight key themes. Although these notes were significantly more precise than freestyle note-taking, there was little difference in the ability of the note-taker to recall the material.

Doodling isn’t just for fun

The British Journal of Educational Technology found mind-mapping to be significantly more effective than just writing out notes. Mind-mapping brings visual structure to notes, usually involving writing one word in the center and drawing offshoots from it with related ideas and phrases. Researchers studying two groups of note-takers, those using the SmartWisdom method (a popular alternative mind-mapping system) and those writing traditional notes found that although there was no difference in the accuracy of the notes, the mind-mappers were able to present the information back with more clarity and coherence than their counterparts.

The bottom line in note-taking

Underlining something makes it stand out against other words and that makes recalling that word easier. The scientific term for this is the Von Restorff effect.

Note breaking

The typical meeting format of continuous talking and simultaneous scribbling might not be ideal for optimum note-taking. It turns out that not everyone is all that good at listening and writing at the same time. The Journal of Educational Psychology researched lecture structures and found that incorporating periodic, short breaks greatly improved the quality of notes taken. One way to approach this would be to have little moments of quiet writing reflection in between meeting agenda items. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?

Note-taking as a legal defense

Lawyers say it doesn’t matter whether your notes are digital or analog if you’re looking to use them as supporting evidence in any legal tussle. The legal stance is that notes will stand up as evidence in court, should you ever need to rely on them. Canadian human rights lawyer Donna Seale writes about this on her blog, emphasizing the need to basically write down every word said in the office.

It’s probably not a bad time to buy shares in Moleskine after all.

Read this next: Everything you need to know about Moleskine ahead of its IPO

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