In middle school I had a Trapper Keeper binder, black with a sparkly unicorn on the front. I loved that thing. In my mind I can still see the unicorn among the clouds, feel the smooth vinyl cover and hear the vvrrrpp of the Velcro flap opening. Funny, that, because I don’t think I actually opened it up to do anything as practical as take notes or record homework assignments. Mostly I think I walked the halls with it clutched to my chest like armor.

Note taking has never been my thing. Middle schools in the ’80’s didn’t  teach organizational skills, and I was clueless. Mostly I doodled. Now I do take notes, but whether I am effective or not is another question. My preferred note taking methods are old school – a regular ruled pad for meeting notes and ideas, and stickies or my white board for to-do lists. I see people using all sorts of note-taking methods in the office – iPads, computers, individual notebooks for different topics, scribbles on the meeting agenda. We all take notes.

But why? What do notes do?

The first (obvious) purpose of note-taking is to provide a record of what happened in a meeting, or what happened in your own head. The problem, I have always found, is that it is hard to think and take notes at the same time. Maybe that’s just me? I can either scribe, or I can think. Pick one. But since I often do need to do both, I flip between listening/thinking/speaking and taking notes. In small meetings, or where precision is critical, I will often ask people to pause so I can finish getting important things down before the conversation moves on. Mostly, though, I try to listen and be present.

The second (less obvious) purpose of note-taking is making sense of the information you are taking in, and encoding it in memory. I have a single notepad I carry around with me. One would think the purpose of that notepad is to provide a record of what was said and done and decided. But I rarely go back to my notes and re-read them, though maybe I should do more of that. Instead, as I write in that notepad the information is etched deeper into my memory than it would have been otherwise. That memory then provides a more solid basis for decision-making in the future. And note taking for memory doesn’t even have to be note taking! Doodling helps focus and memory as well. Maybe I was learning something in middle school!

Clearly I am not one to teach others on note taking – I don’t do it well myself. But as I have watched others take notes recently, and filled up my own blank sheets, I’ve come to think of taking notes as a skill worth developing, the same as facilitating groups or making presentations. To that end I vow to learn something new: I just read Fast Company’s How to Finally Stop Taking Useless Notes at Work (it focuses on note taking for learning, generally, and comes down strongly on the side of pen and paper) and it links to a specific note taking method. Maybe I’ll learn it, and give it a go.

I just hope it leaves plenty of room for doodling in the margins.

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