Work Notetaking System

While I prefer digital notetaking systems for creating a continuous and searchable repository of notes, digital notetaking isn’t possible in all businesses or classrooms. I have experimented with different physical notetaking systems for years. I’ve used a standard notebook, a 3-ring binder, a dedicated planner, and a number of “padfolios”. For the past year or so, I’ve settled in on a system that works very well to balance the dynamic nature of a standard day and the benefits of a structured set of notes.

The Setup

My notetaking system is centered around a ~1 inch wide lay-flat 3 Ring Binder (something like this), a few dividers, and plain (or ruled/dotted/graph) paper. This allows for optimal flexibility, while retaining organization and accessibility. Also it can be written in while standing, which is sometimes necessary.

The structure of the notebook, from front to back is:

  1. Daily notes, going back in time as you turn pages (i.e. today is the first page). Each page may contain notes from one or many days. Each day may exist on one page or many pages.
  2. Begin divider sections, with sections for things like…
    1. large-scope projects
    2. particular kinds of notes or reports
    3. reference materials & guidance documentation
    4. whatever else you want
  3. Last divider section contains blank sheets of your preferred paper

I utilize a 3-ring binder with a transparent sleeve on its front and back. In these sleeves I keep a year calendar, relevant contact info and other simple, often-referenced materials.

The Technique

Day Header

Start each day by reviewing your calendar & task management application(s). Then create a day header:

notes header img

The day header contains 3 parts.

  1. A visual divider showing the date - I prefer to include year & day of week, which are both helpful in long and medium-term, respectively.
  2. An agenda of appointments today - including time, meeting topic/name, and location
  3. A set of 1-3 goals/priorities for the day - not “everything you’re going to do”, but the most important tasks as decided on each morning.

Everything below a day header are notes from that day, until you run into the next day’s header. Notes may be as long as necessary. There may be two day headers back to back with no notes between them. There may be many pages of notes from a given day. If a day continues across a page break, I will indicate that fact with a “continued…” at the bottom of one page and “…{date} continued” at the top of the next page.

Notetaking conventions

Structure

Within any given day’s notes, it’s helpful to have a consistent format to use for grouping related notes and quickly parsing notes by type (e.g. tasks).

notes img

I group my notes into blocks whenever possible. This allows me to jump between related groups of notes more quickly, rather than having to read line-by-line to find a given fact or reference.

I start the block with a header that labels & gives context to the content of the block. For meetings or anything else where time may be important, I start the header with the time of day, then a dash, then the name of the meeting or event around which the notes are based. If time is not a factor (e.g. studying a report, or generic topic), the time piece is left off - or, better yet, the notes are taken on pages contained within a divider section relating to the project/concept or type of notes you’re taking. In practice, 90% of the notes I take are time-bound.

Notes are then indented slightly from the leftmost point of the header and progress down the page. I utilize indentation to connect related bullets, even within a given block.

At the conclusion of the meeting (or after all my notes are done), I draw a vertical line down from the block header to visually group the block of related notes.

Not all notes are part of a group. There may be errant one-off notes in line with grouped blocks, or in the margins of the page. I utilize the margins to take quick notes or add reminders. I try to do this sparingly, as it breaks from the overall organization.

Note types

Whether contained in a block of related notes or not, my notes tend to follow a few conventions, as marked by the beginning of the line of text.

  • Dashes - generic note
  • Indented dashes - notes relating to the non-indented note above
  • Boxes - tasks
    • Open box - task not complete
    • Box X’ed out - completed tasks
    • Box with diagonal arrow - task has been migrated into my task management system & will be tracked there
    • Box lined out - task cancelled
  • Stars - important events that happened (e.g. “Sent the report I was asked for”)
  • Drawings & doodles

Archiving & Data Retrieval

I keep at my desk a large 3-ring binder. Every so often I will transfer pages that contain notes that are sufficiently old. Sufficiently old depends on the nature of your job, for me they are things from 30+ days ago.

In practice, most often information is linked to time. Time is the universal index. If you need to reference something you wrote down in a note a few weeks or months ago, but aren’t sure exactly which day it was on, you can do one of two things. You can flip back through pages, quickly scanning for Day Headers and looking at the meetings for that day, OR you can utilize your calendar to find the appropriate date, then flip straight to that day’s notes. This technique works best for notes that are closely bound to time.

For notes such as those brainstorming a Project Plan, where which specific day the brainstorming took place isn’t of real value, I will utilize a divider section dedicated to that project. These

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