How do you take effective notes? It depends on what you’re doing. 

We use this one word — “note” — to refer to various actions: 

  • You take down what you hear at a meeting or a lecture.
  • You capture a thought in a book’s margins.
  • You post a sticky note on your wall to remind you of something.
  • You outline ideas for an article in your notebook.

These all represent different ways of thinking in service to different purposes. Knowing why you’re taking notes will help you take more effective notes. 

Lecture or meeting notes serve as a record of what you heard and saw so you can take effective action. Marginalia are a conversation between you and the author — one through which you learn. The sticky note is a memory augmentation device; its duty is fulfilled when you call your sister or bring home the pint of half-and-half. The outline is a means for creative expression; you can toss it after you publish the article.

Don’t get caught up in the aesthetics of the thing. Good meeting minutes aren’t just transcriptions of what was said; effective ones synthesize what happened. What did we commit to? Who’s responsible for what? What’s implied here? What are the big takeaways?

A verbatim transcript won’t do. Any computer can transcribe. But no computer can (yet) make sense of what happened. Recording ≠ sense-making.

Good notes extract signals from a lot of noise — and good signals lead to effective actions.

The same applies to the other uses of “note” listed above. Each is in service to something bigger than itself. Figure out what that is, and you’ll take more effective notes.