How to take good notes at work: a step-by-step guide to organizing your digital notes at work
In the world of remote work and endless Zoom meetings (and Zoom migraines), building a reliable, effective system to organize your notes at work can save you both literal and figurative headaches down the road. You can earn a reputation as an effortlessly organized, go-to person at the office. More importantly, you’ll save yourself hours of time wasted looking for information— so you can focus on things that truly matter.
Why take digital notes at work?
The importance of building a note taking habit at work
When we take notes at work, it demonstrates to our bosses, our peers, and ourselves that we’re engaged with the matter at hand. We’re taking the meeting seriously. We’re not staring out a window, lost in thought. We’re not surreptitiously checking our email during the meeting. We recognize the importance of this event, and we want to capture the details for future reference. Building a note taking habit signals that we take our work seriously, and that we want to be efficient and respectful of everyone’s time— including our own.
Ditching the paper notebook: the power of digital note taking for work
Traditionally, people were advised to keep a paper notebook at work, and carry it around from meeting to meeting. The practice of organizing notes for work on paper, in a paper notebook, has persisted far into the digital era. (Admittedly, I do love a good notebook myself— I wonder if the sheer aesthetic beauty of Moleskine and Leuchtturm notebooks have been part of the move to keep work notes in a paper notebook this long?)
But when you keep your work notes solely a paper notebook, you risk losing the notebook— leaving it behind somewhere, or your bag getting lost. There are no backups in a paper, analog notebook. Moreover, even barring the catastrophic loss of your work notebook, a paper notebook doesn’t have access to things like:
- Copy and paste
- Full-text search
- Sharing your notes with colleagues or clients
- Linking or attaching files
(Plus, if you’re missing the aesthetic beauty of your Moleskine notebook, there are some gorgeous, thoughtfully-designed notetaking apps you can adopt to build your digital note taking habit at work.)
How will taking notes at work help you?
In the moment
Taking notes during a work meeting helps you to stay engaged with a meeting or presentation— especially important during the mid-afternoon doldrums. As you take notes, you’re also more apt to recognize any inconsistencies or blind spots in the topics being discussed— and can flag them in the early stages. You’ll be able to ask more engaged, relevant questions during discussions.
In the future
When you regularly take notes at work, you’ll quickly develop a reference database of notes and ideas that you can easily refer to in the future. When you create a digital note taking system (or personal knowledge management system), you’ll be able to find concepts, ideas, and plans from previous projects that you can easily apply in the future. You’ll never be frustrated by a half-remembered idea again.
When to take notes at work
When you have a 1:1 meeting with your supervisor or a supervisee, bring along your computer or tablet to take a few notes. It can be a delicate balance— you don’t want your laptop or iPad to be a barrier in the meeting. It can be easy to get so focused on note taking that we miss the opportunity to connect with the human being in front of us.
However, jotting down a few notes— saying “I’m just going to write down a few things, I want to remember what we’re been talking about”— shows respect for your meeting partner, and shows that you value what’s being shared.
Brainstorming and problem-solving group sessions
In a brainstorming meeting it can be so fun to toss around ideas that no one takes the time to capture them. You don’t want to fall into the unofficial role of secretary or minute-taker (unless that is your role), but you don’t want to get so involved in the brainstorming action that you entirely forget the take-aways of the meeting. If your team is using a whiteboard to capture ideas, try to jot down the main ideas (or take a picture to process later) before it gets erased.
Your own independent brainstorming sessions
Your own independent, solo brainstorming sessions are where some of the best insights can happen. Sometimes the best ideas come on the walk in from the parking lot, or on the train, or while you’re brewing coffee. Make sure that you have a universally-accessible, quick personal knowledge management system so you can capture your inspiration anywhere it strikes.
Your clients will feel that you’re taking their work seriously— and valuing their time— when you take notes during meetings. You’ll also look like an organization-superstar when you can easily pull up notes and references from a few meetings ago in a few keystrokes.
How to choose the best note taking app for work
Deciding on the best note taking note taking app is a whole topic in and of itself— I’ll point you towards my guide to building a personal knowledge management system as well as my archives on note taking apps to get you started.
Identifying your note taking goals – deciding why you want to create a digital notebook for work
When you’re choosing a note taking app for work, it’s important to get clear on your note taking goals first. You need to ask yourself questions like:
- Why are you taking notes at work?
- What are you hoping to accomplish?
- What type of information do you need to organize?
- Are you trying to organize information independently, or on behalf of a group (shared notes)?
5 popular note taking apps for work
Just want a note taking app to get started? Here are five of the most popular cross-platform note taking apps for taking notes at work:
Want to learn more about note taking with Obsidian MD? Check out my step-by-step guide to Obsidian Notes to get started.
Want a shortcut to find the best note taking app? The Calmer Notes course includes exclusive, student-only access to a Notion database of organized PKM apps. Sort by platform or feature to find the perfect personal knowledge management software to suit your own workflow.
Choosing the best note taking style
Lists (aka the bullet-point method)
Taking notes via bullet points is one of the most tested and true ways to quickly and effectively capture notes. You can capture ideas in point form, and nest your bulleted points to group related ideas together. Nearly all note taking problems offer the ability to add bulleted lists, so you shouldn’t have difficulty finding a note taking app for work that lets you capture notes using the bullet-point method.
Tables are a helpful note taking tool when you’re trying to compare and contrast ideas. It can be a bit challenging to capture notes into a table in the moment— tables are often more helpful tools to use when you’re processing your raw, unedited notes after a meeting.
Some people prefer to sketch out their ideas and see relationships between concepts using a mind map (also known as mindmapping or sometimes as flowcharting).
You can try using mindmapping apps like:
When you’re taking notes in a meeting or listening to a presenter, it can be helpful to jot down some questions as they come up rather than interrupting and breaking the flow of the presentation. You may also find that questions you originally have get answered along the way. When you’re asked at the end if you have any questions, you’ll be ready with any remaining questions that you still have on your mind (and in your digital notebook).
Cornell Notes – a caveat
The Cornell Notes method appears to hold a near-mythic status in the note-taking world. Cornell Notes is one of the most-searched note taking methods, and there appears to be some sort of belief that Cornell Notes is the best note taking method for all purposes.
This simply isn’t the cause. While the Cornell Notes method can be useful in some extremely specific situations (such as in certain academic settings), a strict Cornell Notes approach isn’t highly applicable to most workplaces. However, some of the more general concepts of the Cornell Notes approach (such as capturing the main ideas, summarising, creating take-away points) are useful across a range of other note taking methods.
To transcribe (making minutes) or summarize (making take-away points)?
To take effective work notes, you’ll want to have a blend of transcribing the content of the meetings, as well as summarizing your own take-away points and action items. The ratio of this combination depends on your role at work, as well as your own goals for your notes.
Striking a balance depends on your role and your own goals for your notes
If you’re a junior employee, acting in a largely minute-taking or secretarial capacity, you’ll want to make sure that you primarily focus on transcribing the points of the meeting— and confirm as needed with the more senior participants that you’re correctly capturing their main points and action items when you do summarize.
If you’re working in a higher-level role, you’ll want to make your own personal meeting notes more focused on your own note taking goals. Why are you capturing notes in the first place? What do you think you’ll use these for in the future? Get clear on your own goals so you can focus on taking high-yield, highly useful notes.
Adding structure to your digital notes for work
Establishing a “future-proof” notes style so you can revisit ideas later
One of the most essential elements of any note taking system is making sure that your notes are future-proof. In brief, writing future proof notes means capturing notes in a format that you can easily access again, organized in a system that easily allows you to find the information you’re looking for weeks, months, or even years down the road.
Here are a few different strategies you can use to add structure to your digital notes at work to ensure you can easily find them in the future:
- Organize your notes by project, client or date within your personal knowledge management system
- Organize your notes into sections using folders or tags
- Use a descriptive naming formula with keywords to find files in the future
Taking action-oriented notes
Focus on outcome, not simply reference
If you’re going to spend time and energy capturing notes at work, they need to serve a purpose. Some of the details of your notes may serve as useful reference down the road, which can provide clarity. However, try to use your note taking habit at work primarily to focus on action items.
Mark and flag action items
When you’re taking notes in meetings, mark and flag and relevant action items that arise.
Examples of these include:
- Emails to send
- Questions to follow up on
- Projects to create
- Research to investigate
- Tasks to be done
They might be action items for you or for someone else.
Separate your tasks from your notes
Make sure that your action items and tasks don’t languish forgotten amidst your work notes. Make it a regular practice to take action items you’ve captured at meetings and transfer them to your task management system (like Todoist or Things).
Processing and reviewing your notes at work
Make it part of your weekly review so you can iterate and improve as you go
Once you’ve established a note taking habit at work, it’s essential to make a review of your notes part of your weekly review. This gives you a chance to process the week, see if there are any open loops from meetings, and reflect on the status of your projects. Reviewing your notes in a quiet moment will help you build a habit of reflection and examination to ensure you’re on track with both your short-term and long-term goals.
Executive Summary: Takeaways
Here’s a quick summary of the highlights of this guide to taking better notes at work:
- Building a note taking habit will make you more effective and organized at work
- Taking organized notes at work signals that we respect our colleagues’ and clients’ time, as well as our own
- Use a digital note taking system (instead of a paper notebook) so you can easily copy, backup, share, and search through your work notes
- Bring a laptop or tablet so you can capture notes (with permission) during 1:1 meetings, group meetings, and brainstorming sessions
- Choose a note taking app and note taking style for work based on your own unique goals
- Balance transcribing and summarizing in your notes depending on your role at work
- Add structure to your work notes to make sure they’re future-proof
- Flag and transfer action items and tasks
- Process your work notes on a regular basis