How Color-Coded Notes Make You A More Efficient Thinker

One problem with notes is that you never go back and read them. Coloring your notes to indicate people, actions, and to-dos can help.

It's a tall order to take physical notes on actual paper with a real pen. Most people I know don't do it, despite the clear benefits. It's more stuff to lug around, while your ever-ready phone offers literally hundreds of apps for speaking, writing, drawing, and syncing notes. So considering the use of multiple pen colors for your notes can seem a bit like lugging a Victrola around for a morning jog.

But there are real, tested benefits to using multiple colors to stretch out your thoughts, take notes on meetings, and do your research on deeper topics. Color improves recall time for graphs and charts, and can be a "a very effective performance factor", if not overdone. Just ask a mind mapping expert, an Air Force veteran now working at Oracle, or surprisingly attentive Cornell students.

Map Your Mind, or Just Save Your Future Self from Boredom

Draw out your loose ideas floating around a topic or project on a whiteboard or large paper canvas, and you will almost certainly not feel it was a waste of time. As we've written before on the practice of mind mapping, the unstructured nature of mind mapping lets you make connections and see big pictures you might miss in structured lists or mental pondering.

But having a few color markers or pens is a small bit of structure you should pick up. Michael Tipper, an experienced speaker and consultant on mind mapping and organization software, writes on his blog about why colors matter in mind mapping. To summarize: Separating "branches" of your map by color stimulates the creative side of your brain, helps you visually separate and recall distinct themes of the stuff you're working through, and encourages you to map through even boring topics that seem cut-and-dry.

That last bit applies to standard line-by-line note-taking, too, Tipper told Fast Company. "Take any typical student's notes and they will usually be written in one color," Tipper writes. "That means pages and pages of similar-looking notes. Add a dash of color ... and all of a sudden the notes come alive. They are unique, they are unusual, they are memorable and they are more interesting." That means those notes will stick in your brain more, and be far more easier to find in your notebook and review later on.

Remember Who Said What, and Why

Messy notebooks with monotone text make it hard to recall the key points and who-said-what of meetings and project updates. Get the he-said-she-said covered, and cover your butt later, with colored notes.

Chris Smith, a senior systems engineer at Oracle and former target intelligence analyst for the U.S. Air Force, uses four colors when taking notes. Black is for the general stuff. Blue is for clients' notes and comments. Red is action items for his team, and green is action items clients need to take on. The system comes from the Air Force, where notes are often needed to be taken quickly, but sources of intelligence still noted in an inline fashion.

Pick your own colors, though—whatever resonates with your memories, or whatever lines up on the opposite sides of a color wheel.

Combine Colors with Cornell

The Cornell R-6 Method is a tested means of summarizing reams of reading into smart categories boxed out on a page (although there are much simpler explanations of it, too). Like coloring, it breaks up the monotony of line after line of text on a page. Unlike coloring, it has no color, but you can change that. A few things you can block out include names, actions, questions, and take-away thoughts. Beyond that, try out a few schemes and see what works.

Don't Overdo It

When I started asking friends about color-coded notes, almost every lawyer I knew responded. Lawyers learn how to color-code early on in law school, using red highlighters for the holdings of a case, green for general law, yellow for facts, and other colors to fill out the IRAC/CRAC system. By coloring cases this way, lawyers see the physical and relational ways that cases are structured, and can easily recall those elements in later studies or classes.

But if you color in too much, as attorney Jennifer Phillips told me, it backfires. "A friend of mine's (civil procedure) book looked like she squashed a clown to death between its pages: Everything was highlighted, thereby actually emphasizing nothing," Phillips said. Phillips knows she tends to over-color her notes, as her physical act of highlighting helps her focus. But restraint is still difficult; Phillips' court calendar often has so many colors that none of them take priority, so she ends up reading the entire thing, multiple times.

So allow yourself a slight return to grade school and invest in some good colored pens. It's worth the occasional purple splash on your fingers.

[Image: Flickr user Maarten Takens]

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2 Comments

  • Krysten Ouwehand

    I get the same effect in gmail with custom filters. Each client has a label colour coded to their brand - makes it easy to spot the right message in a crowded inbox.

  • DHNash

    Enjoying the notion that "manual" note taking still happens and there are fundamentals that help people be more effective or efficient.