Why Productive People Take Better Notes

If you can't recall what you had for lunch, why do you think you'll remember what your mentor just said?

In a recent blog post, entrepreneur-author Ben Casnocha relayed this reality check: that as Mark Zuckerberg was sharing lessons from Facebook's rise to a room full of hard-hustling Silicon Valley folk, only two at the event were taking notes.

They were John Doerr and Ron Conway—guys synonymous with money and power in Silicon Valley.

So why would the two most successful people in the room, Zuck aside, be the ones taking notes? Casnocha has a theory: Experts take notes, while novices don't see the point.

So what's the point?

To understand deeply, which is the foundation of effective thinking. In another blog post Casnocha contends that experts are constantly seeking to deepen the understanding of their core subject.

When we talk about core skills—the kind that you can build an adaptive career around—we mean that they are core because they lie at the foundation, at the center, at the antecedent of work that we do. Casnocha pulls from Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird's 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, which we'll blockquote here:

Professional tennis players watch the ball; mathematicians understand a nuanced notion of number; successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life.

Taking notes helps us gain a better understanding

As we've discussed before, your mind can only handle so great of a cognitive load—people can only hold so many items in their working memory before they start to fall out. Active listening—that is, attending to the speaker and jotting down the things that catch your attention—lets us invest our working memory in paying attention to the new thing the Facebook founder just said rather than trying to remember that joke he made five minutes ago.

But it's not just about the initial notetaking: The idea is to create your own repository of knowledge. With luck, you'll continue to be awesome into your 80s—and if you're recording and organizing your knowledge from now until then, you'll have a mighty base of understanding.

This is a practice that badass learners systematize: Tim Ferriss, who is impeccable about his use of time, shows devotion to his notetaking, quipping that he takes notes "like some people take drugs" and that he trusts the weakest pen more than the strongest memory.

Casnocha has a lighter system, one that we ourselves wish we were already implementing:

I take lots of notes in paper mole skin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes.

That's a nice analog-to-digital workflow—one that can help us to attach our experiences to the mental latticework we call knowledge and thus recall info quickly. In this way, we can be productive for the long haul.

Hat tip: Casnocha.com

[Image: Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

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  • Andy Murphy

    I am also a passionate note taker, a skill I learned at the ripe old age of thirteen (am north of 60 now). I take notes via keyboard or by hand, in which case I like to use symbols and also integrate mind-mapping sometimes. What gets interesting is when I'm taking notes from speech in different languages. The symbols apply, but the wording and shortcuts have to be different (and then sometimes I'll be listening in one language and write certain words in another). Has anyone had challenges with this?

  • As a consultant for 24 years I became a great note taker (I even learned Gregg shorthand). In the beginning I kept my notes to myself but during the last six years or so I shared my typed notes with my clients and most of them appreciated that very much.

    When reviewing my notes I make concept maps for concepts that are somewhat complicated. This not only helps me understand what I know and don't know but this often helps clients in getting to clarity before agreement when making important decisions on topics decision-makers assume to be clear but often are not.

  • Tanu Sharma

    I tend to make flowcharts and info-graphics while I am taking down notes and also when processing thoughts/ideas. I think it comes naturally but is pretty helpful. Writing is a reaffirmation of what's heard/thought. Helps,always.

  • Rachel

    Taking notes is a strategy I recommend to clients, whether reading or listening. Even if you never go back and look at the notes, just engaging your brain in another way around the things you want to remember helps you remember them. (I'm a speech-language pathologist providing adult speech therapy and ADHD consulting in Boulder, CO via Gray Matter Therapy.)

  • Nick Milodragovich

    Well put. As the Chinese proverb says, "The faintest ink is better than the best memory."