by Dan Walsh
Save time and do your future self a favor by taking better notes.
I remember a day in 4th grade. While getting ready for school a big gob of foamy toothpaste fell on my clean shirt. I tried to wipe it off, but it did that disappearing-reappearing act that toothpaste does. I thought it was gone, then it came back an hour later after it dried. I walked around all day with a giant white spot on my purple little league soccer jersey.
I wasn’t embarrassed. I didn’t really care. I was a messy kid. I had messy hair and wore messy clothes. I liked sorting and counting too, but something about the chaos of mess was familiar to me. I was comfortable living in it. I remember that day specifically because it also turned out to be class picture day. My toothpaste gob is memorialized in photo albums around the country. Someone even uploaded it to Facebook, so I suppose you can say it went global.
No, this isn’t some kind of coming-of-age post. It’s a practical entry about taking useful notes. I used to be the most disorganized kid I knew. I relied on my memory to remember where things were and where they left off. This worked fine in 4th grade. It worked fine in college. It worked ok in the real world… and then one day it kind of stopped working all together.
The volume and complexity of the items I needed to remember grew too large. I couldn’t rely on my memory anymore. I forgot everything I was sure I’d remember, and seemed to only remember everything I figured I would forget. It was a bad system and it wasted a lot of time. But that’s the thing. It wasn’t a system at all. Chaotic little Dan never needed a system, so I didn’t have anything. I had to start from scratch.
How To Waste Time
I work on a lot of projects all at once. The merits of this are debatable, but sometimes I have no choice. Usually one project gets started, and then I have to wait for someone else to do something before I can continue – sometimes for a week or more. Instead of twiddling my thumbs in the meantime, I work on another project. But by the time that first project comes back around to me, I don’t remember where I left off.
This workflow resulted in a lot of inefficiency. I’d have to reaffirm prior decisions, details, and responsibilities. I’d even forget simple stuff like usernames and passwords. Sometimes I’d spend over an hour looking for my login credentials just so I could get to actual work. I would waste a lot of time trying to get back up to speed. Sometimes this spin-up process felt so daunting that I’d continuously put off the project until it just sort of withered and died – which was even more wasteful.
Discovering a Better Process
So I started taking better notes. To do lists came first. They came naturally to me, but I quickly reached their limit. Scheduling and prioritizing tasks came next. I used Google Calendar to schedule followups and the “Prioritization Cube of Glory” (my name) to help me figure out which items I should work on first, second, third, etc.
I incorporated Bullet Journaling next (video below). This was a great layer of organization on top of my current system.
I swapped from a lined notepad to a graph notepad. This is only implied in the video but it makes a huge difference. Graph pages resolved one of the biggest note hurdles I previously had, but never realized: my notes were sloppy. As a former graphic designer I should have realized this sooner, but maybe the non-conforming artist got in the way. A clean visual structure does wonders for quickly taking in important data.
The Bullet Journal guidelines evolved into something that naturally fit my work habits. The index pages and multiple bullet types fell away. I was left with a dated, better structured to do list. This was similar to my original to do lists, but easier to manage. Unfinished items would get passed to the next days list until they were completed. Nothing slipped through the cracks anymore, but I still spent too much time re-uptaking information when a project would land back on my desk. So I started keeping a project progress journal to see if I could find the holes in my system. That’s when I discovered Future Notes.
Two Kinds of Notes
For my purposes, there are two kinds of notes. They both have the same utility – to aid my memory – but they have different purposes.
1. Academic Notes
Academic notes contain dates, names, equations, facts. These notes don’t progress in any way.. They are static bits of information purely for condensing information for future reference. Everyone takes these notes in school. If we think we’re good at taking notes, it’s usually because we’re good at taking academic notes. Really, most academic note taking consists of just writing down whatever the teacher said or whatever the professor wrote on the white board. These notes aren’t actionable, they’re only for review.
2. Project Notes
Project notes can also contain dates, names, equations, and facts. The difference is that these notes DO progress. That is their purpose. They change over time as new information is discovered and entered into the system.
Imagine what Edison’s lightbulb notes looked like. It’s easy to picture pages with hundreds of different filament types, all crossed off with dates of the failed experiment in the margins. There might even be reasons for why each filament failed. “Burned out in 10 seconds. Perhaps silk has too many impurities.”
He has that famous quote:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Project notes are there for our reference, just like academic notes, but they also guide our future. They record what we did so we know how to efficiently move forward.
Future notes are the offspring of project notes. They were born of the realization that despite out common bias toward our present selves, sometimes we actually knew more in the past than we do right now. Why not put this to good use?
If I’m in a meeting and we’re discussing the details of a future product launch, then I have all the information in my head at the moment. I am uniquely capable of making the most intelligent decision at that moment because I have all the data points. But let’s say my role in the new product doesn’t come into play for another month. Maybe I need to wait for the copywriters to do their thing before I can do my thing.
Among other details of the meeting, I could make a note for myself that says “Waiting on Bill for final draft.” The problem is once I get the final draft, I’ll have to drudge up all the details of the project so I know what to do next. That takes time – too much time. It’s also possible that I’ll make the wrong call because some of the details have gone missing. Either because I simply forgot, or because they didn’t seem important so I didn’t write them down. A much better note would be to tell myself what I need to do once I get the final draft. That’s a future note.
A future note is like putting a message in a bottle for my future self. At the time of the meeting I had all the details and all the priorities fresh in my mind. In that moment, I can make the best decisions. Encapsulating that information by telling my future self what to do next creates the best course of action when it’s finally my turn to act again. It also saves me a lot of time because I don’t need to review my (possibly inaccurate) notes before a decision about what to do next.
Instead of writing “Waiting on Bill for final draft,” I write “When I get final draft from Bill, review with Mark for edits. If good, then upload new copy to the website.”
If I don’t write something like that, it’s too easy for me to forget that Mark, our President and major stakeholder wanted to take a final look before it went live.
Project Notes + Future Notes
I have incorporated future notes into my project notes. Now, whenever I open up my notes in Evernote, it only takes about 30 seconds to pick up where I left off… even if the last time I worked on a project was months ago. And because I already established priorities back when I had all the information floating around in my head, I know that I’m working on the right items in the best way possible.
This is the basic structure:
- To Do
- To Do Next
Specifically this is how I start a new project note and incorporate future notes.
- Open Evernote and make a new notebook with the project name.
- Insert today’s date (ctrl+shift+d).
- Write 3-5 to-do items that I intend to accomplish this session.
- Jot down any thoughts, problems, or insights that occur during my working session.
- When my work session ends, I write down the items TO DO NEXT work session.
When I sit down to work again, I look at my TO DO NEXT items and pickup where I left off. If something about those priorities is confusing, I can reference my thoughts to see the rationale.
The same format works on paper and in meetings. Just write the date, the objectives, thoughts or other details during the meeting, and then what to do next while all the info is fresh in your mind.
Reviewing my progress at the end of the work session also acts as a micro post mortem. Jotting down the TO DO NEXT items makes me assess how much I got done this time around, where I wasted time, and how I can be more efficient next time.
This is kind of a long post for what amounts to: write effective action items. But that’s one of those pieces of advice that I always “knew” but never did. The method became useful when I realized that I was doing my future self a favor. By establishing priority tasks in the present, while I have all the information and can make clear decisions, I save time and avoid error in the future.