Ideas are fluid and mercurial things. I have a bad habit of writing down two or three words and then not remembering what I was intending to say or do with that information. And I’m not alone. In looking over notes that people take during meetings and at events, I’m constantly struck with the realization that the person will have no idea why they wrote something down by the time they get back to the office. Further, some of these ideas end up being a lot more abstract until such time as you flesh them out, so that the most abstract information won’t make much sense without your efforts to clean it up.
I used the words “underwater fish” as an example of when I did that to myself recently. Those two words were in my notepad for some reason. Underwater. Fish. Only, without periods, so that it says “underwater fish.” I have no idea why it says this. Perhaps I was going to write about superfluous words. Of course fish are underwater. Or maybe I was going to talk about the difference between a fish on a plate and a fish underwater. Frankly, I’ve got no idea. It’s lost to the ether. But in that, there are some thoughts.
There’s More Than One Kind of Note
In your business, there are ideas that must be communicated and executed against all the time. Note taking and idea capture isn’t supposed to be arduous, but it must be useful enough to take an action. How can you write down information such that it helps you bring your ideas forward?
First, there are more than one kind of note:
- Reference ideas – these are notes like “The bridge over the Colorado River by Hoover Dam is 1900 feet high.” Those are for reference.
- Action ideas – “Call state highway department and report a big hole in the bridge.”
- Reminder ideas – “Boss’s birthday. Buy ticket to bridge by Hoover Dam.”
There are probably many more. Diagram comes to mind. Timelines are a kind of note you might take. You might have others. But realizing that there’s more than one kind of note lets us think about how we might capture information different for each one.
Improve Your Idea Capture
Methods for note taking and idea capture vary plenty. Here’s my way. It’s not necessarily right. It’s just mine.
In my notebooks, I tend to break things into 3 sections. I use the bulk of every page for reference notes and drawings. I use the right sidebar for off-topic ideas and/or for follow-up items not related to the main notes. I use the bottom of every page to capture action steps (to use Scott Belsky’s words).
In capturing action steps, I use the method laid out in Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality (amazon affiliate link). My plan is to make sure that anything that needs doing gets conveyed the moment we leave the meeting, so that people can take actions and get things going at the soonest possible.
Belsky’s book says “start with a verb” when lining out action steps. This really helps. Also, if the action has an owner that’s not you, convey that action step to that owner and keep it on your list too, so that you can follow up with people.
Digital Note Taking
I use paper for most of my idea capture, but if ever I need to share it in the digital space, I use Evernote. It’s free and works on your desktop, your mobile device, and the web, so it’s very flexible. You can take notes directly into Evernote, or you can just take photos of your notes and put them there, too. With recent updates to Evernote, you can even share the notes with people, should that be useful for collaboration.
If you want a similar-but-different way to do it, check out the Livescribe Pen, which I think makes for a great tool as well.
Then What. Then What.
My secret sauce is this: ask the question “then what” incessantly when taking notes. Use this to flesh out your notes so that you have all the ideas and action steps necessary to complete the project. It’s a swell way to get yourself through to the completion of the project, if you think about it.
How do YOU capture notes? What are you doing with them? Have you run into any underwater fish?