Note taking is essential to your productivity. Here are the note-taking methods that will help you take better notes.
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When we talk about skills that improve productivity and creativity, note taking may not be the first thing you think of.
The truth is that note taking is an essential skill of highly successful and productive entrepreneurs and leaders. In fact, superstars like Bill Gates and Richard Branson are fanatic note takers.
But there is no one-size-fits-all way to take notes. You’ve got to explore different note-taking methods and see which makes the most sense for you.
As a freelance writer for the past 10 years, I’ve tried nearly every type of note-taking method out there. Below, I share some of my favorites and tell you how and when to use them.
The Cornell note-taking method is popular among students. This is actually a method I learned in AP English, the beginning of my journey to becoming the ultimate note taker!
With the Cornell method, you separate your page into two columns, write your notes in the larger space on the right and write the main points or ideas for each section of notes in the smaller left-hand column.
The Cornell note-taking method is a great way to condense and organize a large amount of notes. The format makes it easy to pull out the main ideas from each section of notes quickly so you can review notes quickly and focus on what’s most important.
Cornell notes format (via University of New Brunswick)
- Draw a line down your paper, leaving a 2-inch margin on the left and a larger area on the right.
- Take your detailed notes in the larger area on the right.
- For each new topic, skip a few lines on the page before taking more notes.
- When you are done taking notes, write a cue on the left side of the page to summarize each section.
When reviewing your notes, look at the cues to prompt your memory. You can add an overall summary paragraph at the end of your notes with key takeaways.
Example of Cornell notes (via Alvord Schools)
Cornell notes are one of the best note-taking methods for when you attend trainings and longer presentations where you need to take a lot of notes and distill the information later. If you prefer to take notes by hand, this can be a great way to keep your notes organized and easy to review.
2. Mind mapping
Mind mapping is a visual note-taking method that shows how different ideas relate to a central theme. The main theme is placed in the middle of the map while the related ideas build off the main theme, encapsulated in circles to keep things organized.
While it can often be hard to see how ideas connect when your notes are just words on a page, mind mapping helps you visually organize this information while allowing you to dive deeper into each topic.
Mind mapping notes format (via MindMeister)
- Write the main topic or project you’re exploring in the center of the page and draw a circle around it.
- Draw lines out from this circle for different subtopics that relate to the main topic; circle each subtopic.
- Repeat lines and subtopics as needed.
You can continue to dive deeper if you need to with as many layers of related ideas as necessary. If you’re not a pen and paper kind of person, there are many tools that allow you to create mind maps on the computer as well.
Example of mind mapping (via MindMeister)
Mind mapping is best for creative or conceptual projects where you need to see how different elements relate to one another. This is one of the best note-taking methods for brainstorming ideas on any topic, but it can also be used for project planning or launches.
3. Rapid logging
You probably know someone who has a bullet journal (or BuJo if you’re in the know!) Bullet journaling was created in the late 1990s and has been quite popular ever since.
In a nutshell, bullet journaling uses abbreviated bullet points to log information, usually in one hand-written journal. Rapid logging is one of the main tools that bullet journal enthusiasts use to take notes quickly and efficiently.
Rapid logging involves taking simple, short notes and categorizing them with little icons. These icons make it easy to review and understand what each note is about.
Example of rapid logging key (via College Info Geek)
- Create a key with your chosen icons. These icons can be whatever you want, but the simpler, the better.
- Take hand-written, bulleted notes throughout the day in your journal using the icons you’ve created to categorize each note.
- Instead of taking long-form, narrated notes, you’ll want to keep each bullet point short and simple.
- At the end of the day or week, you can look back on your notes and quickly review what you need to, using the key as a guide for your categories.
There are no strict rules for bullet journaling or rapid logging. You just need to find a system that works for you with emphasis on quick note taking and visual organization.
Example of rapid logging notes (via Bit of Clarity)
Rapid logging is best used for daily note taking. If you’re someone who takes notes on many things throughout the day or finds themselves swimming in a sea of Post-It reminders, then rapid logging is a simple and efficient way to record everything you need to while keeping yourself organized.
If you’re a visual organizer who isn’t interested in mind mapping or rapid logging, charting is a classic note-taking method that might appeal to you.
Charting uses columns to categorize and organize your notes as you take them. This makes it easy to find and access the information later when you need it.
Charting notes format (via GoodNotes Blog)
- Create and label a column for each category you need.
- Write your notes in the appropriately labeled column.
- When it’s time to review your notes, you’ll be able to go directly to the right column to pull out the information you need.
Typically, the charting method uses a chart with 4 to 6 columns, but you can adjust this based on your needs. If you’d rather not write notes by hand, you can easily create these columns on a spreadsheet.
Example of charting method notes (via SlidePlayer)
The charting method of taking notes is a great way for service-based entrepreneurs to keep a running list of to-dos and things they need to remember for each of their clients. Using a different column for each client, you can keep your client notes organized, making it easy to review each client’s note at the end of the day, week, or month.
5. Maria Popova
Maria Popova is a writer, best known for her work on BrainPickings.org. She is prolific in her blog content, writing an average of three blog posts a day, and she is also an avid reader, often reading 15 books each week!
She’s developed her own method to help her understand and retain information from all the books she reads. Her note-taking method involves indexing ideas quickly and easily to better understand the most important concepts or ideas in a book.
The process is simple — record the main ideas or concepts in a few words and then record the pages that these concepts appear on.
- Build out your ideas index as you read, listing out the topics and ideas that are most important.
- Under each idea or concept heading, record the page number where the idea occurs.
- When you want to recall ideas from the book, you can return to your notes. And if you want to review specific sections, your notes will tell you which pages to look at.
This is one of the note-taking methods that can be done in many formats. You can type notes on a Google doc, hand write your notes in a journal, or even write the notes directly in the book.
Example of the Maria Popova note-taking method (via Remarkable)
The Maria Popova system is best used when reading books as it helps you retain the main ideas of the book while giving you an easy guide to reference when you want to return to these ideas. This note-taking method can also be used when you are writing a blog post, journal article, or book where you need to reference source material.
6. Flow notes
If strict structure gets in the way of your creative process, then flow notes may be the best note-taking method for you. It’s a creative note-taking process that allows you to add your own connections and ideas to the notes that you’re taking.
Rather than writing out long, detailed notes, you write down major ideas in just a few words and then connect these major points to your own ideas and experiences.
While it is similar to mind mapping in some ways, the goal is not to create a hierarchy of ideas but rather discover interrelated concepts and new ideas.
Example of flow note format (via William Liedner)
- Write the major ideas in just a few words, leaving room for additional notes.
- Make connections between these ideas while coming up with new ideas to also include in your notes.
- Draw arrows to interrelated ideas and include pictures or diagrams to help you make stronger connections.
This type of note taking is best done with pen and paper or a stylus and your favorite note-taking or drawing app.
Example of flow notes (via LibGuides)
With a focus on creativity and making connections, flow notes are a great note-taking method for brainstorming new ideas. They can also be used for preliminary product or project planning.
Find the best note-taking methods for you
The best note-taking methods are the ones that work for you. Try a few of these methods above to see which you like best. Different styles of taking notes work better in different circumstances. Experiment!
If you’re looking for some note taking apps to make your life easier, check out our list of Evernote alternatives. You might also be interested in some of the AppSumo deals that include killer note taking features like Sticky Notes, SoapBox, and adam.ai.
Happy note taking!
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