The Documentary of Your Life

Let me paint a picture that happens all too often.  You’re in a meeting talking about some new, important initiative and the man-in-charge asks you for a status update.  As your mouth is about to open it dawns on you that last week he asked you to check specifically on the possibility of cutting scope to ship sooner, but you didn’t do it.  Now you either have to try to bluff your way through it or admit your failing (hint: the latter is better).

This is one of the easiest things that can be mitigated by note taking.  There are products, companies, and industries built around helping people to remember to do things that they are supposed to do.  Most of them are just a place to write things and a gimmick to get you to actually do it. Notes help not just by storing memories outside you brain, they also help to improve your brain’s function.  The act of writing something by hand (and to a lesser extent typing on a computer) gives a stronger connection between an idea and the rest of your memories.  It makes things easier to remember, even without the actual note.

Starting to take notes when you’re not habituated can be daunting.  It’s important to know what the different note taking styles are and which to use.  I classify the styles this way:

  • Anchors: An anchor note is to remind yourself of the topic or discussion.  It’s no good for other people because it’s short, quick things to jog your memory, like “ElasticSearch” or “Release.”  It’s enough for you to remember a conversation, but no one else has your context so it can’t help them.
  • Action Items: This is just writing down your TODO list.  As you or others are assigned things to do then you write down what they are so you make sure you check up on them later.  This is a common standard for company meetings.
  • Minutes: This is including a description of what was talked about and any decisions made.  These are common in formal organizations or with very formal or significant meetings.  They usually require a dedicated scribe to write and track through the meeting.
  • Positions: People enter meetings with different needs and desires, which is usually the reason for the meeting in the first place.  So one good way to write notes is to write what people think and want.  This can be used later to know who needs to talk through an idea before it’s brought up at a meeting or who might support a proposal.
  • Dictation: This is the extreme of note taking.  You can write quotes or record the meeting for a full transcript.  This isn’t usually helpful unless you’re trying to prove something with someone else’s words.


As a manager, I usually use a combination of Anchors, Action Items, and Positions for my one on ones.  At some point in the future I may need to know when we first discussed something, or I may need to do something for the person, and the person’s emotional state and goals are the purpose of the one on one anyways.  Only ever taking Action Items Notes is inadequate.  Everyone forgets things that they would rather remember.

Pick your reason for taking notes.  Whether you just want to make sure to do all you tasks, or you want to know people better.  Then take the right kind of notes.  But most importantly, take the notes.  Taking notes has saved my bacon much more than once.

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