Don’t Neglect Your Notes!

Header - Don't Neglect Your NotesWhen I started working at EA, my new manager gave me some time to learn the ropes and pick up as much as I could about the position, the department and what role I would play. He let me get my feet wet a bit at first, and then threw me in. It was a sort of mixture of trial by fire and sink or swim, which was actually the best way to introduce a new person to the role. His door was open though, and he helped guide me into my position, even though he left most of the decision making up to me.

One piece of advice though has really stuck with me. I didn’t quite get it at the time, but since then, it is one of the most invaluable tools I have learned to use.

“Have IT install OneNote. Make sure you keep your notes organized and stay on top of them.”

Granted, it’s not a verbatim quote, as the conversation was likely a great deal more… colourful than that… But that was the gist.

The actual application isn’t the important thing. OneNote is a great program, for sure, but it is simply a tool to help follow a best practice. I’ve actually migrated over to Evernote since then, and have tried a variety of other systems and talked to people with their preferred methods. The reality is that you need to find the tool that works best for you, and gives you the features you need. Some people like the sheer number of features OneNote has, I tend to prefer the slightly more streamlined approach of Evernote, some people use Word, some people a simple text editor. Whatever works best for you, the important part is this: Make sure you are on top of your notes.

In just about every workplace related to mobile, IT, gaming, applications, web and the like, you will have notes pouring out of your wahzoo (this is, of course, the technical term for it). Meetings, presentations, phone calls, interviews, emails, and just sudden thoughts will all contribute to a mass of notes that you need to keep for future use. While items like laptops and tablets are being used more and more for these items, many people (myself included) still prefer to jot these down in simple notebook. And often these simple notebooks become a small library of notebooks with all sorts of thoughts, plans and ideas jumbled together. These items are great to have, but become difficult to use in any sort of meaningful way if you aren’t actively putting them in a usable structure.

Each individual will structure these items differently. Some like to get very granular and use a system with tons of detail and intricacies, whilst others prefer a broader approach to group content, but not spend as much time on the details. It really depends on how you work, and how you work with your notes. I personally tend to go for a broader approach, but that’s because I like to simplify my notes rather than spend *too* much time on their upkeep. And again, which tool you use will make some difference in your methodology, but by and large you should be able to put together a workable system regardless of which tool you use. For example, I tend to use a system like this:

First Level

  • ASAP
  • Non ASAP

This level is incredibly simple. Two categories to monitor that are fairly straightforward. Anything in ASAP needs to be taken care of within 48 hours. I might sometimes add in important items with a little more time available (no more than 1 week) and will flag those items as required. But by and large this is to keep me on top of things that are incredibly pressing, and then everything else.

Second Level

  • Current Projects
  • Legacy Projects
  • Future Projects
  • Misc

This is pretty simple. Current Projects are anything I am working on that is in active development. Future Projects are things I may be contributing to, but still hasn’t reached the development phase. Legacy Projects are projects that are complete, but I may still be touching on.  Once an Active Project is not longer being worked on, for example, in moves into Legacy. And Misc is just anything that isn’t associated with any direct project. Something like hiring, department items, notes for 1 on 1s will go into this category.

At this level, I keep only the broadest of notes. Items that span multiple projects, deal with the group as a whole, or have little in the way of specifics. This tends to be a pretty lean layer of notes.

Third Level

  • Project 1 / Misc Item 1
  • Project 2 / Misc Item 2
  • Project 3 / Misc Item 3
  • etc…

And here are the details for each specific project or item I am working on. So, for example, Project 1 may have my notes from a meeting I attended, a presentation I gave, a conference call I was on, and some thoughts I had whilst brainstorming. I keep these items together in this one layer, making sure to apply an appropriate label containing the following: Date – Activity – Follow Up. This lets me see as much info as I can in that project for what is going on. So for example, I may have the following note labels under Project 1:

  • Apr 02 2014 – QA Meeting (Current Bug total) – Details to Steve
  • Mar 15 2014 – My Presentation (Feature List) – Get Feedback From Stakeholders
  • May 01 2014 – Conference Call (Date shift right 2 weeks) – N/A

Each one of those is a label for the notes within. I can see at a glance the date, what the type of note it is, what the crux of the info is, and what followup (if any) I need to prep.

Having written it out, it looks more detailed than it really is, as it still keeps a very broad approach to information. I tend to work best with a simple structure that keeps as much information as possible in easy to reach places. Others like to get really granular and dissect the information as much as possible. Again, this isn’t a right way versus a wrong way, it’s about finding the system that works best for you.

The important thing is to actually *have* a system. Needing a particular piece of information quickly and then having to rifle through a handful of notebooks trying to find it just isn’t fun, and it can be a real time waster. Being able to locate a particular note quickly can also be a life saver when dealing with an angry client, another department that needs the info ASAP, or to help meet a particular goal during an emergency.

A side benefit is that I personally find that it helps with retention of information. Taking the time to re-write your notes, organize them, and keep on top of the information really helps me remember the finer details, and be better able to offer follow up when needed. Having a personalized system also helps me remember a few extra details than if it were just written down. The structure I have laid out in my note system seems to also help out with recall, which is a nice added bonus.

Proper note taking was one of the best pieces of advice I received in my career, and it is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen new employees make. I think this is the sort of item that a good manager can really help their team with. Even if it’s just a simple introduction to proper note taking, you are giving them a tool that will help them out on their entire career path. Give them the opportunity to find their system and make it theirs, but that first gentle introduction goes a long way. I know it did for me.

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