Several years ago, while preparing to sit the PMP exam, I took a short course on study skills along side the more formal exam-prep course. It had been a long time since I'd taken actual classes, and now older and marginally wiser I wanted to learn from past mistakes by fixing the thing I didn't know - how to be a good learner. My most important take-away from the class: hand-writing your notes improves your retention of the information. This wasn't news to me, but a reinforcement of something I already knew.
This recent article reinforced the concept again, in the midst of the age of the laptop and tablet. Despite the increasing presence of the electronic palimpsest at meetings, classes and workshops, the notebook is still a superior tool for recording and remembering. I think it provides the most accurate record of an individual's thoughts and experiences because it is in their own words and is permanent - there is no delete key in a notebook, formatting for emphasis is immediate, version control is maintained by the chronological imperative of page order, and it provides the ultimate in "track changes" functionality.
I have had trysts with the electronic note-takers, but have always returned to my reliable hard-back friend. Ultimately, though, everyone needs to find their own touchstone, the tools simple or otherwise that work for them. Trial and error is the best test for this - don't marry it on the first date, take it out a few times to get to know it. Too often I've seen people adopt instantly and wholesale a tool that they've seen others use effectively, or that they've sampled briefly and suddenly believe it will solve all of their problems (I'm looking at you MindMapper). These relationships usually end badly, with the tool abandoned on the bookshelf or desktop and the disappointed user either returning to a tried-and-true approach or seeking a new companion.
My notebook is just that: mine. I use it in ways that work for me. I try new adaptations every now and then, but the central tool has remained constant: 192 blue-lined pages, blank and awaiting my scribblings. Here are some things that have worked for me, and couple that haven't:
- To-do list. Also known for me as an activity report (a hold-over from when I started them), this master list is a reminder for me of things I've completed, significant deadlines and appointments, and all tasks big and small. Because it's in my notebook, I have it with me all the time, so when the blessing of a cancelled meeting arrives, I know exactly how to reallocate that time to get stuff done. And the satisfaction of crossing something off when done - priceless.
- Post-it notes. These are multipurpose. One serves as a bookmark, moving forward page by page as the notebook gets filled. Others are stacked on the back cover, ready to leave a note on someone's door when they're not there, highlight a significant decision, or just pass a note during a meeting. And a dozen or so live on the back pages, keeping a running list of agenda items for various one-on-one meetings.
- Calendar. Also near the back is a copy of the calendar for the year, for when I need to quickly check an upcoming date. Faster than a speeding smartphone, I can tell you the date 6 Mondays from now with the turn of a page.
- Multiple notebooks. I tried this a few years ago - I started 3 notebooks at the same time, one each for different topics (meetings, platforms, one specific project). I didn't work, as I too often found myself in a meeting or conversation with the wrong notebook in my hand. And lugging three around all the time didn't make any sense to me. I abandoned this approach, but I know a few people who find it works well for them. Similarly, putting tabs throughout the notebooks so it had sections had me changing notebooks too frequently when a section got full, or just mistakenly writing in the wrong section, defeating the whole purpose of sections.
- Turning it over. Another misfire for me. Turning the notebook upside down and back-to-front, making essentially two sections, provided some organization, but I lost the use of the back pages for the calendar, etc.
- Larger, smaller or different notebooks. These also didn't work for me. Perhaps I'm a creature of habit, but the 9x7 size just fits for me. Others I work with prefer a smaller size, or a steno-style note pad.
- Multicolour pens. Another lesson from study skills was how using multi-coloured pens can aid in organizing notes and remembering information. This was something I already did back in school - my best notes (and grades) were when I used multiple colours to portray information to myself in my notes, an approach I used again in the PMP exam prep, to great effect and desired result (I passed). Nowadays, I stick with a plain blue pen, but still use multi-coloured highlighters for serious revisions.
Ultimately, the tool has to work for the user in order to be effective, and the notebook works for me. There is some science and logic behind its effectiveness, and so I always encourage folks to consider the old-fashioned notebook as a option for personal and professional organization. Some might even consider it a variation on the hipster PDA, "cheap, lightweight, freeform organizer that doesn't need batteries and is unlikely to be stolen".