How to: be a digital note taker

Taking notes with pen and paper is one of the mainstays of professional practice. It is vitally important as a professional to keep a record of the key information you receive and the advice you provide to your clients when you apply your expertise to their projects.

However is there a better way?

Yes, and it is the digital equivalent. The advantages of digital over paper include:

  • Searchable – you can find information in seconds rather than leafing through a notebook or stack of paper
  • Safer – your device is password protected and backed up so no need to worry about losing or having unauthorised eyes reading your notes
  • Reusable – you can copy and paste material straight from your notes into your AEE or other report
  • Team friendly – share access to some of your notes with the rest of the project team to facilitate more open information practices within the team
  • Structured – notes can be organised and searched by various index terms or keywords rather than just chronologically as is the case with paper notebooks

Learning to move from physical note taking to the digital equivalent does take time. It won’t happen instantly. This is because there are individual steps and practices within the actual process of taking, storing and accessing notes. So, forming new habits around these takes time.

How to start? The most important message is to just start.

There are MANY different digital note taking products out there, so don’t let decision anxiety stop you from getting started. Try what appeals to you, but if you don’t have any idea, I recommend using Onenote.

Since most planners are mainly using Microsoft Office, Microsoft’s digital notebook option Onenote just makes sense as a starting point. Check out these two resources introducing Onenote and a video on how to get started. The fact that Onenote is integrated into the rest of the office suite is really it’s best product feature. For example, from Outlook you can email yourself a note straight into your notebook.

So let’s look at three steps to getting started

But first, as notetaking happens anywhere, I should also point out that you can access Onenote from your desktop PC and your mobile device so you always have access to your notebook. If you prefer to handwrite especially in meetings, you also then have the option to use the stylus to write your notes during the meeting. Onenote converts the stylus-written text to machine readable text so that it is easier to search your notebook later.

Step One – become familiar with your digital notebook product

Firstly check out Onenote’s getting started resources and learn what it can do (see links above). Set some first goals such as:

  1. Create a Onenote notebook
  2. Add a note in your notebook
  3. Search for a note
  4. Create a link to a website or other file
  5. Access your notebook from your mobile device

Step Two – Commit to using it for your notetaking for a fixed period

Once you are familiar with Onenote (or alternative) , try using it for a short time. Commit to either using it for one project or for all your projects for a week. Reflect on how this temporary use went. Challenge yourself to repeat the exercise, as each time it will become more natural.

Step Three – Set some practices around your notetaking

Once you have tried it, it is a good time to sit down and deliberately think of your notetaking practices and how you work with your digital notebook. Set some principles and processes so you know how you are entering and recalling the notes.

Here are four things to think about when working with digital notebooks such as Onenote:

  1. Your notebook should have a structure – most digital notebooks have at least two levels of hierarchy such as ‘sections’ and ‘pages’. Use a structure so that it is clear where you should add your notes.
  2. Link’ rather than ‘insert’ other material – Think of the notebook as for your thoughts and notes. Don’t fill it up with other material by inserting lots of large files such as images. Instead create links to all the files, webpages, images or any other resources cross referenced in your notes. Having this material available as links next to your notes really helps in those times you need to go back and figure out just how that error got in to the project information.
  3. Write notes which includes the cues to revisit the information – There is an art to writing notes which are easy to access again via the search function. So think about how you will get back to this note – make sure the note includes all the key factual information e.g. meeting with x on y so that it is easier to search.
  4. Once you have a few notes in your notebook, try searching for something to understand what sort of searching is most effective – this in turn allows you to build these recall cues back in to your notes as you take them. There is no point taking great notes if you are not going to make use of the information when you need it.

Again if you have never tried digital notebooks, the most important message is to give it a go. Don’t expect to switch overnight – it will be a journey. Every time you dip in to exploring digital notetaking as an alternative to paper notes, you will build more skills and confidence. It is totally one of those things which once implemented you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Happy digital notebooking – you will take better notes!

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