Wherever he goes, Richard Branson always has something to write with. Whether it's a trusty tech device or good old fashioned pen and paper, the iconic businessman never lacks something with which to take notes.
In fact, note-taking is a skill Branson swears by. He's nearly religious about it.
"I go through dozens of notebooks every year and write down everything that occurs to me each day," Branson wrote in a company blog post describing an event he attended with billionaire friend Bill Gates, who also happens to be a serious note-taker. "An idea not written down is an idea lost. When inspiration calls, you've got to capture it."
At Virgin, the company Branson founded, the practice is ubiquitous.
"Virgin very much has a notebook culture, with people always jotting ideas down, trying new things and not settling for the same old way," Branson wrote in the blog post.
Maybe his penchant for note-taking arose from having a poor memory, Branson guesses, or maybe it was the byproduct of growing up dyslexic. Whatever the reason, he credits note taking for many of his most successful ventures.
"I can't tell you where I'd be if I hadn't had a pen on hand to write down my ideas (or more importantly, other people's) as soon as they came to me," Branson wrote in the company blog post. "Some of Virgin's most successful companies have been born from random moments--if we hadn't opened our notebooks, they would never have happened."
Surprisingly, though, "99 percent of people in leadership roles don't take notes," Branson noted.
According to a study by Harvard psychologist Michael Friedman, the benefits of note-taking include the ability to "[make] better decisions, solve problems, and work more efficiently as a group."
"Note-taking allows people to outsource their memories to an external source (paper or device), as well as make content explicit for future reference," Friedman wrote in his review.
More importantly, note-taking can result in broader learning, Friedman says.
But there are some obstacles that stand in the way of good note taking. Speakers tend to talk faster than the note taker can actually take notes. If there's noise in the room or the note-taker is unable to make out what the speaker is saying, it makes note-taking more difficult. Not to mention there are a lot of mental processes that happen simultaneously.
"The learner has to pay attention to the instructor, understand the material, identify what is important to write down in their notes, and coordinate the physical writing or typing of their notes, all while usually under severe time pressure," Friedman wrote. "Note-taking has been found to be as cognitively demanding as playing chess is for an expert, as both require the retrieval of knowledge, planning, and the development of solutions."
So how do you overcome some of these challenges? Here are a few tips:
1. Avoid transcribing notes.
Use short-hand instead. Or jot down key ideas, rather than writing what the speaker is saying word for word. For visual thinkers, drawing a picture or an illustration may be more useful, as business consultant and strategic illustrator Patti Dobrowolski does in this talk.
2. Review notes immediately and regularly.
It's not enough to record the ideas and information gleaned. You have to refer to them often to assess whether or not they make sense -- or whether there are gaps that need to be filled. Research has shown the more regularly a note taker reviews his notes, the more likely he is to retain and synthesize the information learned.
"No matter how big, small, simple or complex an idea is, get it in writing," Branson advised in this blog post. "But don't just take notes for the sake of taking notes, go through your ideas and turn them into actionable and measurable goals. If you don't write your ideas down, they could leave your head before you even leave the room."
3. To type or not to type?
That is the question--which, unfortunately, has no clear answer. Some research suggests that pen and paper activates parts of the brain that lead to better understanding and focus, while others suggest electronic devices (iPad, laptop, etc.) are more efficient. Whatever tool you use is really up to you. How you capture the information isn't what matters.
"My iPad and phone are daily companions," wrote Branson in the company blog post. "Meanwhile, my daughter Holly uses a digital notepad she can write on that is a wonderful combination of two worlds. It doesn't matter how you record your notes--as long as you do."