No one can remember everything, and business often requires detail and accuracy. For both reasons, taking notes becomes super important for success in the office. To make sure your own notes are useful rather than chicken-scratches to nowhere, use old-school paper and pen, and then implement these tips.

1. Forget words only.

Single areas of the brain don't operate in a vacuum. They connect to others in complicated neural networks so that you can put different information together. So don't limit yourself to words.

For example, a quick doodle or diagram can capture connotation in a more visual way or summarize a concept that would take a paragraph or more to write out. Symbols also can indicate stress or importance, drawing attention to specific ideas. Even leaving a space between data sets can have meaning and keep you organized.

2. Listen more, write less.

There's a huge tendency to try to write down as much of what a speaker says as possible, or to make a mirror copy of his or her PowerPoint. We do this because:

  • We're genuinely scared we'll miss something important and fall into mistakes later for it,
  • we're used to being able to use technology for notes and being able to type fast,
  • there's such an emphasis on perfection and accuracy in contemporary business,
  • we've been trained for tests that require us to recognize specific words or to regurgitate, and
  • we tend to believe that every word from a leader is potentially meaningful.

But you likely aren't going to have time to write everything down, anyway. And research shows that you'll remember information better if you make it social and verbalize it to someone.

So along that vein, focus on the speaker and really listen to identify his or her intent and main points. Connect with them and interact when it's appropriate (e.g., ask a question, get clarification). Then simply bullet out on regular paper what's most critical and spend more time reflecting on those points as you go, as well as immediately after the session.

3. Use a color code.

You don't have to bring an entire tub of pens with you here. But having a few utensils that allow for a color scheme as you write is good, because a color scheme serves two big purposes:

  • It offers an easy visual organization that lets you find specific information quickly when you need it, and,
  • it can force you to consider how information is categorized or relevant to other information. For example, if you're discussing the office calendar, all tasks for next week might be blue. This is a simple but active way of getting your brain to form the associations you want for memory's sake, especially considering that a speaker isn't necessarily going to give related information in order.

While I personally like different pens because I don't always know what's coming up in a talk or meeting, you can use different colored PostIts, tabs, or office paper, too.

4. Free yourself on the page.

While you might be using lined paper for your notes, nothing says you have to sit there and write everything out book style. Pick a way to approach the page that works for you and stick to it.

For example, in the Cornell method, you break the page into three sections--a "cue" space on the left for reviewing your notes and jotting questions after the session, a main in-session space on the left, and a section at the bottom where you can summarize the big concepts from the session in your own words.

Whatever method you use, the idea is to approach the page based on your personal learning needs, and to break the idea that your notes have to follow the traditional way you write.