Category Archives: notetaking

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Six steps to make sharing part of how you work

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

People often ask me how I find the time to write, blog, or give presentations, so I’ve put together these tips on how to turn sharing from something that takes up extra time to something that saves you time as you work.

Sharing is intimidating. You might think that you need to master blogs or wikis before you can make the most of Web 2.0 tools to help you share your knowledge and build your network. But even if you never post in public, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to make a bigger difference through sharing.

I’m not going to tell you to start a blog today. Here’s a six-step program to help you save time by making sharing part of the way you work, even if most of what you work with is confidential or lives in e-mail. Give it a try!

Step 1. Review your e-mail for information that you repeatedly send people. Do different people ask you the same questions? Are there links or files you find yourself always looking up and sending? Are there common problems you often solve? Save time by filing those messages in a “Reference” folder so that you can easily find them the next time someone asks that question or needs that file. Save even more time by rewriting your notes so that you can easily cut and paste them into new messages.

You can use your e-mail program to manage this information by saving the e-mails in a “Reference” folder that might be subdivided into more folders, or you can save the information in directories on your hard drive, encrypting it if necessary. The key change is to create a virtual filing cabinet and put useful information in it.

This virtual filing cabinet can save you a lot of time on your own work, too. I often find myself searching for my notes on how I solved a problem six months ago because I have to solve it again, and my notes save me a lot of time.

Step 2. When talking to people, listen for opportunities to take advantage of your reference information. Now that you’ve got an virtual filing cabinet of useful information, keep an ear open for ways you can use that information to help people more efficiently. When people ask you a question you’ve answered before, give them a quick answer and promise to e-mail them the rest of the details.

When you look for ways to reuse the information you already have, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get a lot more benefit from the effort that you’ve already invested.

Step 3. Reach out. Now that you’ve saved time and helped more people by sharing the information in your virtual filing cabinet when they ask, you’ve got a better sense of which notes are very useful. Take a moment to review your files and think about who might benefit from learning from that information. Reach out to them, sending them a note about what you’ve learned and why it can save them time. It might lead to interesting conversations and good opportunities.

For example, let’s say you e-mailed one of your coworkers an answer to his problem. Think of other team members who might have run into the same problem, and send them a short note about it too. If you do this judiciously, people will feel grateful without feeling overwhelmed by e-mail.

Step 4. Prepare and take notes. Now you’re getting lots of return on the time you invested into organizing your existing information, and you’ve got an idea of what kinds of information help you and other people a lot. Proactively write down information that might be useful instead of waiting until someone asks you about it, because you might not remember all the relevant details by that time. In fact, take notes while you’re working instead of leaving it for the end. File those notes in your virtual filing cabinet as well, and share them with other people who might find this useful.

In addition to helping you save time in the future, writing about what you’re learning or doing can help you think more clearly, catch mistakes, and make better decisions.

Step 5. Look for ways to share your notes with more people. By now, you’ve probably developed a habit of looking for ways to take advantage of what you’re learning or doing: writing and filing your notes, retrieving your notes when people need them, and proactively reaching out. You can stop there and already save a lot of time–or you can learn about sharing your notes more widely, helping you build your network and increase your impact.

Proactively reaching out to people who might find your notes useful has probably helped you develop stronger working relationships with a small investment of time. However, this is limited by who you know, how much you know about what they’re working on, and the timing of the information. On the other hand, if you share some of your notes in public areas where people can search for or browse them, then you can help people you might not think of reaching out to, and they can find your information whenever they need it.

You don’t have to share all your information publicly. Review your virtual filing cabinet for information that can be shared with everyone or with a small group, and look for ways to share it with the appropriate access permissions. You can share different versions of documents, too.

For example, I share public information on my blog because blogs make it easy to publish quick notes, and search engines make it easy for people to find what they need even if I posted those notes several years ago. On the other hand, there are many notes that I post to internal access-controlled repositories. Sometimes, I’ll post a sanitized version publicly, and a more detailed version internally.

This is where you can get exponential return on your time investment. If people can find and benefit from your notes on their own, then you can reach many more people and create much more impact.

People may not find and use your information right away. Keep building that archive, though. You’ll be surprised by how useful people can find your work, and by the number of opportunities and relationships you build along the way.

Step 6. Review your organizational system and look for opportunities for relentless improvement.

You’ve collected useful information from your e-mails and conversations, organized that in your virtual filing cabinet, reached out to people, and shared some of your notes publicly. Congratulations! You’re probably getting your work done faster because you don’t waste time solving problems again. Your coworkers probably look to you for answers because you not only help them solve problems, you do so in a timely and detailed manner. And you might already have discovered how helpful your notes can be for others you wouldn’t have thought of contacting. What’s next?

Review your virtual filing cabinet. Can you organize it for faster access? Can you fill in missing topics? Can you identify and update obsolete information? Look for opportunities to improve your process, and you’ll save even more time and make a bigger impact.

Want to share your experiences? Need help? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 

Note-taking revisited

I was away for training last week, attending a 3-day learning session organized by IBM. There were around 500 IBMers there. My manager not only suggested that I go, he even gave me a lift. I resolved to make the most of it.

Packing light meant taking my work laptop, leaving my netbook, and bringing a small paper notebook along as a backup for note-taking. I like taking notes. I’d rather slow down and take notes than waste the time and the opportunity by forgetting.

In 2006, I wrote about how taking notes during conversations helps with post-event connection. What’s changed in the last four years? I now take casual notes on my iPod Touch. I’ve been thinking about getting a tablet PC for better note-taking. But for fast-flowing conversations, I still return to paper.

I’ve rediscovered drawing. My notes are punctuated by doodles: quick sketches of presenters, random objects that suggest themselves to a wandering right-brain. I like drawing. It helps me remember what a session felt like, instead of just what it contained.

I no longer bring fountain pens, as they’re all too easy to drop. Instead, I use a fine-point gel pen, which is clearer than pencils when it comes to scanning or review, and which writes more smoothly than a ballpoint pen does. I use a multi-colour ballpoint pen for review and emphasis.

My workflow has improved. While taking notes, I mark action items with a square on the left, particularly interesting topics with a star, ideas with a lightbulb, and thoughts and reflections with a thoughtcloud. This makes it easy to skim my notes for action items during review.

Instead of trying to hold the notebook open as I type thoughts in, I scan new pages at 600dpi full colour. This gives me a digital backup that I can flip through on my computer while I type my notes on a separate screen. As I type, I copy my action items into a separate section. After I finish writing my notes, I review the action items and import them into my task manager.

How can I make this even better?

I can write more neatly. This means slowing down in the beginning, but it will save me time when skimming or reading my notes. (And if I do it really well, maybe Evernote can understand my handwriting!)

I can try using a pad and then scan sheets using the automatic document feeder. Our printer/scanner’s automatic document feeder scans only one side, but I can simply do two passes. This would reduce scanning time.

I can save up for a tablet and see if that works out better for note-taking. I like being able to draw diagrams and icons while taking notes, so it would be good to experiment with a Tablet PC.

I’ll never buy a Moleskine again

image

Hand-made notebooks are so awesome. Charo not only gave me a wonderful little notebook, she taught me how to make my own. I’ve got a feeling that this will be a lifelong craft. And it complements my interest in sewing, too. Now I can make notebooks that match my quirks and my clothes! ;)

She got interested in bookbinding because she couldn’t find the kinds of journals she wanted, so she decided to make her own. I’m so glad that she shared that interest with me!

Whee!

Personal knowledge management, morgue files, capture systems

How do you organize what you know so that you can use it for inspiration later?

Here’s what I have:

Input:

  • Experience
  • Conversations
  • Books
  • Blogs
  • Ideas
  • Experiments

Capture and sharing:

  • Words, sketches, brainstorms – paper and pen
  • Mindmap on my iPod Touch and laptop
  • Quick tips through microblogging and bookmarks
  • Longer thoughts in my blog and on wikis
  • Generally useful information – slides, presentations
  • Book notes – scanned pages, text files; this needs to be integrated into my system and set up for regular review
  • One big text file organized with outlines and keywords for life, and another big text file for work

Navigation:

  • Search
  • Indexes in my notebooks
  • Randomness, similarity, and on-this-day in my blog
  • Hyperlinks
  • Summaries
  • Outlines and keywords

Index cards are useful for brainstorming too (especially for life planning or when I’m sketching a big talk that doesn’t have an obvious structure), but I don’t use them for long-term storage yet. My blog includes first drafts as well as more polished posts. I need a place to braindump. =) If you want less volume and more thought, just check out the highlights.

I love the idea of a morgue file. I’d love to eventually build myself a good random-access information management system. I currently stuff most things into my blog, and am slowly figuring out how to organize things more. I used to use howm, which was pretty cool too (if very geeky). I may go back to building a personal wiki. W- uses Tiddlywiki. =) Digital works well for me because I like being able to access things from anywhere. I don’t interact with enough paper to have a full-blown paper system, and would rather go digital instead of printing things out to integrate them with a paper system.

I love mapping things out. Mapping helps me navigate, see gaps, and plan. It’s also a good way to make it easier for other people to discover interesting things.

Next steps for me:

  • Digitize paper
  • Build indices
  • Build online and offline naming conventions for linking
  • Flesh out map
  • Learn more

More to come as I figure out and improve my system. =)

Thanks to Eric Blue for the inspiration!

On pen and paper

A friend of mine wanted to know my notebook preferences, so here’s what I do in terms of pen and paper. =)

My favourite kind of notebook is a hard-cover non-spiral-bound notebook, with a back flap for storing ephemera. Hard-cover notebooks are easy to write in when I’m walking around, and I don’t have to worry about squishing them in my bag. Spiral-bound notebook coils tend to flatten or unwind, so I avoid them.

I’d love to have a notebook with a spine that can accommodate a pen clip, but I’m happy carrying the pen around separately, too.

I use different sizes for different things. Pocket-sized notebooks are good for daily notes. Mid-sized notebooks are good for single-page sketches. 8.5×11” notebooks are good for brainstorming or visual note-taking.

I like using unlined pages, preferably in off-white. Unlined pages let me use the notebook both horizontally and vertically, and they scan better when I have diagrams. It would be great to find a notebook with a light dot-grid (not an square grid) that can be removed from scans, but that’s okay.

My notebooks tend to have white or cream pages. Cream pages go well with my dark red fountain pen ink and feel less harsh than white pages, but white is okay too.

The Moleskine unlined hard-cover journal is nice, but Curry’s and other art stores carry cheaper alternatives. I usually stock up on 8.5×11” sketchbooks when they’re on sale, and pick up pocket notebooks whenever.

Following Lion Kimbro’s recommendation, I’ve stocked up on 4-colour pens. My current favourite 4-colour pen is the Pilot Feed GP4 0.7, which I picked up at National Bookstore in the Philippines for the equivalent of ~CAD 3. You can bet I’m going home with a box of those pens. I also sometimes carry an inexpensive fountain pen that I don’t worry about losing or dropping, saving my Waterman Harmonie for bedside writing.

I usually use a pocket-sized notebook to take notes during conversations, which are usually captured as keywords. I tend to use visual notetaking for talks. For brainstorming, I make lists, mindmaps, visual notes, sketches, and other diagrams.

I number odd pages and keep an index at the back.

Archived notebooks go on one of our bookshelves. I rarely refer to them, but it’s fun to flip through old notebooks once in a while.

I’m looking forward to getting into the habit of scanning my notebook pages when I get back. It’ll be fun!

Thinking out loud: Mapping what I know

I want to map what I know.

I want to make what I know more findable. The reverse-chronological order of blog posts isn’t enough organization. Search is useful, but it’s not enough. I want to make it easier for people to learn my skills or take over my role so that we can all do more than I can do myself. In order to do that, I need to make it easier for people to browse and learn.

I want to map the gaps so that I can see what else I need to reflect on and write about. I want to write what I’ve learned before I take too much for granted. Mapping my knowledge is one way to figure out what else is missing. Answering people’s questions is another way. This is one of the reasons why mentoring is useful.

My ideal would be a visual, expanding map of what I know, with links to additional resources. It would distinguish between things I’m actively learning about and things I’ve archived. It would be easy to update. It would be easy to cross-reference. People could browse it from the top down, or they could search it. It would be back-linked from my blog so that people could see the context of what I’ve posted.

It’s challenging to think about that map in full, but I can start building small pieces of it. People ask me about exploring interests and passions, improving productivity, delegating, being positive, and connecting with others. I can use a mindmap to organize my thoughts as well as previously published resources. As I expand the map, the bigger picture will emerge.

This will be fun!

Have you come across people with similar goals? I’d appreciate any pointers to role models!