Unlock Your Productivity By Taking Better Notes

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Alex Bachuk
Alex Bachuk

As managers, we have to multitask a lot. Switching between meetings, random conversations, one on ones, status updates, planning, presentations all the time. It feels overwhelming and exhausting. Keeping everything organized is the key to be productive and supporting your team. Context switching is draining your energy and focus. It gets even worse if you don't have a system that helps you arrange everything in order, prioritized with clear action items.

Before asking your team to be on top of their projects and priorities, start with yourself first. Lead by example. Be organized, prepared, and follow-through with your commitments. It takes time and effort, but the return on investment is worth it. There is no perfect system. Everyone operates differently. After struggling for many years, I recently found a system that works for me. Below is a summary of how I organize my work life.

Take notes.

Taking notes is the first step. Maintaining focus for a long time and remember everything is impossible. Relying on your memory alone is risky to stay on top of everything. Create notes for meetings, conversations, email threads. Use progressive summarization to document everything that's going on. Some people like writing on paper, I like to keep my personal notes online and easily accessible.

Writing things down forces you to form a thought and opinion about what you've heard or talked about. With constant context switching, it's easy to forget the important details or even your own ideas you had at that moment. Build a habit of taking notes. Free up your short term memory by externalizing your thoughts and ideas. Now even in the most boring meeting, you have no choice but to pay attention and engage, ask questions, clarify your assumptions. Because you intend to summarize information, take notes, and write down summaries of what you heard.

Keep the notes connected.

Make sure the notes are atomic and discoverable with enough context. Zettlekasten system is a great way to organize your notes. The idea is to take short notes and reference them to each other. Building a graph of interconnected nodes.

Your brain works this way by connecting neurons forming knowledge. Every time you learn something new, you're making new connections. With spaced repetition, neural connections become stronger, strengthening your memory. The more synapses you develop, the more stuff you know and understand.

This system works really well over time. The more connected notes you have, the more discoverable your knowledge base becomes. Tools like Obsidian.mdRoamResearchNotable are worth checking out to implement this system. Notion works well for general-purpose note-taking. A paper notebook or iPad with the GoodNotes app (I use Apple pencil) is a great choice too. The tools are less important than the consistency. Pick one and stick to it.

Associate the notes to bigger goals.

Things you do day to day are connected to bigger goals in one way or another. And bigger goals roll into your team strategy that rolls into the company vision. Use the higher-level goals as a guide for your priorities. Doing everything with intent has lots of benefits to you and everyone around you. Meetings are more efficient and happen less frequently. You know what and when to prepare, who to follow up with, and what requirements are missing.

Every note should be related to some initiatives, goals, or interests. Tag or link a note to its closest parent. That parent should be connected to its parent and so forth until you hit the core of why you do what you do.

For example, my meeting with SRE to get a new VM belongs to my goal of migrating 50% of the product to AWS. And this goal belongs to the strategy of the entire company complete migration to the cloud. And that translates into the vision of providing fast, stable, and reliable services to our end customers.

I don't have to keep all of it in mind all the time, but when I look something up in my notes, this connection should be clear. Now I have more context why I'm asking for the VM, how important it is, and its impact compared to other competing goals. Next time I follow up on my request, I'll look at my notes and know how my ask is connected to other projects and, ultimately, bigger goals. This process helps me be intentional with the next meeting I have with SRE, ...or maybe it should be an email or Slack message.

Review.

Look at the state of your knowledge base from multiple viewpoints. It's like playing 3D chess. There are many different perspectives to think about everything. To avoid information blindness, don't always go with the flow. Consider your thoughts, opinions, assumptions from the strategy point of view. And then look at them from the tactical execution perspective.

For example, rewriting everything using a new JavaScript library sounds fun and a great learning opportunity (tactical execution perspective). Still, it doesn't align with the company's strategy of generating more revenue. In this case, the decision can be somewhere in the middle, like dedicating 20% to technical debt rather than 100%.

Keep your perspectives in check. It's not smart to only fly high and be strategic without understanding day-to-day operations. It's also not helpful to be in the weeds all the time either. When reviewing and connecting your notes, examine them from multiple angles. Use higher-order thinking (google it) to analyze, evaluate, and understand everything going on around you. This will push you to ask questions. Ask yourself "why" a lot. Why do we have this meeting, why now, why these people are part of it.

Be prepared.

Don't just go with the flow of your calendar, mindlessly jumping from meeting to meeting. Every conversation should have a goal and purpose. Be prepared for your quarter, week, and day. Do your homework and get ready for every meeting and know what you need to get out of it and how it connects to everything in your knowledge graph.

Take control over your calendar. Engineering managers trade VSCode and IntelliJ for Outlook and Google calendar as their IDE. It's where you do your work. The schedule is how you set your priorities, allocate, and spend your time. I like to review my calendar on Friday afternoons to make sure everything lines up correctly in the next week. I have enough time to move things around while everyone is still available. It's also the right time to review the current week, organize your meeting notes, action items, schedule follow-ups, write status reports. Check how you and your team are progressing compared to set goals and priorities. When you're prepared and deliberate, everything becomes more efficient.

Maintain your notes.

Keep revisiting your notes regularly. Some notes may be obsolete, some can have new connections, and some can be merged together. Neatly organized notes are easier to discover and use to refresh your memory before meetings.

This system becomes your external brain and an assistant. Use it to transfer your knowledge at the end of a day and prepare for the next one. You'll keep discovering new relationships between projects, people, and ideas and can help you develop creative ways to solve problems. Keep it clean and organized. Remember the GIGO rule: garbage in, garbage out.

Documentation.

Your collection of notes is going to grow. You keep it organized and use it daily. You'll start noticing patterns where you spend your time, what conversation you have, and what problems and pain points you're trying to solve.

You begin developing new ideas bottom-up by connecting individual notes into the broader concepts. Look for opportunities to externalize the concepts into publicly available content. This can be in the form of wiki, documentation, presentations. It can be helpful for your team to understand how you see and perceive things. Then they can either challenge you or use this information as a reinforcement. For you, it's a chance to ensure your perception is as close to reality as possible. Writing is communication. When you're rewriting your notes into longer-form documentation, you're organizing your thoughts and opinions carefully to communicate with others.

Action items.

Keep track of your commitments. We casually say that we'll do it later, follow up, look into it more, but it's easy to forget. Everyone has access to to-do apps, calendars, reminders, but things still slip through the cracks.

Having one reliable system to organize notes and to-do list requires less mental energy to remember where something is stored. Every small decision drains your willpower and focus. Capture everything in one place to have a holistic view of your priorities, action items, follow-ups, and notes.

"If you don't trust your system, you can't let go of operational details and you'll limit your ability to create at a bigger level." –David Allen

Know what you need to do, why, and when. Going to meetings alone is not enough to make progress. Extract action items from your notes, ideas, and conversations.

Think and strategize.

Time is scarce. We try to squeeze as much productive time out of the day, meetings, check-ins, follow-ups all day long. Sometimes it feels like busywork. Remember to take breaks, stop, and re-evaluate your priorities. Look at the bigger picture. Great leaders need to think tactically and strategically. It's easy to get stuck in the execution mode because it feels productive.

Schedule uninterrupted time to think and strategize. For me, it means finding new connections between projects, people, ideas, technology. I think "what would happen if...", "how would I solve X if there were no limitations...", "what can I do to help person X...". It's about looking at things from a different angle, zooming out, and thinking on a higher level.

Creative thinking is essential. Use this note-taking system to document your ideas, even crazy ones, and use it when connecting your notes. You never know when the opportunity will come. And you'll be surprised how existing goals can connect to your innovative ideas that seem impossible at first.

Writing and maintaining your notes takes time. It feels like extra work with our busy schedules, and it may be hard to justify spending the effort to do it. I encourage you to stick to the most straight forward system possible at first. Be it a paper notebook, notes app, or something else. Being organized and on top of things has a high return on investment. Your productivity will skyrocket. And people around you will benefit too. I highly recommend "How to take smart notes" book to learn more about why and how to take notes.