How to take notes like a pro with Notes to Done

I used to be a terrible note-taker. I would scribble random snippets of information down in semi-legible handwriting and then never come back to what I had written. This caused unnecessary stress.

Notes and actions would all be mixed together with doodles, reminders and anything else that had arrived in my head during the meeting.

But now I have refined how I take notes and to quickly allow me to pull out actions and important pieces of information quickly at a glance. In order to do this I’ve adopted what I like to call “Notes to Done” in honour of Mr David Allen.

In the picture above is a set of notes I took from a recent meeting.  The content is not important, particularly as I’ve removed some personal information. But by applying some of the tools I’ll outline, you’ll be able to make your notes easier to use.

  1. Heading on each page – I put a heading or title of what the notes are about on every page that contains them, not just the first. That way when scanning back through a notebook it is really clear what each page is containing.
  2. Number each set of pages – I don’t bother numbering every page, just the set. I put a page number on the top right of the set to allow me to index them, just like in my first Bullet Journal. Only numbering every other page reduces the index, which makes it easier to find entries. I’ve also found that I don’t need the level of detail to find out what’s on a one page spread, two is adequate.
  3. Draw a margin on the outside edge of every page – we’ll come back to the use of this later, but this is one of the most effective tools to make your notes ‘work’. In order to draw the margin, you don’t need a ruler. Just hold the pen as normal and use two or three fingers against the side of the notebook as you pull downward. Result – a semi straight line in no time.
  4. Use headers to identify chunks of notes – These are pretty standard to most note taking methods, so I’ll not expand this.
  5. Tag the margins – This is one of the keys to my Notes to Done method. Put a small word or phrase inside your margin alongside any notes that have importance or you think you’ll need later. Think of these in the same way as #hashtags on the web. In my example above you’ll see “project process“, “receipts“, “mileage“. All of these I know I need to refer back to later. You’ll also see a section I’ve tagged “URGENT” and another IMPORTANT (“IMP”).
  6. Tag all actions in the margins – again the (A) signifier with an arrow very clearly shows me I have an action here.  When I come to review my notes, the first thing I’ll do is pull out these actions and transfer to my todo list, in my case my Bullet Journal.
  7. Mark notes as processed – you’ll see that my (A) signifier does not have a way to tell if I’ve processed that action. Instead I put a double square checkbox at the bottom of each page to perform this task. When I have reviewed my notes and taken out any actions needed, I simply fill in the box to show that this page is processed. At any later date I can see how far through the notebook I have processed, which is really useful if you take a lot of notes and need to batch process them.
  8. Use diagrams if possible – the less words you can use the easier it is to review later, so think about if you can use diagrams, pictures or charts. There’s one example here. The key is to keep things as simple as possible.

I’ve found that using the tools above I can quickly recap, find useful information and not worry that anything I need to do has been forgotten. Notes to Done gives me clarity and a sense of calm. I hope you’ll find this too!

Feel free to share this post if you find it useful, and let me know your comments and thoughts below.

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