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Daily Notes, or the Joy of Writing

2010 May 21
tags: Daily Notes, Getting Things Done, GTD, Productivity, Self-Care
by Andrew   

Daily notes…journals…work diaries…project notes…whatever. They need to be kept and maintained, and most people loathe to keep them.

I’m going to recommend an easy method of keeping these critical notes and, hopefully, show why they’re critical.

I have observed most people dislike maintaining such critical notes for three main reasons: 1) they take too long, 2) they believe they don’t have time to make the notes, and 3) it’s easy to put off until later. Usually forever or at least until you’ve forgotten any meaningful details.

I have tried many different styles of project or daily notetaking over the last three decades, and I have discarded the overwhelming majority. I recognize many that I’ve discarded work for others, so I don’t see a reason to knock them. What I’m going to do is make some recommendations that will work for anyone. Seriously. I have observed dyed-in-the-wool can’t-spend-too-much-time-on-anything √ľberminds, genius-level social scientists and business professionals, and plenty of regular folks use similar systems to make sure they know what they accomplished that day, who owes them what, what they owe others, and what relationships were influenced. This information forms the core of what makes tomorrow’s productivity probable.

As I’ve said, I have tried – and discarded – many systems:

  • Completely separate notes on each project or meeting
  • “Teaser” memory jogging notes on a project or meeting
  • One big book of chronological notes, completely lacking in organization…why? I’ll tell you later.
  • Summary memos on every project or major decision point in a project

I discarded each of these because they all have at least three basic flaws in common: 1) They take too long, 2) they don’t capture the right amount of information in a highly-reliable retrieval system, and 3) they result in information being scattered when you need to retrieve it.

So, what did I decide to keep? A customized synthesis of three notetaking systems:

  • A modified version of the Cornell Note Taking System
  • One notebook for recording daily notes
  • Project and meeting notes stored with their major subject files

For the Cornell note taking method, which I use for everything from planning, to meeting documentation, to project notes, I use Levenger’s Circa annotation-ruled letter-sized notebook, with the same notebook in compact-size to add highlights from meetings. I’ve been using these notebooks – and the notepads- for years because ink doesn’t bleed, the paper is a good weight, and it’s durable.

I typically take the handwritten notes from meetings, phone conversations, and project reviews and scan them to PDFs with meaningful filenames and email subjects, and file them in the appropriate project folders.

For my daily notes, I owe a huge debt to my wife. God blessed me with a wonderful, insightful partner, confidante, and sounding board. I once mentioned the fits – and hours – my daily notes could take to render them useful, and she matter-of-factly suggested a couple of changes that have yielded remarkable results.

Using my Circa notebook, I devote two pages to each day. The left is divided into Actions/Decisions at the top and Meetings at the bottom. The right is divided into Voicemails (received) at the top, Telephone calls (made and received) in the center, and emails (made and received) at the bottom.

You can see (and download) a MS Word version of the template I use to print the headers here:

  Daily Notes (Left Page) (28.0 KiB, 982 hits)

  Daily Notes (Right Page) (28.5 KiB, 707 hits)

This step is not necessary, but it saves me from having to write the headers and I prefer them printed.

 

The key to making this effective is three-fold:

  • Make succint notes as you complete tasks, meetings, calls, etc. Draw a small square box to the left of each entry. Check it when the associated actions are closed; leave it blank if they are still open. You must review these open actions to ensure tracking: Add them to your “stuff” tracking.
  • Don’t waste time writing a transcript. Write what you need to document the decision, action, call, etc. I use the compact Circa notebook to document anything that will take more than two lines and slip it into the day’s notes, referencing it in the main entry.
  • If you owe someone something, or they owe you, put it in the appropriate place in your GTD “stuff” tracking. Conduct periodic reviews of your unchecked boxes as part of disciplined closed-loop management.

Maintaining useful daily notes will free your mind from clutter associated with the items you document, enable you to refer to events that occurred on a given day, and allow pointers to more detailed notes and files associated with projects. And, as you document the notes from each event as you progress through the day, you can easily create items in your calendar or in your Action, Deferred, or Waiting On folders as appropriate.  The bigger payoff is you can move to the next project or task without fear of losing what needed capturing from the others.

It takes time, commitment, and discipline…but the results are worth it.

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