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What is a good method for taking and organizing notes about projects?

Every day I struggle with problems with multiple projects and it's difficult to make my notes clean and to keep them organized. I have to answer the phone every five minutes so I have to write notes on the conversations somewhere. At the end of the working day my notebook is full of text and chaos and it's very tiring to clean everything up.

I was trying something like the Cornell Notes Taking System, but it wasn't very practical for me. Is there a better system or approach for tracking project information?

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    Efficient and accurate note taking is a skill required for many project management activities, but is not in itself a Project Management skill or problem and therefore your question is likely to be closed as off-topic. You might find it is on-topic at Workplace SE here: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions
    – Marv Mills
    Sep 8 '15 at 11:39
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about generic note-taking skills and not a project management problem or skill.
    – Marv Mills
    Sep 8 '15 at 11:39
  • I think that taking notes about projects is probably within scope; general note taking is out of scope, but *what to track *how to record etc. are solidly within the M&C domain.
    – MCW
    Sep 8 '15 at 14:57
  • I cannot see the distinction myself, taking clear telephone notes is taking clear telephone notes no matter what the subject matter. Sidepoint, what is "M&C"? @MarkC.Wallace
    – Marv Mills
    Sep 8 '15 at 15:03
  • Monitoring and control - one of the PMI process groups. I live in that group and forget that not everyone spends 7 hours a day thinking about monitoring and control.
    – MCW
    Sep 8 '15 at 15:10
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TL;DR

Notes are just placeholders for more complex thoughts, and are only intrinsically useful when they are:

  • organized;
  • searchable;
  • self-contained, self-explanatory, or transcribed; and
  • readable at a later date.

What you need is a process for organizing short-term, project-related information into a long-term storage format that carries context and supports information retrieval. Your tool chain (whether it's paper-and-pencil or something more complex) must support your process.

Think Process, Not Tools

First of all, as you are already aware, part of your problem is not having a methodology or process rather than a lack of tools. There are many schools of thought on how to take notes, and an exhaustive list would be out of scope for a Q&A site.

Your choice of Cornell Notes seems more suitable for studying than for information tracking, but that doesn't mean it can't work for you. However, a few other options include:

  1. Minds maps.
  2. Free-form notes in a central location, e.g. a composition book, with meta-data like names or dates at the top. I often use this technique myself.
  3. Time-stamped entries in a log file. For example, you can use Windows Notepad to create time-stamped log entries.
  4. Notebook-style applications like Tomboy, the OS X built-in Notes app, EverNote, MS OneNote, Google Keep, and so on. The list is quite long; picking one is a matter of subjective preference, and software recommendations are out of scope for most of Stack Exchange except for Software Recommendations Stack Exchange.

Think Retrieval, Not Format

While it's nice to have a standardized format for your notes such as standardized headers, time-stamps, or categories, the real issue you're facing is that you don't have a sensible organizational system or a data retrieval system. Your information-tracking process needs both.

In general, I find that electronic notes that support free-form searches make information retrieval a snap. In addition, any system that supports free-form reorganization into categories or into some sort of prioritization order (i.e. index cards, Trello cards, Tomboy notes) is often very useful.

The ways you want organize and retrieve your notes should drive your choice of note-taking tools and methodologies. It should never be the other way around.

Transcribe Promptly

Notes are generally intended as short-lived shorthand. Whether you use real shorthand, software with with custom keyword expansions or autocomplete (e.g. vim abbreviations), computer-based shorthand systems like KeyScript, or any other kind of note, the secret to making the information useful later is to use your notes as a placeholder and transcribe the information into long form as soon as practical.

As one example, you might use Markdown and Pandoc as follows:

  1. Jot some free-form notes into a Markdown document using a new header (e.g. #) for each note. For example:

    Arch. Disc. w/Bill

    Embiggen widget stamper: throughput.

  2. At least daily, go back into your Markdown document and flesh out your placeholder notes into detailed, structured text so that it will make sense later on, especially if you forget the specific context.

    Architecture Discussion with Bill Bailey (2015-10-01)

    1. The current stamper only produces 1.5 widgets per hour.
    2. Make the widget stamper big enough to product 15k widgets per second.
    3. Profit!
  3. Use Pandoc (or other similar Markdown rendering tool) to convert the Markdown into an HTML/Word/PDF document, and send the long-form notes around for validation within the team or for storage as a project artifact.

The "magic" here isn't the use of a specific tool, it's in ensuring that your shorthand notes are converted to readable documents (including sufficient context so that they're understandable in the future!) while you still remember what you really meant when you jotted down:

@bill re: story #16

on the back of a napkin, sticky note, or index card.

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  • I can recommend RedNotebook as a tool for taking notes. There is a page for each day, you can add tags to pages to quickly search through your notes and can use templates for meetings, phone calls and such.
    – Exa
    Sep 21 '15 at 11:42
  • A very useful article! The part about transcribing promptly was very eye-opening for me. I think a good repository for notes if one is technically savvy is to set up a Wiki on a local development server... just wish I could figure out how to do that. Nov 21 '16 at 14:45
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The best thing I ever did for my note taking/organization (other than learn to type) was learn OneNote. I'm not going to sell you on it, there are probably plenty of other tools that do the job equally well or better. The important thing was to stop using paper/notepads and use an organized, searchable and archivable app.

Using the tool I was able to quickly take notes while on the phone and then email the notes out to all participants after the call for comments or corrections. I know there are some tools that can do this in real time during the call, use the tool that works best for your team.

The real value is when you need to confirm something weeks later, scrambling through notepads, even well organized ones with great penmanship, can take precious time.

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