How To Take Better Notes with Insights and Actions



I find chunking my notes from lectures and training helps me turn insights into action.  I chunk them into three categories: actions, insights, and notes.

This simple refactoring helps me quickly find the actions or my “ah has” without having to fish through a laundry list of reference points.  I bubble these to the top so I can find them at a glance.

The act of refactoring my notes also helps remind me of the most valuable parts, which is usually the new distinctions I learned, or the new actions I can take.

Insights, Actions, and Notes

Here’s the purpose of my three categories:

  1. Actions – this is a tickler list of things I’m going to go do.
  2. Insights – this is a tickler list of distinctions and “ah-ha”‘s from the sessions.
  3. Notes – this is my raw tickler list and details of key notes throughout the session.

Why It’s Effective

It’s simple, but effective.  It’s effective because rather than just a list of notes, it’s distilled actions and reference points.  One of the best ways to turn information into action is to take the moment to figure out a few ways to act on what you learn.

Putting It Into Action

Here’s what I do

  1. Capture the notes.  During the session, I can capture a lot of notes fairly quickly.  I typically use a pad of post-its and jot down key things.  These are my raw notes.  For example, during the lecture or training, I’ll take a bunch of notes in a pretty linear fashion.  It represents a stream of real-time notes.
  2. List the bulleted notes.  I transfer the notes to an electronic store (usually notepad).  I title this section Notes.  This is a fast, focused step.  Sometimes I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking software and just read my notes rapidly.
  3. Cherry pick the insights.  I scan my notes and cherry pick the insights.  I put these under an Insights section that I create above my Notes section.
  4. Cherry pick the actions.  I scan my notes and cherry pick the actions.  I put these under an Actions section that I create above my Insights section.

The result is a crisp set of actions, a crisp set of insights, and then a full reference list of notes.  Taking  a few quick passes through my notes, reminds me of key things and helps the information sink in deeper.   Deliberately turning notes into insights and actions also helps retention.  Think of it as challenging yourself to use what you learn.

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  1. Good stuff!
    I use similar technique.
    Being able to quickly capture stuff, quickly scan it and cherry pick most significant action items is the key for me to get results

  2. Its really funny. I keep getting back to PMI again and again. It is a very potent weapon, infact a must have in your repertoire for you to be successful.

    After reading through this article, I was recollecting a few instances of meetings where I could not come out with Actions that are crisp. I guess I was forming opinions on the importance of the note when I was taking them down, and not giving enough thought on the rest of the notes.

    I really do steps 2 & 3 all the time. In the end though, I never come up with a crisp set of Actions. I always tended to pick Notes/Insights -> Actions that interested me the most, or the ones that I already had an opinion on.

    The most important lesson for me, from PMI and this –
    Stop having pre-defined opinions. Weigh all options equally. Try not to include the personal angle when forming action sets.

    Thanks JD.

  3. @ Alik

    Thank you.

    Cherry picking my way through the opportunity forest is a way to both keep the passion and get the impact.

    @ Praveen

    I agree. PMI is powerful for on so many levels.

    The actions are the key. To keep it really simple, I use the rule of 3. I just try to find 3 actions. I can always find more, but 3 is a great focus to start with.

    The more you use PMI, the more you’ll find out about your own biases. Once you expose them, you can choose to keep them if they’re helping you, otherwise, adopt new ones.

    @ Dror

    In Evernote, I recommend just a simple notes folder and title each note with a descriptive name.

    Here’s my Evernote and the Zen of Results example:

  4. Thanks for the useful and practical tips!!! I’m going to teach my kids these as well!! They will find it much easier to digest stuff that has been taught to them.

  5. As people choose to take things in fragmented steps, then they will be less likely overwhelmed by everything that is going on. You inspire people to take their time and enjoy every moment. very often, people rush through life and are not consciously aware of what they do or why. Slowing down offers a different perspective on now.

  6. @ Evelyn

    Great to hear! This is such as simple practice, but so effective. I think it works because it forces you to switch gears from capturing information to trying to turn it into action.

    @ Liara

    Good point. Taking a moment and unwinding it let’s us both enjoy it, as well as shift our perspectives as we unravel it.

  7. Hi JD. These are excellent tips. I’m pretty good at keeping notes, but you’re absolutely right, the good stuff gets buried under all the details. This way the insights are freed up to feed the actions.

  8. @ Davina

    Thank you. They’ve definitely helped me deal with info overload. It helps me chunk up a lot of information pretty quickly and it’s a real time saver when I need to go back through my learnings.

  9. Hi JD

    Useful tips. I particularly like your three categories. You get the learning and you do something!

    Thank you

  10. @ Melissa

    So true. Reworking your notes is a great way to burn it in. I find that each time I cycle through, I find a new distinction or a new dot to connect.

  11. Ah ha. These are very useful tips. Categorizing the notes in such a way will make sure you do not loose focus of the important things and know what you are supposed to do next.

  12. @ Akshay

    Thank you. That really is the key – knowing what to do next.

    I think of this as an AND model. It gives you all the reference so you don’t lose anything, AND, it gives you the precise actions.

    The antipattern is to lose your action items among all the reference. Another antipattern is to have a bunch of reference where you didn’t turn it into any lessons you can use.

  13. You may also try using mindmaps during your sessions. I found them very useful after reading Tony Buzan’s book.

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