Taking notes is one of the key ways we remember information.
The human brain can only hold so much information at once, and writing that information down allows us to carry more with us without having to keep it all in our grey matter.
However, although plenty of people take notes, most people don’t have a method for organizing those notes.
They’ll fill up notebooks, or jot down things on pieces of paper, and those notebooks and papers end up disappearing, or worse, in a huge mess on the kitchen counter.
When we get our notes organized, we not only remember more information, but we feel less anxious about taking notes in the first place.
Better organization > More information remembered > More successful life
Organizing Notes for School
Your first introduction to note-taking was probably school.
For some, it’s a glorious revelation that unlocks swaths of new information.
For some (myself included) it’s a horrible pain that only clutters up my life more and creates a necessary evil.
However, the facts state that taking notes (especially by hand) increases your retention of information.
So how do we make the process of note-taking less painful? Make it organized.
So here are some tips that will keep any school note-taker on top of their notes instead of drowning in them.
Have One Binder
Put all your notes in one place.
While it can make sense to keep separate notebooks for separate classes, in the end you’re creating more clutter and trouble than it’s worth.
Stick to one binder.
Personally, I use the 5-subject notebooks that have pockets in the front of each section.
When I was at school, I would put the class syllabus as well as any work that needed to be turned in, in the front pocket of the section’s notes.
Any work that I received back or that I no longer needed in class went into its own folder at home.
Each class gets its own folder and collects projects and papers over the course of the semester or year.
At the end of the year, I would file the folder in a box for safekeeping. You never know when they might be useful, right?
Wrong. Once I graduated, I simply threw out the box.
I could always reference back to it if I needed, but ten times out of ten, I didn’t need to.
In a nutshell:
- Notes in one binder
- Syllabus and work to be turned in goes in pockets in the one binder
- Work that’s been graded and isn’t needed in class goes into a subject folder
Keep Notes Organized for Work
Once school was over, I thought I was done with note-taking forever.
There are many things in the workplace that require note-taking.
Not taking notes during these events is shooting yourself in the foot.
- Phone calls
- Tasks that get thrown at you from down the hall
- Anything you need to remember, but don’t have the mental space to hold
However, taking notes for all these things can quickly turn into a clutter of papers and post-its all over your desk.
There’s a time and a place for notes like this: brainstorming sessions, for example. Just not every day.
At that point, you may as well not take notes, since all it’s doing is causing you more stress.
But with the proper system, taking notes at work no longer becomes a hopeless endeavor, but an efficient use of time.
Here are some pointers that I personally use at work:
- Lots of quick bullet points.
- Except for big things (introduction of a new software feature, merger, new CEO, etc), keep notes down to a single page
- Hold onto the page only as long as needed, then get rid of it. Trash it, shred it, whatever you like.
- For things you absolutely need for a long time, scan and upload to Evernote. Or put in a binder, whatever flavor you prefer.
- For to-do lists, keep it digital and central. Use an app like Trello or Wunderlist.
The key as with all note-taking is to keep things in as few places as possible, using as few tools as possible.
Personally, I love using the digital.
For sales calls, I enter it into my CRM.
For internal meetings, I enter it into an email that I send to everyone involved with a specific tag so we can search it later.
For temporary notes that I don’t need very long, I just use Notepad.
Whether you prefer writing notes by hand or by keyboard, keep them slimmed down and get rid of them when you no longer need them!
Organize Notes for Life
Some of you may skip this section entirely.
“Notes for my life?” you say “what a waste of time.”
And maybe you’re right.
However, I’m learning that taking notes in life can lead to more information retained, a better understanding of information, and a more focused day.
At the very least, I encourage you to try taking notes during a couple key moments of your day.
You may find that taking notes when having coffee with a friend will help you remember what they’ve said better, even if you don’t ever look at the notes again.
I love brainstorming new ideas.
When I come up with a new idea for a project that I’m working on, I always try to write it down.
In the moment, it’s easy to think that you’ll remember it, but the reality is that the idea can come and go without you even realizing it.
Writing down the idea captures it, and after I’ve captured enough ideas, a new project can come to life.
Keeping Notes Decluttered
It may be that taking notes isn’t your problem, it’s the organization of the notes you have trouble with.
If so, congratulations! You’re on the right track.
Here are some key principles that will push you toward organization and away from clutter.
Don’t Keep Notes Forever
Do you really need your Psych 101 notes now that you’ve just sent your first kid off to college?
The answer is a resounding no.
In a perfect world, we would get rid of notes as soon as they’re unneeded.
The hard part is determining when notes are no longer needed.
Personally a good time frame is 6 months.
Unless the note is specifically needed longer than that, if I haven’t touched or thought of the note within 6 months, it’s time to get rid of it.
- Grocery store lists need to be thrown out once you’ve checked out.
- Daily to-do lists need to be thrown away as soon as 1) the list is completed, or 2) the day is over. If there are things that didn’t get done, create a new list for a new day and copy items over.
- Post-its with reminders need to be thrown away as soon as the thing has happened.
By staying on top of your notes and cleaning them out when you can, you’ll feel more empowered and productive than ever.
While there can still be an argument against digital clutter (such as a desktop full of useless icons), the digital takes much less of a toll on our lives than the physical can.
Putting notes in a digital place, such as Google Drive or Evernote, can help tremendously cut down on clutter.
As an example, I take notes on new projects that I want to start and place them in a folder in Evernote.
Many are projects that I may never take action toward, but I keep the notes regardless.
Because if I ever need to access those notes again, I can.
And because it takes up no space.
I can take notes all the time, writing down 10 new ideas a day, and by placing them into a singular folder on Evernote, I don’t have to worry about them cluttering up my life.
While taking notes can be a tremendous way to improve our lives and our memory, it can also be a two-edged sword and cause a stressful amount of clutter.
Make your notes work from you.
Empower yourself to clean out old notes.
Discipline yourself to organize your existing notes.
Then check out our 100 declutter tips, and make a note of things you’re going to apply today.