Photo by Ruchindra Gunasekara

Meeting notes are broken. Here’s a solution.

Your short term memory is bad. So is mine. This is why we take notes, but our note taking systems have a critical flaw. Let me try to explain the problem and offer a solution.

My work entails a lot of meetings with people, and I care about remembering what we talk about. So I take a huge amount of notes, but over the years I have found that every system of notes fails me. 

There is one, and only one reason we all take notes in meetings. Our memory is like a colander with large holes that keeps only some of the things we want, and keeps many of the things we don’t. This is especially true in meetings where dialogue moves quickly, the theme wanders, and a lot of topics are covered.

If our short term memory could accurately capture all of the details of every meeting and conversation, we’d all stop writing stuff down. But the world doesn’t work that way. We lean on written notes because either a) the process of writing things down helps us remember some of the important stuff, or b) we know we need a written record so we can revisit the important details later.

Here’s the fatal flaw with virtually every system of notes: if you can’t find what you’re looking for when you need it, the investment we make in taking notes doesn’t pay off. When you take notes in meetings, and you’re in a lot of meetings, your collection of notes will pretty quickly start to feel like the aisles of Costco – stuff may be very neatly organized, but there is just so much stuff that it’s overwhelming.

There are all kinds of methods for organizing notes, using folder structures or hierarchical lists or tagging systems to try to wrangle a body of notes and make context and important details more findable. But anyone who takes lots of notes in meetings knows that this breaks down quickly. 

Let me try to illustrate why.

Last week, in a meeting with Alex he told me something important that I jotted down, among a bunch of other stuff I captured in my notes. This week, it occurred to me that Alex had told me something important, but I can’t place it because our conversation moved quickly, covered a bunch of topics, and was one of dozens of other conversations during that same day. I know it was important and I know it was with Alex, but that’s all I can remember. If I’m religious about jotting down who was in the meeting with me, then maybe I can search by ‘Alex’ and find what I’m looking for. But what if I spelled his name wrong on the note, or forgot to include his name at all? It’s entirely likely that I’ll eventually find the thing I’m looking for, but it could take some time. And on a busy day spending 5 minutes searching for something feels like an eternity that could be better spent. This pain is particularly acute in the context of my next meeting with Alex, when that important thing surfaces and I have to rummage through my notes to surface that specific detail. “Just one minute” I say, “I know it’s here somewhere” – even though it’ll be more like several minutes, and I’m not entirely positive that it is actually here somewhere.

Here’s another way to put the problem: In order for the information stored within our notes to actually be valuable, we have to be able to find it when we need it, and quickly. Finding that information later usually requires proactively and diligently cataloguing your notes. I am rarely proactive or diligent enough for this system to work well for me.

So, what’s the solution?

Stop taking notes. Start memorizing everything.

Okay, no, of course that’s not the solution. 

In reality though, the solution is much more attainable, and likely much simpler than what you’re doing now. It involves vastly simplifying your system for how you catalogue and store the information your notes contain. 

Instead of working hard to create the right concoction of folders, tags and memorable titles, reduce the metadata you use to store your notes to just time and people. Organize notes by when they happened and who you were with. 

This technique works because it indexes information in a way that our brains naturally tend to work. We are wired to associate information (ideas, decisions, facts, questions, experiences or follow-up tasks) with the people we were with and the time we were with them. You may not remember the specific details of your meeting with your co-worker, but you can likely recall that you met with Lauren and talked about something that deserved more attention, and this happened around the middle of last week.

Now, the clear caveat here is, this applies to notes that occur with other people. If you need a better system for the notes that you jot down by yourself, this trick isn’t for you. But for everyone else, this is a simple solution that can change how you are able to access the important information in your notes that is otherwise stashed away, deep in the digital ailes of your own virtual Costco.

To try this out, make it a point to record the people in your meeting (First/Last name, email address) in your notes. People end up acting like your tags, or your folders for how your notes are stored. Give your note a manual time stamp that matches the event on your calendar so you have a clear connection between the note and the event on your calendar. If you can commit to this structure, searching for your notes in Google Docs, Evernote, Apple Notes or whatever application you use to store your notes will begin to be simplified by the Person/Time format. 

After a lot of years of vigilant, bordering on aggressive, note taking I faced the cruel reality that my notes just weren’t all that useful. And I suspect I’m not alone. If you’re a dedicated meeting note taker, let me ask you this: What if there was a way to get more out of your meeting notes? What if it was much easier to find information from past meetings and quickly surface the relevant information you need for upcoming meetings or track action items? What if your meeting notes could actually help you be better prepared, and better at your job? That’d be good, right?

Some of the people I work with felt this same pain, and found this simple structure so powerful that we created an application to make this form of organization automatic and immediate. If you’re interested in experiencing how intuitive and quick the Person/Time method is for finding the ideas and action items stored in your notes, try Witful. It’s free right now while we’re in Beta, as long as you’re willing to give us a little feedback on how it works for you.