This post was updated on September 26, 2023
As we leave behind notepads and switch to typing meeting notes on laptops or devices, something valuable is lost in the process: the opportunity to synthesize the information heard and remember the most important points.
That’s why, as retro as it may sound, I advocate that my clients write meeting notes by hand, and after the meeting, transfer any action items to their task lists. This can be done with a paper and pen, or with a digital handwriting app or device. Many of these can translate handwriting into text, even if your handwriting is awful. If you’re using a paper and pen, you can often throw away the notes after transferring what you need from them into your workflow management system.
Contrary to what you may think, the science backs this method up as the most effective and efficient way to get what you want from your meeting notes—an understanding of the key information imparted and a record of any follow-up tasks that you need to do. Let’s break this down.
1. Handwrite Your Meeting Notes For Better Recall
The science is definitive: There is a strong connection between handwriting and the ability to recall the information being recorded. The reason for this is twofold: 1) In order to recall information, you first need to process it. But when you type your notes, you’re bypass the processing step. 2) The physical movement associated with handwriting seems to prime the brain to remember information.
Handwriting Meeting Notes Helps Process Key Points
Laptop note-takers tend to type what they’re hearing word for word. But because handwriting is slower, note-taking with a pen (ink or digital) requires you to use your brain to process the information you hear, so you can write only what you really need. In a review of the literature called “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard,” researchers observed that “laptop note takers tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”
Handwrite Meeting Notes For Better Memorization
One interesting study compared the ability of learners to acquire new vocabulary in a foreign language when they took notes with an ink pen, a digital pen, and a keyboard. Not only were the learners who took notes with an ink or digital pen able to recall the new words better than those who took notes with a keyboard, but interestingly, they also reported a more positive mood during the experience. Researchers concluded that “movements involved in handwriting allow a greater memorization of new words.”
So What Meeting Notes Should You Take?
Your handwritten meeting notes should include:
- Decisions made in the meeting.
- Action steps agreed to in the meeting.
- Specific responsible parties for completing the action steps.
- Due dates for the actions.
After the meeting, spend a minute or two writing a few sentences that summarize your key takeaways, and share them with the stakeholders, or better yet, post them someplace where they can be accessed later by anyone who needs to know.
2. Move Your Tasks To A Task List
Once the meeting is over and you’ve written your key take-aways down, the next step is to move your to-dos from the meeting into your task list.
Let’s say during the meeting, you agreed to generate a spreadsheet and distribute it to attendees before the next meeting.
You would need to assign yourself a due date for that task. You may need to break a larger task into subtasks, each with individual due dates. In this example, you might assign one date for completing the spreadsheet, and another for sending out the email with the spreadsheet attached.
In any case, after you’ve moved your to-dos to the task list, you’re ready for the final step. Prepare to be shocked.
3. Throw Your Meeting Notes Away!
I can hear you gasp from here. “Truly important things were discussed in that meeting!” you exclaim.
Here’s the beauty of the system: The truly important things are actually imprinted on your brain because you handwrote your notes instead of typing them.
“There’s no harm in keeping my notes!” you protest.
This might be true if you took handwritten notes digitally, but not if you took notes on paper.
First, ask yourself how often you actually go back and review old meeting notes. For most people, the answer is “almost never.”
If that’s the case for you, your notes count as “clutter.” Research tells us that clutter not only leads to increased stress, but it also prevents our ability to focus our attention on achieving our most significant tasks, and a disorganized workspace can negatively impact working memory.
“But I took my notes on a computer so there’s no clutter involved,” you tell me.
Think again. Even digital clutter can weigh on our minds and distract us. Look no further than your email inbox for evidence. However, it’s true that digital files can be less distracting than paper.
But I Have To Type My Notes
If you are someone with dyspraxia or dysgraphia, writing notes by hand can require so much effort and concentration that you’d impede your ability to participate in the meeting. In this case, being able to type notes is an extraordinarily helpful accommodation.
If you have a learning disability that requires you to type notes, or if I haven’t convinced you of the benefits of handwriting notes and you plan to continue to type your meeting notes, you’ll want to eliminate all digital distractions first.
Put your device on Do Not Disturb mode. Then fill the screen with your meeting notes, so your notes are a supplemental tool rather than a distraction. You might also consider a tool that was specifically made to maximize the benefits of handwriting and minimize the distractions of using a digital device.
Digital Handwriting Apps
There are a lot of digital handwriting apps that have come a long way in the past few years. My favorite is the ReMarkable tablet. It has a textured surface, which mimics the feel of writing with pen on paper. It also allows you to draw pictures, as well as make graphs and charts.
What I love about this app is that if you’re the meeting scribe and you need to send out meeting minutes to others, the ReMarkable tablet allows you to essentially handwrite your notes and then convert them to type for emailing.
If you don’t want to spring for the ReMarkable Tablet, my favorite app is Nebo with an Apple Pencil on iPad.
How To Take Better Meeting Notes
The first time you use my three-step process to take meeting notes, you may feel uncomfortable and that you are missing out on important information. Trust the process. With a few practice sessions under your belt, you’ll be used to the new method and start to realize how much more present you are at meetings, how much more efficient your notetaking has become, and how much clutter you can eliminate.
For more meeting tips, be sure to read my post about how to run more effective meetings.