How To Use Your Notebook To Help You Make Sense Of Things


Thursday, 5.44am

Sheffield, U.K.

I can’t predict how reading habits will change. But I will say that the greatest loss is the paper archive – no more a great stack of manuscripts, letters, and notebooks from a writer’s life, but only a tiny pile of disks, little plastic cookies where once were calligraphic marvels. – Paul Theroux

In my last post I said I would start looking at specific cases and instances that call for listening skills to see what approaches work and what has changed over time.

The approaches you take probably depend on where you are in your career and what you think is important right now.

The thing to notice is that time changes things – even your point of view and for me the biggest change in thinking happens when you move from being a student to being adrift in the world of work.

Jumping in at the deep end

You learn reading and writing at school, and judging from the way my kids react to the process, it’s not the most exciting thing around.

The ability to listen and take notes is not innate – we have to learn it and, importantly, teachers need to model how to do it.

Think back to the way in which you were taught in school or, for that matter, the way you would present or teach something now.

Can you see that there was an underlying structure, a curriculum that the teacher followed when giving you information?

What happened what that structure was revealed class by class, as the teacher introduced ideas, followed arguments and showed you the territory of thinking that covered the subject.

The same thing happens when you listen to a lecture now, a TED talk or a company presentation.

What’s happening is revelation, revealing what is already there set out in some kind of structure.

But when you start working those structures no longer exist in that kind of way – no one has been kind enough to map the territory for you.

For example, think back to the first time you went to speak with a client along with your boss.

You were heading into uncharted territory, even if you didn’t know it then.

No one else had had the conversation you were about to have, no one else had mapped the thoughts that would be expressed in the way they would expressed when you had your meeting.

You were about to discover something new.

And the tool that you should always bring, the one thing that will help you with this journey of discovery, is your notebook.

Capturing what is being said

As far back as I can remember notebooks and paper and pencils and pens have fascinated me – an obsession I share with many people.

I am typing this on a computer and computers are amazing and I think they are your friends.

For example, I have been writing in this blog for around three and a half years, regularly writing since 2017.

I have a writing process – first I write three or so paragraphs of freewriting, anything that’s on my mind just to loosen my mental machinery.

Then I write this post.

Later in the day, I jot down a quick journal entry that thinks through what’s happened and ideas around the writing and what might come next.

I write everything in text files on a computer running Linux, which makes it trivial for me to tell you that I have written 901,455 words by running a script.

You can’t do that with a notebook – but you don’t have to and there are things you can’t do as easily on a computer as you can in a notebook.

And in many ways that blank sheet has its own kind of magic.

Let’s focus on the kind of listening you have to do in a client relationship.

Bring an image to mind of a lawyer or counselor.

They’re sat there, aren’t they, with a pad of paper?

What do they do with that, what do they jot down – what are they trying to achieve?

To understand, see and act

Do you remember what it was like to move from school to your first job?

You went from taking notes on stuff that was taught in school to taking notes on the things you had to do – the tasks you were asked to complete as part of your work and instructions on how to do them.

You were still studying, but it was training on the job instead.

But then, do you remember the first meeting you had where you were trying to figure out what to do, what the problem was, what steps you needed to take.

Think about this carefully – was there a point where you first experienced truly deep water, of thought, where there was no bottom and no certainty?

Those moments are significant, because they end with you heading back towards the safety of shore, towards being told the answer, being told what to do, or learning to stay afloat in that unsupported space, to get comfortable with not knowing what to do.


I learned, during my first experience of that kind of meeting, that your life jacket was your ability to take notes.

I was fortunate in that the people I worked with modeled what good note-taking looked like – they wrote things down furiously and referred to them and captured actions and were extremely good at understanding what was going on.

And so I copied what I saw them do – learn to write fast, write down what you hear, write down as much as possible.

The first distinction you start to make in your notes is what is background and what is an action.

Things you have to do are embedded within the torrent of notes you take over time.

And as you probably already know – it is a torrent.

You will fill notebook after notebook, easily.

I know, for example, that I can fill a standard reporter’s notebook in around 20 days – a book to a month.

That piles up quickly – but what’s the point of all this?

What are you trying to do?

Record the past in its entirety? Surely that’s an impossible and pointless task?

Seeing what you pay attention to

The thing is, your notes aren’t really about recording everything.

They’re really about paying attention – about what you pay attention to.

Life comes at you in this unceasing rush – there’s data and information everywhere you turn.

But what matters is what matters to you and the people you’re working with.

And that’s what your notebook is doing, it’s helping you filter everything out there to the things that matter to those of you in the situation right now.

When someone talks to you they’re telling you about things that they think are important to know.

So you jot those down, write down as much of what you’re hearing as they speak.

As you jot things down you’ll see connections – the things before will relate to the things after.

You’ll see relationships and missing bits – which will lead you to ask questions that will lead to answers which will lead to you writing down more notes.

And at the end of your session you will have a few pages of notes and a better understanding and something to look back on later – something that captures points your memory has simply let float away and something that captures things you have to do next.

Now, all this might seem really very basic.

What I’m saying to you is that you should take notes.

Well, actually what I’m saying is that if you want to be a professional then you must take notes.

If you’re early on in your career then you should never turn up to a meeting without your notebook.

Quite frankly, if you’re later on in your career and turn up without a notebook, I’m not sure you should be in the meeting.

Speaking for myself the ability to take notes – to be the person that remembers what was said, what was meant and what must be done – gives you an advantage.

You have a better chance at recognizing what must be done next.

But do others see it this way as well – perhaps in the next post I might look at a few other people and see what they say about this business of taking notes.

That might be interesting, to some of us anyway, before we move on to what happens next after you’ve captured what you’ve heard and seen.


Karthik Suresh

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