5 Common Mistakes About Note-Taking

Taking notes is something we all do (or did). Whether you are in high school, college, or running your own business note-taking can be a vital skill to have. But what if I told you that many of the ways we take notes while in school are wrong?

You would probably think “I am not going back to school.” Why would I care about note-taking?

True, but, taking good notes can help us understand and retain information better than anything else! Whether you are reading a non-fiction book or in a meeting writing down the minutes or listening to podcast or got that spark of an idea you don’t want to lose.

In this blog post, let’s see the top 5 mistakes we make in note-taking and how it has been taught incorrectly for years (mostly in our education).

Writing down everything without listening

I have seen many people do this. They think they just have to write down whatever the lecturer is saying.

This may seem like a good idea at first, as they are capturing everything and won’t miss anything. But they are missing out on the majority of information being given by not listening to what is being said in class.

Remember, hearing something and listening is different.

Hearing is a body function. Whereas, listening involves hearing something with attention, giving it some thoughtful consideration and understanding it.

After you have taken notes, are you able to answer these questions:

  • What is happening?
  • How does this connect with what I have learned before?
  • What about what we discussed last time?

Without understanding these, we miss the context of the lecture and the time you invest in it is wasted.

Thinking highlighting is enough

When I started reading books on my Kindle, I began highlighting a lot of interesting sentences and quotes. I mistook the act of highlighting as taking notes.

Just because you highlighted some text, you don’t truly understand what you read. Highlighting is useful for noting passages that may be important or for particular pages to look at later on, but it does not help you remember the content.

I often had a difficult time understanding the text because I didn’t take enough note of the material I was reading and putting heavy focus on just highlighting all of it.

By highlighting you just have read it (just like you hear someone give a lecture). You don’t comprehend it fully. It’s just a shortcut for reading.

But thinking back to my school and college times, I understand why and where this habit began.

In India, most of the schooling and college education has been tuned for rote learning. You are expected to repeat back whatever is written about in the book.

The person correcting your answer sheets don’t care whether you have understood and rephrased it differently. If it doesn’t match what was in the original book, you were heavily penalized.

I have had a lot of experience with such “answer sheet graders” in my Bachelors program (Yes, I refuse to call them professors or lecturers).

So stop highlighting or underlining text in your books and instead try to understand it and rephrase them in your own words in notes. Be it in the margins or kindle or your note-taking apps.

Not grouping or clustering your notes under topics

This is very important, but I have paid dearly for this. If I am walking and listening to a podcast and want to note down a point, I will write it down and continue listening. But when I go back to review the note, my brain cannot find an association between what I wrote and its corresponding episode because there is no grouping or cluster of notes that are associated with one topic.

It’s frustrating when this happens because I have to go back and listen again. And I realise it’s a waste of time and end up losing that note/idea.

Even if you did a quick capture of the quote or note in a hurry, spend the extra minute to use a hashtag along with your note, such as #marketing or #idea or #scaling, etc.

If you did not do that, when you go back to review it again later, there will be a lot more work and time needed just sorting through all your notes.

Not reviewing the notes and rewriting them

Most of our education doesn’t teach us this, but our notes should be reviewed and rewritten in a way that’s understandable by us. Just taking down notes means you have captured the information but you won’t be able to understand what it is, or why it matters. You can rephrase the note in different ways and find out which way makes more sense for you.

Every day spend 15 minutes on reviewing and rewriting your notes, or spend one day every week to do this. The more frequently you do this, the better it will be for you.

When reviewing your notes, don’t just read through them quickly and then move on to something else; that’s not going to help a whole lot.

Instead try to find associations in your notes. Find groups or clusters of ideas that go together. This is similar to Idea Sex that James Altucher writes about.

Finding associations vary depending on how you take notes. If it’s analog notebooks, you can use index cards to rephrase the ideas and then creating groups or clusters.

If you use your computer to take notes, it is a bit easy with tools like Roam Research or Obsidian to automatically create the links and back links between your notes.

Not taking down notes at all

This is the worst mistake of all. If you take nothing down, how are you going to remember anything?

I always boasted of having a great memory and I don’t have to jot down anything. But your brain has it’s limits. After many years you don’t even realise you watched a particular video or read a particular article.

If only your past self had taken down notes, you could have used it in a much more efficient way.

Even if it’s just a simple scribble along the margins of a book or in a notepad, start taking down notes.

Conclusion

My note taking has been very sporadic in the past and I know I have lost a lot of great ideas and concepts to memory decay because of this.

But it’s not too late to start a good habit I have begun taking notes more frequently and I am trying to come up with a good system that works for my brain. I will soon be writing more about note taking here and what my methods are in future posts.

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