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Do you have great conversations but can’t quite recall what was great about them? Do you sometimes wish you had written down a pithy quote? Do you have trouble remembering where you were last Tuesday? That last one might haunt you if you’re questioned by the police but this is a bigger issue. There’s a lot of data out there now that says our memory is not as good as we think it is – and some of us know it’s bad! There’s a fairly easy remedy for this with lots of fringe benefits.

Every day I make notes in my spiral bound notebook. I’ve been doing that for over 20 years and I have over 45 notebooks (I just counted them, that was a little sobering). This practice was born of necessity, but I read a description of this habit lately as a way to “free your mind.” I’m freeing my mind but I’m also capturing what’s important since my memory is…what was I saying?

Many of you are thinking, “Paper is so 1980 – type it into your Notepad app or Evernote or something!” But there’s solid research that “writing by hand strengthens memory in comparison to writing on a real or virtual keyboard.”

Physically writing things down (pen to paper) engages the mind whereas typing into your laptop becomes more like transcription (to be transparent, I did use the Evernote app for certain things until an update wiped out everything I had in there – ouch). Using my notebook allows me to capture what’s of value (Lean Principle #1) in my day to day dealings.

It’s an opportunity to use Visual Management so I can easily track down what I need out of the notebook. It’s also a creative space that becomes a source of inspiration and innovation.

What goes into the Notebook?

Where Am I – What Day is it?

I write down the date and where I am every morning. If I’m on a particular job, I write down the people I’m working with. Then I write down what I’m grateful for along with my most dreaded task (See Lean Life Hack #1: How to Start Your Day). That lets me quickly find the notes I took when I was onsite with a client. If I know the date of a workshop or a conference then I can grab the specific notebook for that time frame and look up what happened and where.

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Who Am I Talking To?

If I have a call then I write down who’s on the call – I’m always going back to review conversations I’ve had with people and what we discussed. I write down what I took away from the conversation and any “To Dos” that come out of the call. These notes come in handy down the line:

  • I can quickly refer to conversations and pull out the highlights for people who missed the call
  • If it’s a sales call I can summarize the notes into a customer relationship management app like Highrise
  • The “To Dos” go into my iCalendar (another Lean Life Hack, coming soon)

Even if someone else on the call has agreed to be the note taker, I still take my own notes because it makes me a better listener and I get more out of the call.

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What’s That Quote Again?

I write down quotes that move me somehow, and put a little image of a megaphone next to them. My husband quoted a radio news program recently as announcing that “beverage sales were flat.” He added, “they said it without a hint of irony.” So that quote is in my book and maybe I’ll use it someday – hey I just did!

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What’s the Name of That Book?

I write down the great books people recommend. If I don’t, then an hour later I’m thinking about how great that book sounded, but I can’t remember the name. I might call that person to ask them to tell me again – if I could just remember who told me… Since I can’t read all the books immediately, I often scan old notebooks to find good books I haven’t read yet.

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Whose Bright Idea Was That?

I write down all my ideas about techniques to try, tools to create, articles to write or social media bits to load into Buffer.com. I add a doodle of a light bulb next to it so I can easily go back and scan for hare-brained schemes. I was watching a funny piece on Late Night with Stephen Colbert making fun of “Life Hacks” which gave me the idea of applying Lean tools and concepts to life hacks – without a hint of irony.

Hence this blog and others… I have to say, going back over old books and looking for light bulbs is like an Easter Egg hunt. The more I forget, the more exciting the hunt (I need to get out more).

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How Do You Find Anything?

My choice of notebooks has evolved over the years. Way, way back I used yellow legal pads or plain white ones. But I was traveling a lot and they were looking a little worse for wear after being repeatedly retrieved and stowed. I moved on to spiral bound notebooks, but sometimes the covers ripped off or the spiral binding snagged on a bit of luggage and became a weapon.

I recommend getting whatever notebook works for you, but I like the spiral-bound type with fabric protecting the binding and a stash of little colored sticky tabs on the inside cover. This one is by Accel and I found it at Staples.

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Using the colored tabs means I can quickly search for info by topic or client. Any calls or notes about caring for my aging father get an orange tab. Blue tabs indicate conversations I had with colleagues about our recent Green Belt Training upgrade and so on. Those are perfect visual aides that cut down on search time. Kind of a 5S on the fly.

I create a loose Table of Contents when I’m done with each notebook and paste it on the cover with the start and stop dates. The review process to create the TOC always leads to good discoveries; ideas I neglected, people I’d like to reconnect with and quotes like the one below by Steven Covey.

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Putting Pen to Paper

We all experience information overload while trying to make sense of what’s coming at us so we can actually get something done in a day. Being able to put things down in the notebook takes those thoughts from the scramble of what’s vying for the brain’s attention and parks them where we can retrieve them when needed.

You’re free to continue with your work, play with your kid or make dinner until you need a good book to read. Just remember, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.