Don’t Summarize on the Fly

There are two types of people: those who sit in a meeting and write nothing and those who write notes for themselves on the fly. Depending on the meeting and my role, I am more inclined to the second type. I don’t try to capture everything in the meeting, but when I feel there’s some vital point I must address or recall later, I capture it in writing. 

The problem with taking notes on the fly is that it is done, well, on the fly. Allow me to explain. 

Writing things on the fly during a meeting allows me to focus more on what happens in the meeting. It sounds counterintuitive, but the idea is that some things don’t require my immediate attention — I don’t want to process them in real time during the meeting because this will make me less engaged with what happens here and now. Of course, some points require my immediate attention, but what I typically write down are things I suspect will be important beyond the scope of the current discussion. So, instead of starting to think about them now or investing energy in making a mental note of them, I take a physical note and quickly shift my focus back to the conversation. 

So, what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, as long as we acknowledge that what I capture is little more than raw data, mainly without any context and processing. It is a physical replacement for a mental note, but it is not a well-thought-out summary. Why? Because, by definition, I didn’t want to invest time in processing it during the meeting. 

For these notes to become useful later, I must do something with them right after the discussion ends: I must take a few minutes to review and process them. When I do that, new thoughts often emerge: What should I do next? What are the implications? Who should know about this? Sometimes, I decide some notes are unimportant, so I discard them. 

The point is to divide the action of taking notes into two parts. First, capture notes mechanically without investing too much bandwidth. We do this to stay focused on the meeting. Then, once the meeting is over, invest the time processing the raw notes we’ve captured, making sense of them, and deciding what to do about them. 

Like in many other cases, processing requires a different setup — a different level of attention. To make the most of your meeting notes, allocate time to process them as soon as possible.

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