If you want work to be better, however you define better, and whatever better means to you, it may be useful to know a few actions you can take right away this morning for making it so.

Take notes. Take notes better than you already do. It will help you remember. It will help you think. It will help you learn. It will help you stay organized.

Practice. Practice while you work. We already practice at work, implicitly and often haphazardly, because it’s the only way to get better at anything.

The opportunity is in practicing deliberately. Choose a skill you want to improve. Find how you can improve at the skill. Do it. Then reflect: What worked? What didn’t? What will you do differently the next time you practice?

Have a think. For example: block time on your calendar to do nothing but … think. It will not feel like work. But it is. Important work.

The trick, as if it could even be considered a trick, is to bring your natural curiosity to your thinks. Having a think should always be an act of exploration.

Connect with people. In a network—and one way to view your organization is as a network—it’s the communication happening between people where work is happening. It’s how feedback occurs. It’s how questions are answered. It’s where new ideas come from.

That’s what makes social networks (online and IRL), professional networks, search engines, media networks, and the water-cooler networks valuable, too. They’re creating value by connecting people.

Take notes. Practice. Have a think. Connect with people.

If you’re into models, you could consider Take Notes, Practice, Have a Think, and Connect with People a model for Better Work. But these actions are just as effective as stand alone actions. Use them linearly and in any order useful to you.

A skosh of intention at work, about work, is the on-ramp to improving your work, improving your organization, and making healthcare delivery better for everyone.

In other words: better work right away this morning.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes to do creative work (post three).

A man named Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to illustrate what we’re up against in our battle with remembering with what has become to be known as the forgetting curve. Various academic studies have attempted to quantify the rate at which we forget, yet I believe it’s sufficient to know we’re good at forgetting, and we’re good at forgetting quickly.

It’s natural for our knowledge to degrade unless we give it attention and that natural forgetfulness has certain species-adaptation benefits. But forgetfulness in the workplace can be inefficient, frustrating, embarrassing, perilous, and generally disadvantageous: To be forgetful is to be ineffective.

When we don’t take notes, we forget. Actually we’re likely to forget whether we take notes or not, so it’s more appropriate to say digital notes transfer the burden of remembering to a software application such as Evernote. 

Along with our best ideas, digital notes make more accessible the knowledge we’re responsible for knowing, such as what was discussed at last month’s meeting, where the last conversation left off, important deadlines for the budgeting process, and the long list of “working memory” responsibilities all of our jobs include.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Amid overflowing inboxes, packed-to-the-hilt calendars, and lists of priorities all of equal priority, the healthcare administrator’s job is the same as it ever was: keep things running smoothly, and as different as it will ever be: make change happen.” 

It’s a dichotomous reality pulling us in contradictory directions. That’s the challenge of working in complexity

And digital notes help to make it possible through strategic forgetting. 

Have you been in an interaction (meeting, 1:1 with the boss, annual review for an employee, etc.) and have limited memory of something you wished you recalled more completely?

A note would have helped.

Have you found yourself searching Google for a resource, something you know exists because you’ve used it previously, and found no luck in finding it again? 

Have you had a thought during a meeting, in the middle of the night, or in the shower only to forget an important point when it came time to use it? 

Has your memory of an influential series of events differed from someone else’s memory of that same series of events?

Strategic forgetting is the practice of transferring the burden of remembering to our digital notes because digital notes are memories stored outside the brain.

Transferring this burden of remembering, writes Building a Second Brain creator Tiago Forte, “allows us to outsource our memory, instead of trying to keep every detail of our work and lives in our heads. It is like having a brilliant collaborator, thought partner, and personal assistant always available, ready to serve up our best ideas at a moment’s notice.”

Imagine arriving at a meeting well-prepared and well-informed on the topic because you’d been collecting information, stored in notes, for the past two weeks, six months, or even ten years—and reviewed that information before the meeting.

Imagine taking notes on the interesting things you read related to your job, or the job you might want to do in the future, and having that information available in the moment you need it.

Imagine taking notes about the thoughts you have, as they come, on whatever it might be, comprising thousands of notes, and then being able to consult them as they’re useful in support of your creativity.

The thing about taking (and collecting) notes is the value notes bring in having them. We (almost always) don’t know what information is going to be valuable until we’ve realized we don’t have it. Then we’re lucky if there’s a trace of a memory at all. 

So if you read something and it captures your attention—why not take a note? If you’re already attending a meeting—why not take a note? If you have a thought in the shower—why not take a note?

If you’re already doing the work—why not take a note?

While the details of the February 17, 2016 department staff meeting may or may not be important to you right at this moment, there’s a heck of a good chance that the blog post you read and have been thinking about all day is something that should influence your thinking in the future. Because that’s work, too. 

And in my estimation, if you’re already doing the work then it’s worth knowing what you’ve already learned. You just have to remember it.

It’s easy to get started with digital note taking. Here’s a guide to get you set-up.

Once your set-up is complete, you can create little systems to make note collecting easier. “Your job is to collect good ideas,” writes artist Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Here’s a guide to do just that.

The point of taking and collecting digital notes is to use them, something we’ll do more and more as our jobs continue to shift toward creative work. So here’s a guide to using and improving notes for the creative (and tactical, too) healthcare administrator work you’re already doing.

Tiago Forte is the closest person to a digital note philosopher—if such a philosopher can exist—as there is. His philosophy on note taking is worth adopting:

Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.

Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.

Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.

Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

In many ways, at least for me, notes have become a primary work activity, perhaps even the primary work activity. 

That’s because our jobs are changing. This Harold Jarche visual representation gets to the point in a straightforward manner: our work is steadily becoming creative work.

It’s creative work in the sense that creativity is required for solution finding when working in complexity. Applying creativity to solve problems in complexity requires skills like intuition, empathy, curiosity, and sensemaking.

Creativity has always been valuable in organizations; but it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be creative because business context changed so infrequently. 

Now we’re realizing context, the conditions of a business decision, is always shifting and depending on the setting it has as much to do with an interaction between employee and boss as it does with changing market dynamics.

Responding to market shifts caused by competitors, regulators, cultural shifts, innovation, yes even pandemics, and especially in response to the response of a pandemic, among a multitude of other examples … requires creativity. So does, on an equal level, organizing a team to do their best work, leading a project, navigating bureaucracy, creating a financial model, conducting a training session, leading a staff meeting, and on and on.

This importance of context requires creativity from everyone in order to respond to all the contextual changes happening across the organization, at any given moment, and in any given moment. 

So it’s good news that we’re all capable of creativity. And a foundational element of my creative (healthcare administrator) work, and now perhaps becoming a foundational part of yours, are digital notes because digital notes store what’s at the foundation of the creative skills on the right (up above) until we’re ready to use it: input.

Using and Improving Notes

The point of having notes is to use them.

That seems an obvious statement, but using notes, at least for me, has been more of a challenge in changing habits than collecting notes was in establishing one. I’m very good at collecting notes. I’m getting better at using notes. 

It sounds trivial, but after decades of starting every knowledge-seeking activity with an innocent search engine search, reminding myself I likely already had what I was looking for was difficult. For certain, there are resources on the internet better than what I have in my notes, but what I already have has been curated for my interests, is likely to meet my contextual needs, and doesn’t contain all the flim-flam of a search-engine-optimized Google search result. 

So if you find yourself having the same problem, here’s what worked for me: change your browser’s default search engine to something more useless than Google. That should do the trick. 

Once you establish the habit of using your notes, there are at least three reasons to use them: in consultation, in preparation, and in creation.

In consultation is to rediscover what I “know” about a subject. This is as much about reminding myself what was discussed in the committee meeting two weeks ago as it is about refreshing myself on a topical subject in the midst of a team meeting.

In preparation is to prepare for a work activity. Whether it’s a meeting or an interaction, and those two categories cover much of what we do at work, I look to my notes to prepare for knowledge reasons (here’s what I know) and process reasons (here’s how I’m going to do this).

In creation: To inform a creation. It might be a PowerPoint slide deck, financial model, framework, project plan, memo, team development activity, etc., etc., etc., my notes help me in the process of creation.

Using a note in consultation, in preparation, or in creation happens in the flow of work and in that flow there is also an opportunity to improve a note and make it even better for the next time it is used. It’s called progressive summarization and it’s an exceptional feature of digital notes.

Progressive summarization is a tool to do just what it describes: progressively summarize a note you’ve collected previously, as you’re using the note, so that you can make it even more useful for the next time you use it. 

For example, there’s an article I constantly reference because it’s changed the way I think about work. I saved the entire article as a note. I’ve bolded passages, highlighted key ideas, and even summarized it. So when I return to the note, which I do with some level of regularity, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for without having to spend 15-minutes re-reading the article. That’s progressive summarization.

Tiago Forte, inventor of Progressive Summarization and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, describes progressive summarization as “a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.” 

Progressive summarization works through five layers with each layer building on the previous layer.

The first layer is creating the note. That’s easy. 

The second layer is bolded key points. The third layer is highlighted best points (which come from the bolded points). The fourth layer is creating a summary of the note in your own words. 

And the fifth layer, which in all honesty I haven’t quite figured out yet, is to remix notes. I imagine it to be a mastery-level use of digital notes and something I’ll figure out when it becomes useful to my digital note taking practice.

Progressive summarization doesn’t have to occur all at once. In fact, it shouldn’t. And not every note deserves or requires all layers of progressive summarization—stopping at the bolding layer is common for me and summaries should be reserved for only the most impactful notes. 

Notes are intended to be useful. Using progressive summarization to make notes more useful as you’re using them to do the work you’re doing absolves digital note taking from tedium. We’re all too busy for tedium. 

More Creativity at Work

At work we commonly depend on our creativity as we write the email, as we compose the thought in a meeting or interaction, and as we create the spreadsheet or presentation. Let’s call it creativity in the moment.

Equally (and perhaps more) important is considered creativity. The creativity that emerges from well thought out preparation, consultation, and creation in thoughtful consideration of context.

I’m not sure that distinction serves all that much importance beyond this: it calls attention to the need for creativity in all moments, in all areas, and by everyone when working in complexity.

Digital notes help us in constantly shifting contexts because digital notes provide a system to collect, process, and remember the information and knowledge required for being creative—and importantly: while we’re being creative in preparation, in consultation, and in creation.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Use digital notes to do creative work (post three), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

Have you ever tried drinking from a fire hose? 

I suspect it’s possible. But not in the way we all suggest to new employees when we tell them their first few weeks on the job are going to be just like … well you know.

At best, at best, if you attempt to drink from a fire hose you’ll only manage to consume a few drops of water because the only sensible way to attempt to drink from a fire hose is to stand to the side of the gushing stream and slurp from the spray.

An onboarding experience that captures a tiny fraction of the whole is not a successful onboarding; nor is capturing a tiny fraction of any of the information we come across in any activity at work, whether we’re a new employee or not. 

But that’s just what we’re doing when we attend meetings, webinars, and trainings; when we read articles, books, and emails; when we converse with coworkers, bosses, and employees; when we think of solutions, next steps, and risks; and everything else; and … we don’t take notes.

Digital notes give us the ability to 1) redirect the fire hose of information coming at us all the time into a gigantic collection … tank, where the information is stored until it’s needed and, if it is needed, is findable and 2) collect what we know (knowledge!) in an accessible fashion so it can be used.

And to be findable and usable, digital notes must be collectable. 

Little Systems for Collecting Notes

Making digital notes collectable is about implementing little systems to optimize note collecting. This is where the digital in digital note taking makes note taking so much easier. The internet abounds with useful tools, applets, software, subscriptions, and etcetera to make collecting digital notes easier. 

Here are two tools and a set of rules to make digital note taking easier for you.

Instapaper Highlights to Evernote

Just about everything I read on the internet is filtered through Instapaper. Instapaper makes it easy to save anything (articles, blog posts, videos) for later consumption. This is helpful for several reasons and most especially because Instapaper has a highlight feature that when paired with a recipe at IFTTT automatically saves those highlights to my Evernote inbox.

It’s magical.

IFTTT, also known as If This Then That, is a simple integration service allowing you to connect different services through simple applets. More on that in a moment.

Here’s how to save Instapaper highlights to Evernote:

  1. Create an Instapaper account.
  2. Install the “Save to Instapaper” browser plugin (Firefox) or bookmarklet (other browsers). If you have more than one computer or use more than one browser, it’s helpful to install the plugin or bookmarklet across all of them. Anything I want to read, now or perhaps in the future, is saved to Instapaper.
  3. Create an IFTTT account
  4. Connect the Append Instapaper Highlights to Evernote applet. Just click the link. IFTTT will provide step-by-step instructions.
  5. (Check to ensure your .Inbox is the default notebook in Evernote.)
  6. Save this blog post by using the “Save to Instapaper” plugin or bookmarklet. Visit Instapaper. Highlight this phrase with your cursor. Then click “Highlight.”
  7. Wait for the highlight to appear in Evernote. Voila! 

Reading on the internet in this fashion has been helpful to me because I usually add something from what I read to Evernote, I have a searchable archive of everything I’ve saved and archived in Instapaper, and instead of having a hundred open tabs or emailing myself things to read when I have the time, Instapaper provides an inbox of worthy reading when I want to do it.

Entire Articles to Evernote

Sometimes an article I read is so good, or is foundational to my understanding of a topic, or is one I return to again and again, or is something I share over and over that I just want to save the entire piece to Evernote. 

So I do using the Evernote Web Clipper plugin. Install it. Click the “Clip to Evernote” button. Look for a moment at the “Options”—the plugin has what it calls “smart filing,” where the software decides which notebook to use for saving the clip. I’m sure this is a helpful feature, but to me it’s proven annoying, so I changed the setting to “Always start in .Inbox.” Click “Save.” Wait for the clip to appear in Evernote.

Here’s a “Quick Start Guide” if you’d like to know more about the features. 

Direct Entry to Evernote

Most of your notes are bound to be direct entry right into Evernote. I rely on a few simple heuristics for deciding when to take notes. Most of my notes are work related, and I also use notes for things in my personal life. 

If something captures my interest or attention, online or IRL (like a book!), it gets a note. Also, if something should capture my interest or attention because of a project I’m working on or something I have responsibility for (e.g., employee documentation, reminders to aid during annual reviews, etc), it gets a note.

Thoughts get a note. These thoughts can range from the thoughts that come while on a run, or in the shower, or when I should be paying attention to something else … to the applied thinking I do in preparation for a meeting, or the individual work as part of a project, or the effort in solving a problem. 

Every meeting gets a note. My definition of meetings is broad, so this includes everything that comes by way of a calendar invite, the interactions that aren’t pre-scheduled but amount to what would happen in a meeting if it had been, webinars, trainings, etc.

I use a template for all meeting notes. Each note is dated and titled the same as the meeting in my calendar. I note:

  • Meeting Purpose
  • Attendees
  • Commitments (Who/What/By When)
  • Notes (!), this is the meat of the note, often just an attempt to capture what seems important in the moment
  • Resources; I make note of anything distributed in hard copy form or attach any digital resources
  • Agenda; if available I copy and paste the agenda 

Taking notes about things that capture your attention, the thoughts you have, and the meetings you attend are a good start but may not cover everything you want to take notes about.

For example, in addition to the above, I rely on (and take some notes in this way) notes for reminding me of things I want to be reminded about, skills I’m practicing to improve, and a PDF to read list, among other things. 

Finding What Works For You

My digital note taking (and collection) practices have evolved as I’ve found my way into new jobs and experienced the value digital notes provide.

So there’s no right way nor a reason to comprehensively classify all the different types of notes worth collecting. Instead, taking digital notes is about developing and improving the approach that works for you while relying on PARA as your organizing idea.

You’ll find what works for you and your note taking needs as you take more notes, of course, which happens to be the point: to understand the value digital note taking provides, you must start collecting (and taking) digital notes so you can start using your digital notes to help you be more effective at work.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were something you could start doing at work that would immediately make you more effective at your job?

Good news, because I believe there is: Digital note taking.

A Foundational Work Practice

For most of us, note taking amounts to an activity we do when we attend meetings—we record information we definitely need to know or share, commitments we make, instructions we’re given, and perhaps a few additional thoughts depending on your personal preferences for information capture.

Note taking can be so much more.

If you take your way of capturing notes in a meeting, improve it, and expand the activity to everything else you do at work, digital note taking will help you be more effective at what you do.

That’s because our jobs amount to turning 1) information into 2) knowledge and 3) applying it. That’s it. That’s all of our jobs. And digital note taking can help us with all three.

Taking digital notes is a foundational work practice that will help you think, help you focus, create a record, document your learning, and direct your work. 

That’s what note taking has done for me, at least, because digital note taking makes collecting, remembering, and using the enormity of information we consume every day at work … possible.

Getting Started

So if you haven’t already, pay for a digital note-taking app such as Evernote or any of the many other available options and install the application. I use Evernote and recommend it—it’s accessible across operating systems and, for reasons that will become clear, is usable with other components of a digital note taking system.

(Evernote is also accessible via your browser. I prefer the functionality of the desktop and mobile device apps.)

Create a notebook and name it “.Inbox”. Set it as your default notebook.

Evernote uses notebooks as its organizing metaphor (think of a notebook like you think of a folder on your computer); the period at the beginning of inbox is important because it will keep the notebook at the top of your notebook list as you add more and more. 

Start adding notes to your .Inbox … about everything: thoughts, observations, meetings, employee interactions, highlights from what you read, and any other information that seems relevant. 

Taking notes about … everything is likely to be different from your usual approach. This change in behavior, and the comprehensive collection of notes that will follow, is part of what lends digital note taking its utility. 

Once you have a few notes, create new notebooks to organize those notes by topic, for instance:

  • Team Staff Meetings
  • New Clinic Opening
  • 2021 Strategy Thoughts
  • 1:1 Tools

(I believe) It’s imperative you organize your Evernote set-up using the PARA method. If you don’t know about PARA, spend ten minutes becoming acquainted over here

Earlier I mentioned how Evernote uses notebooks instead of folders. This makes setting-up PARA a bit more difficult than it should be because instead of using folders to implement PARA we must create four “stacks” of notebooks. To create a stack requires two notebooks. Here’s how to do it. Once you have two notebooks that fit into one of the PARA categories (an easy work-around: create a nonsense notebook to create a stack, then delete the nonsense notebook and the stack remains). Your set-up should look like this:


1 Projects

2 Areas

3 Resources

4 Archive

Now whenever you create a new note, and that new note doesn’t have a home, create a new folder and add that folder to an existing stack. 

Team Staff Meetings and 2021 Strategy Thoughts, as an example, would both be added to the Areas stack. The 1:1 Tools, because the folder contains examples of how to improve 1:1 conversations, would be added to Resources. New Clinic Opening is a project. When any of these folders (and the notes within them) lose their relevance, they are moved to the Archives stack.

An Essential Part of the Job

Taking digital notes is a bit of work, not in a burdensome way, but in a way that it adds an extra task to what you’re already doing. This is a non-trivial reality for an overburdened administrator and, speaking from experience, once I started taking notes it was always tempting to not take notes … for a variety of reasons. However, not taking notes when you should be taking notes defeats the purpose of note taking. The whole reason to take notes is because when you want to use the notes you’ve taken, those notes exist.

In my estimation, a better way to look at digital note taking, which is the view I’ve adopted, is that digital note taking adds significant value to the work we’re already doing. Digital note taking is an essential part of the job because digital notes help us collect, remember, and use … knowledge.

Knowledge is essential to the work we do as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. The things you know, the knowledge you have, is the stuff you learn from experience and education. 

Yet most of us don’t do a very good job collecting our knowledge, not in a systematized fashion anyway; which makes it difficult to remember knowledge; and that all but makes it impossible to use our knowledge.

Make more knowledge more usable by taking digital notes.

I learned about digital notes from Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain course. It was very helpful to me and I believe it could be just as helpful for you.

This post is one of a series: Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), Use digital notes to do creative work (post three), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).