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The enormous value of note-taking in being successful

Taking notes makes a remarkable difference when you make it a part of your learning ladder. It helps retain knowledge better, which further helps the mind to build interconnected mental maps or models.

November 29, 2020 / 09:50 PM IST

Note to readers: Soch to Success is a weekly column to enhance critical thinking skills for you to achieve success. Each article is packed with insights, tools, and a roadmap to action.

His darkness sharpened the contours of his light, wrote Rory Smith for The New York Times on Maradona. And, I thought I should write it down in my notes. I belong to an age that even if you are not a football follower, knowing Maradona was a given.

The images of his blinding bright success stories and in equally sharp contrast, his bloated pictures and drug stories, always sat together in the memories. So, when I read the line “his darkness sharpened the contours of his light”, I felt the urge to write it down. Not for Maradona but for my own reflection. The line defined my memories. It also led to something more. A shadow gives the contour of the light. To think not from the angle of the light but from the side of the shadow is a new thought. Somebody seeing the glass half empty should remember that the emptiness drives more attention to the full part.

A line in an obituary evokes a chain of thoughts. And, these thoughts from ‘darkness-contours-light’ to ‘emptiness-embodies-full’ creates a lattice of mental models. Simply put, this is how the mind builds and stores ideas and deploys a framework of connected dots when needed. They come in the form of ideas, concepts, thoughts and not necessarily as words as written in the notes.

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A few years ago I was attending a design and creativity conference. The event had speakers from a variety of fields like sound design, art projections and technology. What was startling for me was to look around people sitting in that design conference. If you have attended one, you don't look at the faces, you try to peep into their notebooks. Varieties of doodles. Get friendly and they will share some more pages.

With the change of speaker, I had changed my seat. New set of doodlers as my neighbours. That's an ultimate power that some people have, the ability to draw their thoughts in shapes. In most other situations people take notes on their phones or in diaries. Scribbles. Bullets. Mind maps. Very few as doodles. All shapes and sizes of notes.

Taking notes as a student, in an academic environment is a chore. Taking notes as a working adult is a learning necessity. You see a heightened activity of note-taking in events and conferences as these are time-bound appointments for learning. But what makes a remarkable difference is when you develop the habit of note-taking as a part of your learning ladder; especially taking notes as you read. It helps you retain the knowledge better, which further helps your mind build interconnected mental maps or models.

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There are several styles of taking notes. Cornell note taking system is one. You can write with pen on paper or you can do on apps on your devices. Two or three years ago, I started taking notes on small, visiting-card sized paper where I scribble what I liked. I picked up the style from Ryan Holiday. If you search on how and what to take notes, you will find elaborate details on how to write a summary after each chapter or just highlight in the book. Some people put the two sleeves in first while wearing a T-shirt and some people put the neck in first. It doesn't matter how you take notes. Writing and reviewing those notes later is what matters.

You can write a word, a phrase, a full paragraph. You can write from a business leader or a sports personality. You can write inspirational quotes or concepts, you can copy behavioural insights or just ideas. You can write about anything that you like when you read. Eventually, it all comes together in your mind like a web of knowledge. Here, in today’s column on Habits for Thinking I am sharing some of my notes. It will give you an idea of what to write. Below each example is an account of how it connects with our thinking.

1 A word

Thrum:  meaning -a continuous rhythmic sound.  

"In such a culture, we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts for no other reason than that they exist.."

- Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Vocabulary expands our world. Good communication skills make a confident person.

2 A phrase

Strategy is just long term tactics.”

—Viswanathan Anand in his book Mind Master.

Catchy phrases stay in our mind and shape our thoughts and actions. I have written about Risk hai toh Ishq hai here.

3 A productivity hack

“I am actively irresponsible.”

—Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used this sentence on his productivity style to avoid any administrative work in the department. He chose not to take any administrative position that could take away time from his work.

Sometimes we take up responsibilities that make us look and feel good but may be harmful to our productivity or the way we spend time. Learning to say ‘no’ is art too.

“Improve is a truth that nags at them more than an old ache. ‘How small does that gain have to be?’ wrote the Olympic champion rower Steven Redgrove. ‘Virtually imperceptible, as long as it was a gain’.”

Written by Rohit Brijnath, a sports columnist in Mint Lounge in January 2019. He wrote in the context of goal settings done by athletes and sports personalities. For top performers, improvement is very little but they still strive to become a better version of their own, no matter how small that difference is.

To improve is a sign of a growth mindset. Sometimes, believing in perfection may inhibit change and growth. It happens to products and services and ideas. Staying true to improvement keeps the product evolving.

4 A peek into strategy

 “Nike picks a side in America’s culture war. It is doing something more novel and calculated than other multinationals that have weighed in on immigration, gun control or race: It did not stumble into this controversy; it sought it.”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Financial Times, September 2018

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“It did not stumble into this controversy, it sought it.” This is the sentence that reveals Nike’s strategy to rope in Colin Kaepernick as their brand ambassador. Footballer Colin Kaepernick demonstrated protest by taking a knee when the American national anthem played before the start of the NFL games. Nike, encouraged by studies showing that consumers reward brands for speaking up on divisive social issues, took the social issue as a brand strategy.

Here is another note:

Aditya Puri, former MD, HDFC Bank, in an interview in 2019 spoke about consumer initiatives that bank had taken. His philosophy included: a financial experience, an omni-channel experience, two clicks—shopping experience that is safe for both merchants and consumers and a fully digitised bank. What he said at the 11.20 min of the interview “Amazon gives four days of sale. Hamare Paas aao na, teen mahine ka sale hai.”

HDFC Bank, through its apps and cards, offers a plethora of sales on products and services for a longer time. A financial services business acts like a retailer to drive transactions.

5 A behaviour clue

“Had the children come from a more privileged background they would have perhaps panicked or felt dispirited because their sense of entitlement would have been offended.”

A group of young boys got trapped in a cave for a few days. The above lines are from an article after they were rescued. ‘The sense of entitlement’ mentioned here refers to the fact that privilege can cause more harm than good, especially in times of a crisis. Many people have suffered setbacks as they have not been able to travel out of the country as their summer destinations, unable to handle their sense of entitlement.

“The right to free speech does not give us the right to shout fire in a crowded cinema; there was the risk of a fire and we might have let the spark by shouting about it.”

Financial Times columnist on Lehman Brothers crisis in an article titled “Sometimes in a crisis, you don't tell the whole story.”

You do not have to be a columnist to understand the value of shouting fire to create panic but you will understand the comment and act wisely in a crisis situation. You will understand the value of how these unconnected notes form a web of knowledge and models in our thoughts.

We learn from what we see, we read, we hear, we do. We learn every day. Note-taking helps in retaining what we learn. The lattice of knowledge fuels our success.

(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at www.habitsforthinking.in, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 
Vishakha SIngh
first published: Nov 28, 2020 08:04 am

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