Note Taking Practices for Modern Leaders

Mitch Malone
5 min readDec 30, 2023
My new favorite note taking tools — Traveler’s Company Japan notepad and Lamy Safari fountain pen.

“Write things down throughout your day, your memory is far worse than you think.” I was given this nugget of wisdom early in my leadership journey as I sat in a meeting and nodded along to my manager. That afternoon I was surprised with a notepad and pen as a gift to remind me to always take notes.

“Write things down throughout your day, your memory is worse than you think.”

Throughout my career note-taking habits have come and gone, but in recent years I’ve found it more necessary than ever to take notes during meetings. I also do this to capture my thoughts at various times in the day and I review my notes frequently to reap their true value.

While reviewing notes doesn’t always bare the fruit I’d like it to, the act of writing alone is worth the effort. Good note-taking hygiene across a company is a huge unlocker of velocity, as few things are more distracting than having the same meeting multiple times because it wasn’t captured correctly the first time.

Forgetting decisions that were made or failing to take note of who made agreements in meetings hugely detracts from the velocity of teams. “I was certain we agreed to X,” is a hallmark comment after long meetings weren’t captured accurately and shared with the company. It’s exhausting.

Note: I’ll often refer to Notion throughout this document, but this can relate to any quality note-taking app. I prefer Notion due to it’s simplicity and it’s ability to link notes with other documents.

Meeting Notes

The 101 of note taking starts with meeting notes. The days of leading by using the phrase “do as I say, don’t do as I do” are truly gone. We are now in a time where the best leaders set the example, they regularly live up to company values, and are at the forefront of practices and rituals.

Taking accurate notes is just one example of how you can shine as a leader. It’s hard to stand out when you forget what happens in meetings, can’t recall the status of a project, or find yourself unaware of a decision that was made.

If you’re not taking notes during meetings you’re not only setting poor examples to your team, but you’re likely robbing others of the opportunity to provide input since you’re likely focused on ********running******** the meeting instead of also being an observer and participator.

Before the meeting

You owe it to your team to capture an agenda prior to a meeting, even if it’s loosely formed. In a perfect world none of us should have to attend meetings without agendas, but for the sake of reality we’ll just assume that some level of agenda is captured.

Tip: I have a Notion database for company and team meetings. This makes setting meetings simple, and makes following up on them incredibly efficient.

During the meeting

The meeting owner should either take notes themselves or nominate someone to capture the meeting. I tend to do this in the same document that contains the agenda in an effort to attempt to keep meetings focused.

Notes should be simple and to the point, without much fuss or formality. The point is to allow someone to catch up on the meeting quickly, not to document every word that is said.

Critically, be sure to capture anything that is agreed to by the team. This might be a decision (see decision logs later in this document) or something someone committed to do after the meeting.

After the meeting

Meetings should seldom run for an hour, and meetings with good agendas shouldn’t run over time. Reserve 30/60 minute slots for meetings and then end them with enough time to share the notes with the attendees afterwards.

Personal Notes

Whether you’re scribbling ideas as you have them on a notepad, or maintaining well-curated mind maps, it’s incredibly powerful to take time throughout your week to write notes for yourself. Oftentime we find ourselves so consumed by the day to day of business that it can be easy to forget to take stock of thoughts and ideas.

One of the simplest concepts in maintaining a healthy project is writing everything down and prioritizing it, so treat your own thoughts the same way. Taking note of ideas, building mind maps of more complicated concepts, and crossing off junk items are really helpful to keeping on task.

Transparency and note sharing

While I take a lot of physical notes using a notepad and pen, I also make sure that I later digitize and share notes freely with others that may help them with their role.

This might seem obvious in most business settings, but it’s a very natural emotion to want to keep note taking private due to concerns notes that were intended for ones self might be judged, but practicing sharing notes to the team is critical for transparency.

This ideally should include meeting notes, notes from 101 meetings, personal notes on projects, and even leadership meeting summaries where not confidential. This can sound scary, but giving your team access to knowledge is critical in developing high trust and high performing teams.

Decision Logs

The ability to disagree constructively is the hallmark of a healthy team. Call it “healthy tension.” The best teams, especially the best leadership teams, know how to disagree in a way that drives better outcomes and goes deeper than the surface of an issue.

The challenge with these incredibly constructive meetings is that so much time was spent debating the issue at hand that no one remembers what was decided or who decided it. By the time the dust settles and everyone goes back to their desks, memories have faded and confusion sets in.

A decision log is a terrific and simple way to keep track of these decisions. Decision logs can be as simple as a shared spreadsheet or as complicated as a formal document in Confluence, but there are a few items I strongly recommend tracking when decisions are made.

  • The issue at hand
  • The decision that was made
  • Owner(s) of the decision (not for blame, but if further context is needed later)
  • Any other notes that may be relevant for the future

I personally like building out a decision log as a Notion database because it’s easy to link to the decision from meeting notes. Being able to couple information like this makes things much easier in the future.

Note Revision

Whether you’re a seasoned leader or a more junior employee reviewing notes, it is critical to forming a solid understanding of the business. So many things get said and done every day that if you don’t make time for some revision it can be hard to stay informed about it all.

Review any physical notes regularly and make sure to share anything that might be needed by the team on a regular basis. Re-reading notes not only ensures you’re in the loop and have solid recollections of what has happened, it also affords time to rethink on the issues of the day.

To ensure your team also reviews notes I recommend tagging meeting attendees and stakeholders in documents, or sharing documents with them via team chat. This is best done right away and not put off to later.

Final Thoughts

Note taking is hugely impactful beyond the immediate value of the notes you take.

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Mitch Malone

Product and engineering leader (prev. CTO @ Linktree, Head of Eng @ BlueChilli). Nomad, remote worker, writer, photographer.