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Dealing with Meeting Notes - GTD to the Rescue!

One area of my life that David Allen's system has really clarified is how to handle meeting notes. For example, today I had three significant meetings - a programmer/design meeting with two others, an impromptu meeting with my boss (thank goodness I was ready with my Waiting For and Agenda - we completed a bunch of items), and an Extreme Programming (XP) planning meeting with five others that I led. In all three cases I came away with notes that I'd taken during the meetings, marked up with my own little lexicon of "attention icons" (i.e., my way of marking action items, important notes, etc. - for example, an encircled upper case "A" for "action", as earlofmar11 describes).

Before implementing GTD these kinds of notes were a major, persistent frustration for me: I didn't know what to do with them, how to get action items from them, whether to keep them, and (if so) where to save them, and for how long. So they'd end up getting added to the pile. Now it's straightforward: At the end of each meeting I just them in my portable "Inbox" folder, which I dump that evening into my main Inbox at home. Then, when I'm processing the Inbox I handle the notes like all other "Stuff":
  • What is it? Meeting notes.
  • Is it actionable? Yes.
  • What's the next action?"Harvest" the notes for items needing my attention.
  • Two minutes or less to do? It depends on how extensive/complex the notes are. If it looks like there are only a few items, I'll go ahead and process each one into the appropriate bucket (usually a Next Action or Calendar/Tickler). Otherwise I'll add an @Anywhere Next Action that says "process xx meeting notes", and I'll stick the notes themselves in my Action Support folder (which I carry with me).
There are a few issues with this. Sometimes meetings notes are extensive enough that I cringe a bit when I pick them up. But we're creative and courageous, so I dig in. Also, if I'm not carefully checking my Next Actions every day, the notes will languish (which, as Bellaisa points out is not a good idea due to their short "half life"). But addressing that is part of my continuing goal to hone my GTD skills. Finally, some next actions might not be clear, and take a bit of thinking. For example, there might be an action I need to take after something else happens. Again, this is standard GTD processing, and well worth it - dealing with it one time as it "emerges on my radar" is much better than thinking about it repeatedly each time I see it.

Are there any meeting notes learnings you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them.

Reader Comments (18)

My recent realization was that I needed to treat my work notebook (where I take all my meeting notes) as a collection point and to separate collection from processing. When a potential action comes up in a meeting, I now write "IN" in the margin and draw a circle around it for easy identification. In this way I'm doing much of the initial process of "harvesting" as I'm taking notes.

After the meeting I can then quickly go through and process these items--adding them to action or project lists, doing the under-two-minute items, etc. I check off the items as they're processed so I can easily see if this collection point is empty or if there are still items remaining to be processed. This gets these items get out of my notebook and into the system where they can be handled normally.

September 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Thanks, Cindy. What a great idea - as I understand it, instead of trying to decide the action type at the time of the meeting, I might just treat them all as Inbox items. Nice.


September 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is what I do. Perhaps my meetings aren't as intense as others though:

If something is an action, I add it to the appropriate action list or calendar. If someone else in the meeting is taking care of an action, but I want to keep tabs on it, I add it to the waiting for list.

This way, I only take away from the meeting actual actions.

Alternately, if the meeting is going to related to a project (which most meetings do) then I have a project plan (form I put together myself, nothing you wouldn't come up with) I simply add all the finish lines to the project plan. If I do this, then I have a list of finish lines to take away and can then review the project plan as I would any other project plan during weekly and daily reviews.

I'm still perfecting this but seems to keep my head clear and all the actions on a list.

October 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBlair

Excellent points, Blair, thank you. Adding items directly to Next Actions Waiting Fors, etc. is great when you can do it - it's kinda like Allen's two minute rule - it cuts down on the overhead of tracking. In my case, if the meeting's going fast (or if I'm leading it) I seem to prefer not taking the time out to put them in the right place, i.e., deferring the tracking is worth the trade-off of staying engaged that way. Thanks again!


October 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I've been thinking a lot about notes too lately and my conclusion is that the act of taking them in invaluable but after that they have a usefulness half-life of next to zero.

Really only the time that it takes to extract the actions or new projects from the notes and after that the faster I purge them the better :)

I had a little post about this at: http://www.3thingstoday.com/2005/10/29/do-you-refer-to-your-notes/

November 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Nicely put, Paul. Thanks for the comment.

November 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

As a writer, I spend a lot of time collecting information, whether from published sources or people. My life got a lot easier when I figured out that it is okay to put all notes in the same place, no matter what the source.

Life got even easier when I decided that place should be spiral-bound notebooks: durable, portable, keep everything together, use the back pages for an index. (My preferences are a little quirky so I had a bunch custom printed. Visit a good office supply or art store for ideas.)

Most of the information I collect is non-actionable reference materials. So I spent a little time struggling to find a place for action items. The solution that seems to work the best is the simplest: Split the page in half. Write actionable items in one column. Treat this column as an inbox and process accordingly.

March 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine

Thanks very much for sharing your approach, Katherine. I appreciate hearing how you use your notebook - these kinds of notebooks seem to be common with the people I work with, and it's good to have some suggestions for them!

March 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Well, in that area there is an advantage of electronic meeting notes (on a computer or PDA) as opposed to hand written ones. I use most of the time my PDA for meeting notes - and the rest of my personal organization.

While I'm taking the notes, I tag with special signs (like ##) lines that would need follow up. When I am emptying and processing my inboxes, one step is to search my notes for these signs (using the find function). Then I just need to copy/paste/edit in tasks and suppress the signs on the notes and my action plan is up to date!

I prefer doing this, to noting right away things to do in tasks, because my notes stay complete, and it's better to plan tasks with some perspective rather than on the spot.

That way I can use a few otherwise idle minutes, anytime, anywhere, to search thru all my notes for future tasks and organize them rapidly.

Another advantage of electronic notes is of course to rapidly publish meeting minutes.


June 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterEriclodi

Thanks for your comment, Ericlodi. I'm pleased the PDA works well for you. I'd be curious to hear how you're able to capture so quickly. I found (in my experiements with them) that PDAs were too slow, prompting my move to paper. However, I agree with your assessment of the benefits of electronic versions of notes.

June 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

On a personal standpoint, I would still prefer to take hand written notes, because it is fast, the layout is totally free, drawing, arrows and schemes are just easy to do,... and I like to have a pen and a piece of paper.

But nowadays everything gets disseminated and shared thru electronic means. That's why, for a matter of efficiency, and to have an easy organisation workflow (previous post), I have switched to PDAs as soon as I could really take notes on them.

The Palm graffiti is not that fast, but has improved, and the more you use it, the faster and more reliable it becomes. Currently I use it on a PPC PDA/phone with a built in dictionary (which propose complete words from the first letters). Using graffiti is 20 to 30% slower than hand writing, which is usually not a handicap for note taking.

Before, I used to have a small Nokia phone that unfolded to present a full keyboard. With some training it was close to handwriting speed. I would transfer notes to my PDA/ computer by IR for storing and processing.

This being said, there are occasions when hand writing is best: for instance in group meetings when people have to really interact, it's much better to have them working - and writing and drawing - on large sheets of paper stuck to the wall, rather than have them look at a projector passively. In this case, there is also an electronic solution : I would take pictures (with the same PDA phone) of the works and disseminate them to the attendants thru the mail or share them on a website. They would be stored like any other document on my PDA and computer, and if I need to do anything, I would add a sign to make sure I don't miss it.


June 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterericlodi

Hi ericlodi. I agree that different tools have their strengths. I tried a PDA but it was too slow for me, but obviously others have different results.

Thanks for the comment!

June 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Great read ... I do two things and I use a tablet PC to write my notes ... I use a cornell method template as my stationary when I write, so I can notate in the margins further info .. I keep my bottom open for more a todo or followup section and write my notes out in longhand using MS OneNote (now 2007 version) ... when I review I use the different colored ink and highlighting extensively and finally use tags to get a ready made to do list or attention that can be taken to a summary page that you can generate in OneNote ...

February 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

Hi Alan. Thanks very much for the OneNote workflow ideas.

February 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Dealing with the action items in meeting notes I understood, and this post covers it well.

But what is currently confusing me is what to do with the notes after that? Do you keep them, or toss them? If you keep them, what is your experience on a "better" way to store them, such that they are useful? Is there a magic number or rule of thumb, as to when the pain of storage/maintenance exceeds the utility of keeping the notes?

August 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi anonymous. ... what to do with the notes after that? Do you keep them, or toss them? Thanks for the great question. It's really up to you. Do you need to keep them? Some folks like tracking the history via documentation. Others, when done processing them, are comfortable recycling them.

If you decide to keep them, it's a filing issue. You could file them with a project, if there's one that's obviously related. Or you could store them in a folder for a regular meeting, if it is one. Many other variations - by client, chronoligcally, etc.

I don't know if that helps. Thank you for reading.

August 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Most people don't take verbatim meeting notes, they summarise the important points by hand and then flesh it out in the type-written minutes. I don't see the point in holding on to the handwritten notes. I think they should be discarded when the minutes are approved.

February 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for writing, Anonymous. Let me clarify that I mean notes taken by individuals for their own use, and not official minutes of the meeting. So I agree re: taking verbatim ones - I don't know anyone who does this either, other than in a formal capacity. The goal is to capture salient points for post-processing. As far as keeping the notes after they've been harvested for action and ideas, I think it's personal preference. I keep some and recycle others depending on whether I think I'll need to refer back in the future. Most of the time - of course - it isn't necessary, and the risk is keeping unnecessary stuff around.

Thanks for your comment.

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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