Keeping a Notebook

The Need To Keep Lists Is Obvious To Most Of Us, But Have You Ever Considered Making Notes To Help Manage How You Communicate?

By Thomas J. Roach

Everyone should keep a notebook. Imagine Sherlock Holmes on the moor peering down at a clue. The gloomy fog wafts around his ear-flapped cloth cap. He reaches into his tweed coat and extracts a small notebook in which he records an observation. That notebook. 

Not a three-ring binder, but a notebook about the size of a smartphone – one that you can keep in your jacket pocket or purse. In fact, you can also use a notes app on your smartphone.

Writers like Joan Didion, Ernest Hemmingway and Mark Twain used notebooks to record dialogue and creative ideas. John Lennon and Bob Dylan used notebooks to record interesting lines for songs. General George Patton kept a notebook to jot down war strategies, diagrams and poems. Even filmmaker George Lucas kept a notebook, which is where he first wrote the names Jawa, Wookie, and R2-D2. 

Notebooks Make Us Smarter
Short-term memory is a cruel joke. Ideas and sensory data are blindingly clear in short-term memory. Then 10 seconds later they are gone. Think of the mind as a toilet that flushes and refills constantly. 

Some information gets transferred to long-term memory through reinforcement and repetition, which can be controlled and managed somewhat, but it’s easier and more useful to write things down. In fact, writing helps move information into long-term memory. 

Most of us don’t track murder suspects, produce great works of art or command armored divisions, but we all can benefit from keeping lists of things to acquire, things to do and things we need to say. 

Things to acquire and do are lists we often try to keep in our heads, but how often do you go to the store and forget something and have to make a second trip because you didn’t take the time to write it down? Or how often have you worked hard on a project only to find that the one little thing you forgot was extremely important to someone?

Manage How You Communicate 
The need to keep lists is obvious to most of us, but have you ever considered making notes to help manage how you communicate? For those of us in contemporary business environments, the most important information may be reminders of things to discuss with our coworkers. 

Notebooks can capture the little things that deserve compliments or correction. Coworkers and subordinates who receive positive or negative reinforcement have an opportunity to adjust and mature into more productive team members. 

I am not suggesting that when the opportunity arises that you light your pipe, reach into your tweed coat, pull out your notebook and start reciting a list of someone’s shortcomings. A notebook will help you compose and, most importantly, time what you say. 

What we say can be clear, insightful, helpful and extremely important, but if we say it at the wrong time, it may be misunderstood, seem insignificant and even cause offense. Keeping a notebook helps resolve the timing problem. 

Writing down what we want to say to others lets us choose the most opportune time to communicate. Positive feedback is usually best if it is spontaneous and immediate, but negative feedback requires finesse. 

We must wait for right moment – like when it is requested, or when it can be layered in with positive feedback, or at least given at a time when it will seem helpful as opposed to threatening or demeaning. Timing is probably the main difference between bosses and mentors. 

Tangible Benefits
Additionally, keeping a notebook makes the business environment more tangible. Just reading through it occasionally will help you get a picture of your own strengths and weaknesses and the patterns of your behavior. 

The machines of today’s work environment are social mechanisms. Our assembly lines are sequences of words and gestures. Your notebook could be the user manual for your career. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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