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💥 The Notetaking Habits Of Billionaires, Oscar-Winners, and A+ Students

Welcome to The Action Digest, the only newsletter rated as more action-packed than an Olympic ping pong match. Yes indeed.

Fresh insights from our productivity research team this week:

  • 🫡 The rogue notetaking method that launched an academy-award winning screenwriting career.

  • 📝 Two evidence-based notetaking systems that are precision engineered to enhance learning and creativity.

  • 🧠 A notetaking principle responsible for unleashing the biggest breakthroughs of all time.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-8 here in case you missed them, including insights such as The Paradox Of Creative Consensus, winning creative strategies from Stanford designers, and the audacious motivational hack used by Yellowstone’s showrunner.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these early editions. ;-)

1. The Most Effective People Are Avid Notetakers

In 2019, Richard Branson's nonprofit organization was hosting an event in the British Virgin Islands. That year, Branson himself was in the audience, absorbing the insights shared by the speakers. But not long into the talks, a young woman sitting next to him caught his attention.

She was meticulously taking detailed, handwritten notes.

What unfolded next left a lasting impression on Branson: "Having made her notes and considered them,” Branson later recalled, “Tatiana was able to ask some thoughtful questions to the speakers and develop the discussion further. She referred to her notes as she asked her questions, which I found so refreshing." 

Seizing the opportunity during the next break, Branson leaned over and asked to borrow Tatiana’s notebook. “Inside I wrote my own note, commending her for her diligence,” Branson continued. “One of my greatest frustrations is having meetings with people who don’t take any notes. How do they expect to remember what was said, and act upon it?"

This encounter with Tatiana underscored a productivity tool that Branson holds in high regard: notetaking. "Whenever I’m listening to anybody, I try to note down the points that most interest or concern me. Afterwards, I can refer back to these notes and act upon them. Often these notes form the backbone of the types of blog posts you see on my social media channels, or I use them to help tackle a philanthropy challenge, or a business opportunity. Many of the most effective people I know are avid note-takers – but many people still haven’t caught onto the value of notetaking.”

The correlation that Branson has spotted between effective individuals and notetaking is part of a much broader pattern. Many of history’s most influential figures were passionate notetakers. But what specific techniques do they rely on to get the most leverage from this habit? And why do these techniques prove so effective? This week’s edition has some answers. 

2. Great Ideas Don’t Wait For The Perfect Moment

If you lookup the most successful screenwriters in the world, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom, The Social Network)  is always somewhere at the very top. But in 1989, Sorkin was just like any other amateur writer desperately trying to keep his pipe dream alive and struggling to make ends meet amidst New York’s steep living costs. 

“I had any number of survival jobs,” Sorkin told the BBC, “I did everything, I bussed tables, I dressed up as a moose in Times Square and handed out leaflets, and I was mostly a bartender at Broadway theaters.” 

But ‘Broadway bartender’ turned out to be the perfect occupation for a struggling writer. After the pre-show rush of drink orders, there was a whole hour before the intermission when there was nothing to do. “And during that hour at the Palace Theatre, I was writing A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins of the bar. It was dialogue; I was writing the play.” Months went by like this where Sorkin would return home with “pockets stuffed with cocktail napkins.”

It was a snatch of dialogue here, an idea for a scene there. Each napkin, by itself, seemed insignificant. But each was like a small puzzle piece that eventually assembled into the full length stage version of A Few Good Men. Sorkin’s humble napkin scribbles turned out to be a major hit on Broadway and ultimately became the prelude to the famous movie adaptation starring Tom Cruise.

Great ideas don't wait for the perfect moment; they emerge in the midst of life's chaos, demanding to be captured in whatever medium is at hand. But if we can dedicate ourselves to the simple act of recording these little sparks of insight, then they have a shot at someday compiling into something much greater than any small piece might indicate.

3. A System That Efficiently Takes You Through A Completely Natural Learning Cycle

In the 1950s, Professor Walter Pauk was growing increasingly frustrated. 

Pauk held the strong conviction that notetaking was an essential tool for enhancing the academic performance of his students. Yet many of his students either neglected the practice entirely or relied on ineffective notetaking techniques that failed to yield any benefits. 

This frustration sent Pauk on a quest to find a universal notetaking system that he could prescribe to his students. The ideal system would make taking notes easier so that more of his students would actually do it, plus it would encourage them to generate and use their notes in the most efficient way possible. 

So when Paul discovered the Cornell note taking system, it was love at first sight. He proclaimed the approach as “the best way I know to ensure that the notes you take are useful.” 

The Cornell system, as Pauk discovered, starts by breaking each page into three zones. 

  1. A zone for main notes — this is where you spend your time during a lecture, jotting down the key ideas and information.

  1. A zone for study cues — you fill this section out post-lecture with questions and prompts relevant to the Main Notes.

“Although the system is far-reaching, its secret is simple,” Pauk explained, “as you’re taking notes, keep the cue column empty. But when you review and recite what you’ve jotted down, draw questions from the ideas in your notes and write them in the cue column.”

  1. A summary zone — this is where you write a two to three sentence summary of the ideas captured on the page in order to “step back and look at the implications of what you’ve written down.”

So in a nutshell, the Cornell system encourages students to focus all of their attention during a given lecture on filling up the Main Notes zone. Then, during their next free period, they fill up the cue column with questions relevant to the notes. 

For example…

Finally, when studying at a later date, you try to answer the questions in your cue zone with your main notes zone covered up. If you can’t remember something, you can check the notes, but then you keep revising the page over time until you can answer all of the questions without checking. 

The Cornell notetaking system helped Pauk’s students become more consistent and effective notetakers for two key reasons: 

  1. The facilitation of recall

By leveraging cues, the Cornell system encourages you to recall your notes from memory.

A 2017 study found that participants who struggled to retrieve information from their memory, even for a few seconds, engrained that knowledge even deeper in their memory after they were shown the answer.

This study is part of a much broader literature that shows much of the magic of notetaking comes from reviewing our notes, which is baked into the Cornell system.

  1. The lowering of effort

A study from 2005 found that notetaking can require more mental effort than playing chess! This might explain why so many of Pauk’s students neglected the habit.

The reason is that both chess and notetaking involve switching back and forth between multiple cognitive processes: “What is common to these two tasks,” the researchers note, “is that they both involve retrieval of large amounts of knowledge, conceptual planning, and the development of solutions to the problems posed in each situation.”

By breaking the page into zones, the Cornell system allows students to focus on one cognitive process at a time, which is much less exhausting than trying to constantly toggle back and forth between them. During the lecture, they simply focus on recording important information. Then, only after the lecture do they review, consolidate, and synthesize.

The technique was an instant hit with Pauk’s students and quickly spread far beyond the confines of Cornell, with millions of students successfully deploying the system over coming decades. “The Cornell note-taking system is more than a sheet of paper on which to take notes,” Pauk wrote, “it is a system that efficiently takes you through a completely natural learning cycle on the same sheet of paper.”

4. Adapting The Cornell System To Enhance Creativity And Productivity

The principle of smoothly transitioning between mental modes is not confined to studying.

It’s well established among the scientific community that creativity also requires our brains to switch between two different mental gears.

As knowledge workers and creatives, we must toggle between expansive, or “divergent” thinking (e.g., brainstorming different ideas and possibilities) and narrow, or “convergent” thinking (e.g., identifying action steps, scheduling, refining).

Just as the Cornell system encourages good study habits, the Action Method encourages good creativity habits.

Harnessing the same idea of cognitive separation, the Action Method offers a zone for divergent thinking and a zone for convergent thinking.

The Exploration Zone on the left gives you the space to “diverge” and venture freely into the idea-scape during meetings and brainstorming sessions.

Then the Action Zone on the right reminds you to “converge” and consolidate your ideas into an action plan once you’ve finished exploring.

It gives you permission to sail along in one creative gear at a time, making for a more streamlined creative process, and ensuring that you’re always working with a bias toward action.

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

5. One Day They Are Transformed Into Something More Substantial

“At once it struck me” Charles Darwin says in his autobiography—describing the moment in the fall of 1838, when his groundbreaking theory of natural selection flashed into his mind. Like the apple falling on Newton’s head, Darwin’s words play into the idea that our most brilliant ideas arrive in a sudden burst. 

Yet a closer look at Darwin’s own notebooks says otherwise…

🔐 This insight, that reveals how notetaking can faciliate the greatest breakthroughs of our lifetimes), is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported). For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

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We’ll leave you with this…

“I would run into the corner store, the bodega, and just grab a paper bag or buy juice - anything just to get a paper bag. And I’d write the words on the paper bag and stuff these ideas in my pocket until I got back. Then I would transfer them to my notebook.” 


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