The way we communicate at work has changed drastically in the last few years. With many companies switching to tools like Teams and Slack, managers had to adapt to a new way of handling their conversations.
Independently from beliefs or management styles, there’s a simple yet powerful trick to level up your decision-making: writing things down.
To the less trained, this simple tip might not sound that impactful, but don’t let yourself be fooled! There’s a lot of research out there to back these claims up.
What to write down
The best companion of a manager is her notepad, they say. Nothing beats pen and paper when it comes to jotting down keywords and unstructured thoughts. Especially in more delicate conversations, when being present and actively engaged is extremely important. We’ve all been in that 1:1 meeting where our counterpart was constantly typing on a keyboard and looking away: it sends the wrong message.
Let me ask you a question: have you been reading your notepad and asking yourself what the heck you meant to record in your notes?
It happened to everybody. It’s because a simple notepad serves the goal of recording unstructured information pretty well. Still, at the end of the day, we run the risk of filling up most of the pages with concepts and keywords caught here and there, missing the thread of the story, and the relations among concepts. This defeats the purpose of having a notepad.
Quick notes are wonderful at hooking up our brains to precise moments in our memory. They give us checkpoints and stepstones upon which the recollection of an event is based. The mere act of taking notes is a helpful first step into being a more introspective individual.
Why writing things down helps
Our minds work well with highly structured information, that’s what they like and how data is stored and organized in them.
That’s why it is exceedingly important that at the end of each day we take some time to review our recollection of what happened through our notes. That’s how we can create information from data. That’s the leap into introspection.
Reviewing our notes with a fresh memory of the day does not only help us consolidate knowledge, it also functions as a feedback loop to become better at taking notes. We reinforce the notion of what’s important and worth to be captured.
Writing things down also forces us to be synthetic. In the same way, nobody wants to read an extraordinarily long email, your brain repudiates long notes. In our minds, we tend to extrapolate a few main messages out of any interaction we have with others.
We instinctively distill the main feeling or motive behind a conversation, especially when such conversation is highly unstructured and our mind has to “do the work” of understanding what is going on. As with any other instinctive behavior, our response is generally fast but it might be inaccurate. Reviewing your notes helps your rational self to uncover the telltale signs for the recollection of your intuitive self.
You might have a bilateral with a direct report where your instinct tells you that there’s some discontent. Now, you cannot be sure about that. How do you go about it? You can maybe ask them directly but, depending on the personality type, you can get an answer that is more or less articulated.
Most importantly, people lie, willingly and unwillingly. They might feel intimidated for example. What do you do then? This is when your notes come in handy. You need to look for the telltale signs of discontent. If you find any, then your hypothesis is confirmed and might become a truth. If you don’t find any, your hypothesis stays a hypothesis and you need to dig deeper (with something like a level 3 conversation, for example).
Is writing only for unstructured info?
Our thoughts in our minds are ridiculously clear to ourselves. But are they that clear for everybody else?
Next time you are preparing for an all-hands or a quarterly business review, try writing your line of thought down beforehand. I promise you it will be harder than you think.
Now imagine: all of the hardship you will feel struggling to write down your thoughts is going to be conjugated in dozens of different ways in each of the recipients’ minds. Remember, people listen mostly with their intuition and instinctively distill just a few main messages from what they hear.
Writing things down does not only help with highly unstructured conversation. It also helps proofread your thoughts. It synthesizes your internal speech for yourself and your interlocutors. It makes it explicit, understandable, relatable, and respectful.
When having an intuition or a gut feeling for something, try going backward in time through your notes looking for the same intuition. Chances are you will find at least a couple of occurrences, either direct or indirect.
It’s not surprising. Our brains use pattern matching to send stimuli that trigger intuitions. That’s how we learn (and taken to the extreme, how we survive). We learn by observing something several times and then trying it out ourselves.
But repetition also works the other way. A study by the Harvard Business Review demonstrated how a group of managers without formal power outperformed a group of managers with formal power when it comes to speed of delivery by leveraging repetition in their communication.
We tend to assume people get us as we get ourselves. In reality, this is rarely the case.
Whatever your preference might be, there are a few traits that make you effective when writing things down:
- be present: pen & paper works best to catch the unstructured concept
- be synthetic: review unstructured notes and cluster them up synthesizing information into knowledge
- be introspective: have searchable notes that serve as a database of knowledge for your brain
When you reach this level of organization, your mind will be freed from the repetitive work of catching up on events and will dedicate most of its computational power to spot trends and patterns, making your job easier and raising the bar of your effectiveness.