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Chapter 5 - Write stuff down

Create a culture of taking notes and don't depend on he-said-she-said.

Too much on your mind? It shouldn’t be!

We are busy all of the time. When people ask us how everything is going, we usually answer:

  • “I’ve got so much on my mind!”
  • “Busy! My plate is full!”
  • “So much going on – I can barely juggle it all!”

I get it. You’re busy. We all are. But if you’re depending on just your thoughts to keep all of your work organized, then you desperately need to change your habits.

You need to start writing stuff down. But not just you – your entire team should.

If you and everyone on your team don’t want to go crazy or get overworked, you need to change your ways of remembering information or passing it on from one person to another.

Stop relying on talking and remembering.

This is not sustainable and it’s not effective.

Write. Stuff. Down.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” David Allen, author of Getting Things Done

When I first read David’s book1, the most important piece of advice I gleaned was exactly this. Not to keep stuff in my mind. To always write it down in my trusted productivity system. Shortly after reading the book, I created Nozbe2 to be able to do exactly that.

Why is keeping too much stuff on your mind bad for you?

First off, your mind is playing tricks on you. You’re in the middle of having dinner after a good day’s work, and suddenly a thought pops up out of nowhere: “I have to remember to send an email to my client about a budget proposal.” And you’re like: “Why now? Why not tomorrow morning after my 10 am meeting when I’m in front of my computer cranking out emails?”

Because your mind tries to be helpful. It knows you haven’t written it down and wants to make sure you remember it. It has no sense of time and space, so it just randomly reminds you about things.

If you had written it down as a task for tomorrow and set a due date, you’d have a lovely dinner. Instead, you’re worried about remembering to send this damn proposal.

If you have too much on your mind, you’re doing it wrong.

Where do I write stuff down? How do I do it?

As always, it depends. The basic rule is this:

  • Meeting? If it’s a scheduled event, just add it in your calendar directly.
  • Brilliant thought? Record it anywhere you can, such as a digital notepad, but make sure you’ll get to it later.
  • Something to do? Add it in your digital task management system – any kind of to-do list would be fine here.
  • Follow up with someone? Write them a short message or e-mail directly. Just do it right then and there.

You should have a system and a trusted place for each of these things. You should know where you keep track of them at all times. Someone mentioned an event? Put it in your calendar now. Don’t rely on you remembering later. Make a habit of writing stuff down the minute things come.

It’s never been easier to keep yourself on track, especially with today’s smartphones. Adding events to your digital calendar, dictating notes and sending voice messages to people are quick and easy ways to stay organized.

Create a team culture of writing stuff down

Now that you’ve acquired some new organizational habits, it’s time to instill the same write stuff down dynamic in your team. Here’s how to start.

Just task me with…

Want someone to do something for you? Ask them in written form. Yes, you can first talk to them about it, but even after your initial conversation, make a habit of creating a task for them in the task or project management software that you use in your team. We call this “task-based communication”3.

It quickly became a habit in our team. You simply ask: “Can you do this for me? I need this and that…” And the other person would say: “Sure, just task me with that!”

This practice forces you to think through what you’re asking, create a task for this person within the appropriate project and maybe even add a comment to explain in detail what you need or add documents as reference material.

Implementing this communication method ensures there’s no ambiguity about what you want, and if there is, your colleague can comment back to ask for additional info.

Use the same place for the same type of info

Be like Marie Kondo4. Use a system for your team’s projects and tasks. Have one system for internal team documentation, as well as one for code, if you’re doing some software development. These can be different systems or the same system, whatever your team agrees on. The key is that people know where to find the information they need.

Work will become much more efficient when you have an organized system. You can just tell your colleagues: “I’ve written this up on our intranet” or “There’s a task for it in the ACME project.” They won’t need to waste time searching for the information they need to move things forward.

And when you’re not around, whether you’re off or unavailable, people won’t need to bother you with messages. They can find stuff on their own, because they know where the information related to each task is stored.

Recurring topics or guidelines – write them up and refer people to them!

How often do people want to talk to you about something you’ve already discussed in the past? If you’re like me, far too many times!

That’s why, if there’s a recurring issue, it is absolutely worth your time to write it up. In detail, record all of your thoughts, procedures and previous agreements on the subject to keep in one place.

Next time someone wants to talk to you about the issue, tell them to read your documentation first. Or how we geeks say it: RTFM!5.

Use an app internally that lets you comment on work

Written comments are key. Now in 2020, there’s no excuse for not using modern apps that let you comment on everything. I’ve already mentioned that in our internal productivity system, Nozbe Teams6, we add comments to tasks all the time.

There are many apps that let you post comments throughout any type of work, thus fostering a better written culture in your team.

  • Writing code? On Github7, you can comment in Pull Requests on any line of code.
  • Writing texts? Use Dropbox Paper or Google Docs8 to comment on any paragraph.
  • Have questions about files? Dropbox and Box9 web interfaces let you comment on any file so you can send feedback about anything.

And these are just a few examples. Adding comments creates a great feedback-driven habit in a team. So stop sending Word documents to people via email; use modern online tools to collaborate.

Meeting minutes are not optional – they are obligatory!

We’ll deal with a modern way to run meetings in the later chapters of this book, but here I want to introduce this one very important takeaway: designate a person to write conclusions from each meeting.

Recording meeting minutes doesn’t mean you have to write in chronological order everything that happened during each second of the meeting. But you do have to prepare some bullet points about what was discussed, what you agreed on and what the next actions are.

Someone has to write it down, and it has to be published internally somewhere in your system so the rest of the team can easily catch-up on it if they need to. People should be able to comment on these, as well.

The benefits of writing stuff down

  • You stop forgetting stuff – It’s written down and you know very well where to find it.
  • No need to explain the same thing over and over again – Just write it once and you can direct people to it.
  • Notes can be referred to later – You can always refer back to it. If it’s written down, it can easily be brought back into the conversation.
  • More transparency – People know what’s going on, and they don’t feel left out of the conversation. It’s easier for them to catch up.
  • Not everyone has to attend all of the meetings – You can reduce the number of people in meetings, and people will still know what happened.
  • Better feedback – As people post comments, they can take the time to write a thoughtful response.
  • Less chaos, no stress, better productivity – When you know what’s going on and where stuff is, you can focus on your next task at hand. Your mind will not play tricks on you or anyone else on your team!

The one thing: cultivate a habit of writing stuff down!

Start with yourself. Write stuff down. Foster this practice in the team, and create a culture of written feedback. When it’s all written down, it can always be accessed later, used for reference and improved.

To learn more about the basics of productivity, I recommend David Allen’s book Getting Things Done1 and my own personal productivity book: 10 Steps to Maximum Productivity10.

  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen 2

  2. This interview with me from 2013 explains very well the beginnings of founding Nozbe

  3. Here’s our concept of task-based communication and here’s how I explain it on video

  4. Marie Kondo is the author of the international best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

  5. RTFM stands for “Read The F**king Manual!” 

  6. Shameless self-promo, but Nozbe Teams is the app I founded, and we (and many other teams) use it all the time for internal communication

  7. GitHub – I also wrote about how it can be used by non-programmers for any kind of writing

  8. Great apps for collaborative writing: Dropbox Paper and Google Docs

  9. Apps for storing files in the cloud: Dropbox, which is more consumer-focused, and Box, which is geared more towards the enterprise. 

  10. My own take on personal productivity: 10 Steps to Ultimate Productivity

Next: Chapter 6 - Ban email internally

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