I organized my ideas like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Sheryl Sandberg

  • Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Sheryl Sandberg have been known to carry notebooks around with them.
  • They jot down ideas while thinking about them and make daily to-do lists that they can tear out when they are done.
  • I tried their different note styles and had varying degrees of success with each method.

Every year, a lot of people make a New Year’s resolution to become more organized. There are lots of tips and tricks out there for this purpose and I recently decided to try one.

Business figures like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg swear by a surprisingly low-tech hack to keep their thoughts and ideas organized: They all carry around notebooks.

Gates and Branson write down ideas when they come to them during the day so they do not forget them. Sandberg notes down what she needs to do for the day, and tears pages out when everything on them is done. I tested their different note methods for a week and found that one in the long run worked best.

During this experiment, I tried to take my notes on paper, as Gates, Branson, and Sandberg do, but I also tried to write things down on my laptop for a few days.

I started with Gates’ and Branson’s approach.

I usually only write down ideas with the greatest potential and archive the others mentally. This meant that this week I sometimes needed to consciously remind myself to write down every single idea that came to mind, no matter how small.

When I did, I found that some minor ideas were actually quite promising when I first gave them more reflection and research, and I was grateful that I had written them down, otherwise I could have forgotten them.

The downside of this method for me was that given my personal inclinations, taking notes on paper created extra work. For example, I like to store all my article ideas in a spreadsheet on my laptop so they are all gathered in one place. That meant I wrote down ideas on paper, then had to write them down in a file later.

Next, I tried Sandberg’s note-taking method – I thought this was the most constructive use of physical note-taking for two reasons.

First, there is a certain satisfaction in ripping a page out when everything on it is done. It gave me a sense of accomplishment for that day and some motivation for the next.

Second, these were notes I only needed for one day. There was no need to transfer them to my laptop, which I had to do while following Gates’ and Branson’s method, as these notes were for long-term matters.

At the end of the week, I found that it was preferable to take notes on my laptop rather than write them down on paper. This was in part due to my personal habits and preferences, as I prefer to consolidate my work tasks on my laptop whenever possible. I can see how people who do not share this tendency might prefer physical notes, but it was just not that helpful to me.

My current working conditions were also a factor. Since I work remotely, I’m more often near my laptop than I would otherwise be, so it’s not hard just writing notes there, since it’s close at hand anyway. Under more normal circumstances, I would be more out, so it might be more helpful to keep a notepad, as it would be more likely that an idea would strike while I am away from my laptop.

In the future, I will continue to write assignments and to-do lists on paper, as Sandberg’s technique ruled for me.

In terms of ideas, I will stick to digital note-taking, but following Gates’ and Branson’s method reinforced for me the importance of writing down ideas as soon as they appear, even if they seem insignificant.

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