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How to take meeting notes that really work

As a doctor, educator, and administrator, I attend a lot of meetings. That means taking lots of meeting notes and, after those meetings are over, making sure that all of the action items we've decided on get done. Over the years, I've tried many different ways to do so.

For ages, I regularly hauled my MacBook Pro along with me, and relied on a variety of apps to capture notes and to-dos. Next, I transitioned to taking handwritten notes with the Livescribe Echo smartpen; that pen translated my scrawl into computer-readable graphics. But--true to the physician stereotype--I have awful handwriting, and my notes were illegible. To make matters worse, that workflow offered me no good way to hand over my action items to OmniFocus, my task manager of choice.

Finally I hit upon an effective workflow: Using an iPad coupled with a Zagg Folio keyboard, I take notes that are immediately available on all my other devices in a format I can search quickly, and to-do items get into OmniFocus almost seamlessly. Here's how it works.

Taking notes

For starters, I have two note-taking apps on the iPad (and iPhone): Drafts and Notesy.

Drafts for iPad and iPhone is my main note-taking app on both my iOS devices because of its flexibility and its ability to work with TextExpander. I can launch Drafts and start entering information almost immediately. Only after I've done so do I need to think about where that information should go; the app has dozens of built-in conduits for sending text to other apps and services.

Notesy is just one of the apps to which Drafts can send text, and I use it for one reason: It syncs via Dropbox. That means any text in it is available on all my Dropbox-connected devices.

The last app I rely on is TextExpander. I have it on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. TextExpander understands short keyboard sequences (snippets) that expand to fill in words, lines, or even pages of text. I have one such snippet that serves as a template for all my meeting notes:


The first part of the first line marks the note as a meeting; I use MeetX instead of something like meeting because I know that if I search for MeetX I'll see only notes with that heading instead of every document containing the text string meeting. The snippet automatically fills in the current date and time (%Y-%m-%d at %H:%M).

Each line after that first one is preceded by a hashtag, which is Markdown code for a heading; the hashtagged lines show up as bold text in Markdown-based applications. The JMT in the initials section is me; presumably, I'm present at any meeting where I'm taking notes.

Because I synchronize TextExpander snippets among my Mac, iPad, and iPhone using Dropbox, my template is available on any device I carry to a meeting.

When I'm ready to take notes at a meeting (or on a teleconference), I launch TextExpander first, then Drafts. I expand my template (in my case by typing .mtx), fill in a title, and am ready to go. If I'm preparing for a meeting in advance, I type in my reference material under the appropriate heading, then fill in the remaining fields during the meeting.

When the meeting is over, I choose the Send To Notesy option in Drafts. That meeting's notes then synchronize across all my devices via Dropbox. In other words, I use Notesy as a conduit for notes, but rarely for writing them.

If I want to take meeting notes on my Mac, I use nvALT, a great text editor with a lightning-fast search function. I have both it and Notesy configured to store notes in the same default folder in Dropbox. When nvALT launches, I just start typing; it automatically begins searching that folder of notes for the text string I type. So by typing meetx, I'll find all my meeting notes almost instantaneously.

Using this workflow, I can take notes in Drafts on my iPad (or, in a pinch, on my iPhone) or in nvALT on my Mac, and they're synchronized among all of my devices. Thanks to TextExpander, they're formatted consistently and in such a way that they're easy to search.

Action items

The next step is to make sure I do what I need to do after the meeting.

The key is OmniFocus and its Mail Drop service; put simply, that means I can email to-do items to myself. For this to work, I sync OmniFocus with the Omni Sync Server. You have to apply to use the Mail Drop service; when I did, I received my invite in a matter of minutes. Once accepted, I set up a unique email address that is my direct link to the Sync Server.

Using the latest version of Drafts, I configured a customized email action called 'Email to OmniFocus Mail Drop'. This action sends a given note to my personalized OmniFocus email address using the first line of the note as the subject.

When the meeting is over, in the notes document within Drafts, I select my customized email action. When I next open OmniFocus, the item is waiting for me as an action in my inbox. Even cooler, the complete meeting text is available in the action's Notes field. If multiple actions are embedded in the original meeting notes, I spend a few minutes processing the set into individual unique actions.

Alternatively, using OmniFocus installed on my iPad, I can select 'Send to OmniFocus as Note' from within Drafts. That launches OmniFocus, and my meeting notes are placed in the appropriate section of a new action. The only thing left for me to do is to type in the title of the action.

You can, of course, adapt this plan to your own workflow, but the general idea still applies: Send drafts to Notesy and from there to whatever other apps and services you use. Note that I use a variant of this same workflow to capture and organize other things too: For example, I have a similar workflow for brainstorming project ideas (IdeaX), text for my blog (WiPPPx), and random thoughts (ThoughtsX).

Although this workflow takes a bit of up-front setup, the payoff is immense. Over time, I have accumulated hundreds of potential projects, text snippets, and more using it. Many of them would have been lost had I not had a quick and convenient way to capture them.

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