Yes, you need to take notes. I’ll be honest—I have never been a great student. During my undergrad, every time a professor would say, “you won’t pass if you try to cram this subject at the last minute” I would think to myself, “watch me.” When they would say “you have to pay attention in class and take notes if you expect to succeed,” I would think “challenge accepted.” I would pay dearly for this on the long, bleary-eyed, over-caffeinated night before a test, and like anyone who has ever spent Sunday morning hugging a toilet bowl, I would make a solemn vow to never do it again. Then I would somehow barely survive the exam, and then do it again. (See my future post: Things you should never say in a Naval Reactors interview).
Begin act II: The Boat. Now, instead of long, boring classes about sound wave propagation I sit though long, boring training about sound wave propagation. Instead of meandering, time-sucking meetings with capstone project partners I attend meandering, time-sucking meetings with the other supervisors. The principal difference is this: I’m not in college anymore, and a lot of people are counting on me to retain the details. If I don’t get it the first time, I’m not the only one who suffers.
Professionals take notes. It’s not just about recording information. Writing stuff down is one of the best ways to commit it to memory—it’s about active involvement with the information. Passively staring into space until the brief is over doesn’t communicate confidence in your photographic memory, it communicates indifference and unimportance. It’s bush-league.
Have a memo pad on you at all times. Everyone’s got to develop their own system, but if you’re not keeping some form of notepad in your pocket, you’re going to miss something. Really, anything can work for the short term, even a folded up sheet of paper. Just be careful if you decided to carry a pad of post-it notes in your cargo pocket– it really sucks if you forget to check your pockets on laundry day.
Here’s what worked for me (after I abandoned the post-it notes method for obvious reasons)—I kept one of these in one pocket, and had it with me everywhere I went. The first couple of pages were reserved for phone numbers and email addresses—not a big concern while deployed, but huge in port. Then one page would be a to-do list (I like to write small; some may need a bigger booklet) for the week. I’d draw a line down the middle, and the left column would be for immediate tasks for this day or week, and the right column would be for deadlines further out. The flipped-up page (the back of the previous to-do list) would be used for very distant problems—major inspections and such. In port, I’d also use this page to keep track of the watch bill.
Conversations. Any time you talk to anyone from outside the lifelines about the boat, write it down: date and time, gist of the conversation, and most importantly get their name. You never know when an innocuous bit of information is going to completely wreck someone’s plans. Don’t ever find yourself in this situation:
You: “Sir, NAVSEA called and said the we’re going to have to do Appendix O of the JFMM.”
Boss: “What! That’s completely contrary to what we agreed to! Who said that?!”
You: “Buhhh…. the guy at NAVSEA. Joe? I think he said Joe.”
Separate your note-taking and your organizational tool. The memo pad is great when you just need a quick spot to write something down and don’t happen to have your notebook on you. For training, briefs, or meetings where you expect a lot of information to come quickly, you need a separate notebook. If you’re trying to do everything with the same tool, you’ll probably be too hesitant to take good notes, being reluctant to fill up your planner with junk. Use a notepad or scratch paper so that you can indiscriminately scribble whatever occurs to you—for example, if you think something might be important but aren’t sure, or if you have a question but want to wait until the end to ask it. When the meeting is over, then translate your notes into actionable items on your task list.
Division Officer Notebook. You should have one. I’m not talking about a binder full of forms with blocks for data, which is periodically reviewed by your boss for compliance with some godforsaken directive. I’m talking about a notebook, full of blank paper, used for taking notes. Did the guy come in late? Make a note. Did he work all weekend to fix a leak in the evaporator? Make a note. These little notes help you build a case when you need to, and they help you see patterns where you might miss them otherwise. They give you arguing power— over time, the only thing that separates fact from conjecture is that someone took the time to write it down.
It’s important that this process be completely informal and personal to you; nobody’s going to subpoena your notebook. Write on yellow stickies or the back of a napkin in crayon if that’s your thing. Formality is a barrier to action. You know those formal counseling forms you never use? Know why you never use them? Because it’s a pain in the ass. For this practice to work, it has to be quick and convenient.
Beware convoluted IT-centric solutions. If it can be done with pen and paper, you can guarantee that there is a $500 Apple or Microsoft product that can do the job worse. Learning the finer points of Outlook can actually be a very empowering endeavor, but I don’t recommend relying on it as your principal organizational tool– not on a ship. The main reason is that it unnecessarily ties you to a computer—you can’t do this job well from behind a keyboard, and you should get away from it as much as possible. While it’s easier to sort and file information in Word, Excel and Outlook, it’s easier to actually use that information when it’s readily accessible in your pocket.