5 min read

How to stay organized as a PM

Taking notes is crucial for personal knowledge management. Our brains are miraculous at filtering and connecting information, but they can't always recall it in the right context. By adding meta information and category tags to notes, we can easily find what we need later.

Hey there 👋

I love Product Management for the beautiful mess it is. Stakeholders, tech consideration, user problems, meetings, zooming in and out ... it's all quite exciting.

And I even stepped it up by going the consulting / freelance route a couple of years ago. Here's what I've learned:

Using tools and processes to keep yourself organized is the n1 differentiator between good and great PMs.

Simply speaking, having systems in place enhances your natural ability. Sure you like your brain, why not help it?

The Importance of Note-Taking for Effective Personal Knowledge Management

Note-taking is often overlooked as a critical aspect of being a great product manager. It is the super power that helps me:

  1. Onboard 5x faster (yes, this is no hyperbole, I was just really slow before)
  2. Manage stakeholders with ease
  3. Not lose good ideas I have

In this article, we will discuss the importance of note-taking and how it can help you manage your personal knowledge - achieving the three outcomes mentioned above.

Tooling does not matter (much). Actions do. You can do this in:

If you want to jump straight into how I work with Logseq, an open-source note-taking tool, here's a short loom that gets you started.

And a more detailed description of my process here.

Why Note-Taking is Important

Our brains are amazing, but they have limitations. We cannot remember everything we read, hear, or see, and we cannot always recall information in the right context. This is where note-taking comes in. By jotting down important information and tagging it with relevant metadata, we can create a knowledge web that allows us to quickly find information when we need it.

For example, let's say you came across a browser game a few years ago and want to show it to a colleague. Without note-taking, you may struggle to remember the game's name or even when you played it. But if you had taken notes on the game, including metadata like the date, description, and category tags, you could easily search your notes and find the game in seconds.

This is an innocent example, but you get the point. Let's get you those three outcomes now.

Onboard 5x faster

As a freelancer and discovery consultant I have the joy of getting to know new teams more often than longer-term employees.

But I also have the struggle of switching context, learning about team dynamics and even getting used to a new industry more often.

By now I feel comfortable onboarding in 1-2 weeks. And be fully productive at the end of that timeframe. I already try to proactively drive change in week 2. Most companies plan for a 5-10 week onboarding for PMs.

Here's how note-taking cuts this down to 1-2 weeks for me.

Over-document in Week 1

New setting, new company, new team - it is all going to overload your brain. Assuming that you can take it all in, and keep it in, is idiotic.

I stopped being so hard on myself, and added obsessive note-taking as the tool to help me in this critical first week.

It will make this article way too long if I describe my whole onboarding process here (will have to write a separate article on that, DM me if you are interested in that). Here are the most important points to keep in mind:

  • Create a page for each key stakeholder or team member
  • Schedule 1:1s with every key stakeholder. 20min slots. Back to back.
  • In the 1:1. Build rapport quickly, look them in the eyes, find one common theme or trait.
  • Announce that you'll be taking notes, and that is just serves for you to keep track of your onboarding. They'll understand - it's a lot of input.
  • Take notes on strong opinions, problems they are facing.
example stakeholder/team member page I create

This way I can have 10+ 1:1s in the first week. I don't remember much details. But my notes will help me connect this raw input into a mesh of semi-organised knowledge about the new setting.

Connect the dots in week 2

Now it's time to get strategic. The first week is just about getting tons of raw input. In week 2 I spend evenings (yes, often after 6pm) going through my notes.

I look to:

  • Add additional information to the stakeholders page. Especially if other team member talked about them. That cross-referencing is important. Remember: You are getting to know a social-mesh, a network of human connections.
  • Create pages on themes that have come up several times. And I add my own thoughts to it.
  • Create action items for myself. I'm being sucked into meeting all the time. Context switching is hard. I write down fast todos for my future self to get back to.
connecting common themes and outcomes of 1:1s

Not lose good ideas I have

I'll not use an example screenshot from client work here, but this is a normal day of notes for me. See that I collapsed nested notes under each element.

The idea here is to keep track of resources, articles and ideas through out the day.

example of a day of mine (collapsed). Keeps me on track and organised.

What does that do for me?

It allows me to work on what I intended to work on and park every cool but distracting thought or resource.

Effective Notes

What makes these notes valuable?

Effective note-taking requires more than just jotting down random thoughts or ideas. Here are some tips to help you take better notes:

  1. Stay focused: When taking notes, try to focus on the most critical information. Don't waste time writing down everything you see or hear, as this will only make it harder to find the relevant information later on.
  2. Use metadata: Tagging your notes with metadata like dates, descriptions, and category tags will make it easier to find the information later on. In graph-based tools like Logseq you have the benefit of an actual knowledge graph.
  3. Review and organize: Once you've taken your notes, take some time to review and organize them. I tend to do this by tag, so looking through all recent notes on a topic I'm looking into right now.

Conclusion

Note taking is enhancing my person ability.

It allows my brain to focus on critical thinking, the task at hand and people I'm in a room with.

This is particularly powerful in the onboarding phase of working with a new team.

By using metadata, shorthand, and proper organization techniques, we can create a knowledge web that is highly contextual and effective. So, don't overlook the importance of note-taking on your focus, and start taking better notes today. If you feel so inclined.


Want even more tactical tips? I've collected templates over the years, that help me daily. They help me onboard faster with teams, brainstorm more collaboratively and communicate outcomes in a crisper way.