CHS Careerist: Always Carry a Notebook

Today, I wanted to post a piece of advice that is universal regardless of which industry you work in:

If your boss calls you into her office, always bring a notebook and a pen.  Always.

You may think that you’ll remember what she tells you.  You may think that you’ve got it handled.  But writing down information, instructions and details is your safety net, so that if you get interrupted or called away to perform another task, you can reread your notes and pick up where you left off.  Having written instructions allows you to be able to work independently, which shows your boss that she doesn’t need to supervise your every move.

This is the first step in teaching your boss that she can trust you with more important tasks.

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I believe that part of my job as a manager is to teach my subordinates how to do things the right way.  I don’t agree with supervisors who refuse to delegate, or who re-do work that wasn’t done correctly instead of showing their subordinate how to re-do it correctly.  But I also expect the interns and assistants that I’m teaching to take an active role in learning, and that means writing down essential information.

I don’t mind answering questions and providing direction, but if you stroll into my office without a pen and paper in your hand, I will ask you where your notebook is. Coming in prepared shows your boss that your engaged in the task, ready to work and if I see you writing down what I’m telling you, I’ll have more confidence that the task will be completed correctly.  So carrying a notebook, which seems like a small thing to many people, is actually a strong signal that this intern/employee is taking her work seriously.

Job postings will often say that the employer is looking for a “motivated self-starter” who can work “independently.”  Becoming that kind of employee means listening to instructions, writing them down and following through with the task in a timely manner.  So grab a Steno Pad from the supply closet, store a pen in the spiral, and never leave your desk without it.



  1. Hanna says:

    This is really good, important advice that I’ve always followed. I have heard from co-workers that they think carrying a notebook makes them look like they can’t remember details, but every boss I’ve worked for either appreciated it or didn’t care. Also, if your boss isn’t satisfied with your finished assignment for some reason, your notes can give you clarity and/or coverage in a follow-up conversation. Taking notes is always good for CYA.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • Becca says:

      I can’t believe your co-workers think that. Every job I’ve had from my first college internship to my job in a law firm now, the very first thing my supervisors and trainers told me on the first day was to always have a pen and paper ready because you never knew when someone would give you an assignment.
      In my office people would think you were unprepared or uninterested in effectively doing your job if you weren’t taking notes on an assignment.

      June 19, 2013/Reply
  2. Clara says:

    I’d expand this advise to say take a notebook EVERYWHERE! I’m a teacher and whenever I leave my room to go to a meeting, to talk to another teacher, anything other than to use the restroom, I take a pen and notebook. I never know when a conversation in the hall will turn into information I need to remember.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  3. MM says:

    “I don’t agree with supervisors who refuse to delegate, or who re-do work that wasn’t done correctly instead of showing their subordinate how to re-do it correctly.”
    I could not agree more! (With the entire post but this line especially)

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      When I hear people say, “She didn’t do it right, so I had to re-do it”, I die a little inside. Except in emergency situations, you should never re-do a subordinates work. You should make notes about it, talk to them about how to improve it and make them fix it. How else will they learn? And nothing is more exasperating than a supervisor who always re-does the employee’s work and then wonders why she keeps getting subpar work from her employees. It’s a big pet peeve of mine.

      June 19, 2013/Reply
      • MM says:

        I inherited a direct report where the supervisor did this so now I’m in the process of breaking 2 years of bad habits. It’s time consuming for everyone involved but going to be worth it.

        June 19, 2013/Reply
  4. DB says:

    This is GREAT advice. I don’t know why this took me so long to figure out for myself because it seems so simple and obvious, but it did. And once I started carrying a notebook, I noticed how much more efficient I became.

    Another piece of advice related to that – when you get back to your desk with that notebook, take the first step toward actually doing whatever it is you were tasked with, rather than just adding it to a to-do list. Maybe the first step is talking to a co-worker, or sending an email, or just opening up a blank Word document and typing in a title. But take that first step right away, and you’ll find that you get things done a lot sooner rather than letting them linger on a list.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  5. jmj says:


    This is also great for writing down “in the moment thoughts/responses”. Let your boss/co-worker complete their thought; (do not interrupt!) you’ll have a chance to add your thoughts. Jotting down comments mid-conversation allows you to let go of your counter-point and listen more carefully to what is being said. Return to the notes when it is your “turn” to speak.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  6. Marissa says:

    This was my number one lesson learned in my first internship. Great advice (as always) Belle!

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • BBB says:

      Me too! I will never forget my internship boss, who has become a great mentor and friend, looking at my during one of our first meetings and saying “you should be writing this down.” I never made the mistake again, and it has paid off several times over.

      I would also add that the purpose of the notebook is not to take notes as if you’re listening to a college lecture – it’s not a transcript (unless, of course, your purpose at the meeting IS to take the notes). Jot down action items, your thoughts, or new questions that arise from the meeting to be answered at a later date. But still be mentally “in” the meeting – listening & participating.

      I also agree with addressing a few of your notes as soon as you get back to your desk. Clearly, everything is not a priority. But sending out a few follow-up emails can get the ball rolling while you move on to more pressing tasks.

      June 19, 2013/Reply
  7. LL27 says:

    Totally agree with one caveat. I had a CRAZY boss who believed taking notes meant one of two things: 1) you weren’t listening to her or 2) that you were taking notes to somehow under cut her in the future. I don’t know if this is a common paranoia or she was just out there but something to keep in mind.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      She was clearly not ‘all there’, as my Mother would say. This is not common. That level of paranoia is a special brand.

      June 19, 2013/Reply
    • A says:

      Same – as a speechwriter, I’d try to take lots of notes when my boss spoke in order to improve my ability to “write in his voice.” He HATED the notetaking and would ask me to stop and just listen to him. And then of course, I would forget everything he said, making the writing process even more difficult. I don’t miss him.

      June 20, 2013/Reply
  8. PSP says:

    THIS! I am a mentor to a group of interns in my company, and this is the NUMBER ONE thing I tell them to do! My older sister told me this when I was starting my first job, and it has been priceless!

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  9. Anne says:

    Taking notes can also be a great CYA. As a young associate I was working with a partner who had a bad habit of asking me to do one thing and then being upset that I hadn’t read her mind and done something else. Being able to look back at my notes and say, “this is what you asked me to do” was my protection.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • GingerR says:

      I also write down what everyone else is supposed to do. It helps me build a global view of our production process, as well as keeping me looking focused while I listen to their activities.

      I think reviewing your notes afterward is good for constructing your to-do list, at a minimum you need to look them over a day or two before the next meeting so you can refresh yourself about what was supposed to have happened —

      June 19, 2013/Reply
  10. J says:

    This is great advice for folks who actually get instructions from their boss in person. I work on project teams with many members who are scattered across the country so all project tasks are emailed so that everyone on the team is always copied and knows what everyone else is responsible for. For conference calls, we have the call transcribed so we can reference what we talked about at a later date. At least in this job, I can’t think of the last time I wrote something down on an actual piece of paper.

    In a previous job though my boss was really obnoxious and a micro-manager. He’d expect me to write down his every instruction and then read it back to him to prove that I was listening. It was horrible!

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  11. Healthfully Ever After says:

    When I was first starting work in a hospital I had a massive legal pad and I brought it everywhere. It was especially helpful with electronic medical records. The computer system make no sense, so I wrote a flow chard after taking notes on how to get to each part of the system. Bingo. It helped me not fret over a task so I could focus on helping patients.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  12. K says:

    This seems like common sense advice, but I’ve come to realize in my early career that it’s not….. I work as an assistant to 3 different people and I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of insanity my day would be if I didn’t take my notepad everywhere I go in the office.

    I usually take things 1 step further and once I’ve taken notes I schedule a task/reminder in Outlook. I do a lot of shredding during the day, and I have a total fear that I will get notes from my boss mixed up with shredding documents….

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  13. Em says:

    Belle, maybe we need to start including some stylish Steno-pad-and-pen holsters. Maybe something Rambo Style!

    I use my Steno pad as my bible. When I get a complicated, multi-step assignment I tend to parrot what I understand I need to do back to my supervisor. This is especially useful because one of the upper level managers in my office is notorious for telling you what to do while writing/reading emails and has a tendency to either forget major portions that he’s thinking in his head or somehow tell you the exact opposite of what he really wants.

    The worst for me is when you somehow get caught without your notebook. Usually this happens when I’m dropping off documents or coming back from the water cooler/ladies’ room. Even when I say, “just a moment, let me go grab my notebook and a pen,” I usually have 3 assignments before I can get that out of my mouth.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
  14. Addison says:

    I don’t know how anybody could actually get everything done without doing this, unless they had an extremely light work load. I have a pretty decent memory but I never rely on it 100%, I write EVERYTHING down (there’s a note in my calendar right now so I don’t forget to call my best friend on her 1 year wedding anniversary next week!). Also, on any given week, I’m juggling multiple projects from different supervisors with different due dates and varying levels of importance. I have to write it all down in order to best decide what I should be working on now and whether I’m on track to finish everything on time.

    June 19, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I had a co-worker once who had an eidetic memory. Never took notes, never wrote anything down, could remember everything. He was great for trivia nights, but other than that, I don’t know anyone who should be skipping notes.

      June 20, 2013/Reply
  15. Jo says:

    Great advice, which I always do. I received the below as a Christmas gift, yes it’s pricey but I refill it and it looks great!

    June 20, 2013/Reply
  16. Emily says:

    Well isn’t this good to know! I’m 24 years old and have held three assistant jobs since college. I began bringing my notebook to meetings within the first few days of my first job, but it’s nice to know that what I’m doing is expected and warranted. Sometimes it’s the little details that make things challenging because people assume you just know. I wouldn’t have known to have a notebook if my first boss didn’t present me with one. Looking back on it, it seems so obvious! I often worry that there are other unspoken office rules I’ve overlooked, or that I’m going about something incorrectly or without tact. Belle I greatly enjoy your style posts, but to me it’s these nuggets of career advice that are especially valuable. Thank you.

    June 20, 2013/Reply