Taking good notes helps with workflow and efficiency

Taking notes, whether it's in a journal or on sticky notes, is a personal endeavor for many, but it provides some useful benefits. Digital programs exist to help engineers improve their workflow and efficiency.

By Paul Darnbrough, Maverick Technologies April 19, 2016

Good note taking during the course of technical work can be a key asset if done properly and consistently. Unfortunately, this topic has historically landed in the "do as I say, not as I do" category. However, there are some really good software products available to make note taking easier and more effective than ever. There are some useful benefits from consistently taking notes and junior engineers should be encouraged to do the same.

Engineering, after all, is all about the details. As engineers, we identify problems, gather data, analyze and calculate, develop designs, document the plan, and carry out the work. Fortunately, we have many commercial-grade software products like computer-aided design, office suites, and email to perform these tasks and communicate the results to others. And yet, taking notes is a little more of a personal endeavor, and can be handled in a number of ways.

Some engineers learned how to take notes in school and are very effective at keeping an organized journal of their thoughts and workflow processes. Otherwise are more disorganized and keep their notes in three-ring binders, spiral notebooks, journal books, sticky notes, and even 3"x5" cards held together with rubber bands. Paper still holds an important place anytime an engineer is working without a computer and is very portable. The problem is, paper is not very searchable.  

There are many good Internet articles comparing digital note taking software, hardware platforms and devices, methods, searching capabilities, synchronizing backup schemes and the like. These applications have many creative options and capabilities, such as tagging, screen capturing, sketching and diagramming, text recognition, and so forth. The bottom line is that digital note taking is quite mature, and engineers that work in an environment with a computer at hand you should consider picking a platform and incorporating that method into their day-to-day workflow. 

Here are a few examples of how digital note-taking was implemented over the past several days:

  1. At the end of each day, a few moments were spent logging major work tasks and hours. Makes it far easier to fill out timesheets later.
  2. Updated a listing of frequently used virtual machines, virtual private networks (VPNs), and remote access connections (but keep the passwords elsewhere in an appropriately secured manner).
  3. Edited this blog post over several sittings.
  4. Searched for a procedure developed a year ago about installing a certain type of software; then updated it with recent "lessons learned" and emailed it to a colleague who was beginning that activity.
  5. Hopped in and out of several "virtual notebooks" to jot down notes from various meetings.

In this case, digital note taking was used as a go-to landing zone to write something that deserved remembering, or a scratch pad to develop some ideas. Digital notetaking allows the engineer to not only capture new information in the moment, but previous notes can be searched out, revisited and modified to improve the organization at any future time. This may help when it comes time to package the information up and publish to others. Give it a try and see if it helps.

This post was written by Paul Darnbrough. Paul is a principal engineer at Maverick Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. Maverick delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.

Maverick Technologies is a CSIA member as of 4/19/2016