My shorthand for capturing meeting actions


This article explains my shorthand for effectively capturing actions from meetings, emails, and conversation

A typical work situation:

Your name is Ryan, and you’re in a meeting with a group of colleagues. Campbell asks you to endorse a design, but you can’t endorse yet because you need to involve Matthew and Rachel in the decision (who aren’t at the meeting). Campbell says it’s fine if you can get back to him with an answer on 5 May.

If you're in Ryan's situation, then you suddenly need a way to track this action. Humans are forgetful, so it's common practice to write these actions down so "future you" and others can reference them.

In my shorthand, this request would look like this:

@Ryan(Matthew/Rachel)>Campbell COB 4/5: Agree which design we should endorse

What each part means...

Time Sensitive: @ COB 4/5

If the action starts with an @ symbol, we are saying that the request is time sensitive, and should be prioritised that way. Alternatively, we could start the action without an @ symbol, which is like saying that it would be nice for the task to be done, but it is low urgency/consequence.

Notice that Campbell asked us to report back on 5 May, but our action states COB 4/5? This is on purpose, because if the action is due to Campbell on 5/5, then you need to complete your part by COB the previous day or earlier.

Additionally, you should always use COB as the timeframe for deadlines, because omitting this detail leaves room for confusion about what time the action is due.

Requests like “by Wednesday”, “before Wednesday”, and “on Wednesday” all go to confuse matters because they are not specific enough.

Always use COB.

Owner: Ryan

Who is doing the task? This seems straightforward enough, but there is a critical rule that applies here.

You must assign one and only one Owner.

This is because assigning multiple owners leads each person to think the other is working on the task. Having one and only one Owner makes the Accountability clear, which is essential for your follow-up.

Relies On: (Matthew/Rachel)

For follow-up:

In our example, Matthew and Rachel weren’t at the meeting. It would be bad manners to assign the action to them directly because they weren't present. This is actually a golden rule; only assign actions to people who are in the room/conversation.

Instead, the action is assigned to you (Ryan) to follow-up with Matthew and Rachel, and then to report back.

You should capture this kind of follow-up in ( ) brackets, and use / slashes if there a many people involved.

For delegating:

We can also use ( ) brackets for when you delegate a task that was originally assigned to you. For example, taking this action and further delegating it to Harry to follow-up with Matthew/Rachel would look like this:

@Ryan(Harry/Matthew/Rachel)>Campbell: COB 4/5 Agree which design we should endorse

A side-note about the nature of delegation...

When you delegate:

  • You delegate Responsibility for a task, but you cannot delegate Accountability, because Campbell will still expect a response from you, no matter how you organise the people around you to get that response.
  • Your Responsibility changes so that instead of doing the task, you follow-up that task, if you’re getting into the delegating game you need a “system of follow-up” that you can trust to remind you to prompt for updates from the people doing the work.

For: > Campbell

No matter the task, there will be a person requesting a response, a person who is owed a response.

Use the > angle bracket to note who is owed the response.

Always know who is owed the response.

Task: Agree which design we should endorse

The last bit, and most important! What is actually being done?

This is a one-liner that fully encompasses what is being requested. Remember that the more well-defined the task, the easier it will be for the person doing the work (whether that's "future you" or someone else), so it pays to make sure your task:

  • Contains a verb - Tasks without verbs are pretty ironic
  • Can be copy-pasted as a line and remains “context-complete” - Using the word “this” or “please refer to the following details” in the action means you lose context when it is copied somewhere else, instead you should strive to include relevant detail in the action itself

Key Lessons

  • Always use COB as the timeframe for deadlines
  • Assign one and only one Owner
  • Only assign actions to people who are in the room/conversation
  • You can delegate Responsibility, you cannot delegate Accountability
  • When you delegate, you become Responsible for follow-up on the action
  • Always know who is owed the response
  • Tasks should contain verbs and be “context-complete”