The joy of Notes
Thank goodness we are all different. As I have got older, I have discovered a developing and somewhat pathological obsession with the use of notebooks - which I use in my professional life, but also in a personal context (journaling, academic studies etc). Once one has embarked down this slippery slope, there is no end to it. One becomes more selective about the layout and construction of notebooks, the quality of the paper and its capacity to take ink without bleed-through. Weighty dilemmas such as whether or not leather covers are (or are not) excessive for daily use (they are!) begin to exercise one's mind. Then there is the issue of how many one keeps in reserve: what happens if there was an urgent need to write something, and one didn't have a spare notebook to hand? Horrors!
Thankfully, my wife smiles tolerantly at me over this little enthusiasm. After all, there are worse obsessions I might develop, some of which would require clinical treatment, and some might get me arrested. And, it makes me relatively easy to buy presents for. Cheap too.
But, I think, there are bigger issues here, other than just the slightly strange behavioural traits which develop as we get older.
The effective use of notebooks is actually about how we engage with information. How do we record it? What kinds of information do we record? Why do we record it in the first place? Is there a sliding scale of significance attaching to the kinds of information that we work with? And how would that play out in the note-taking world?
As you might expect from a habitual Notist, I've developed practices that suit me in the office. A lined A4 pad sits to the right of my computer keyboard. During any telephone conversation, I am busy taking relatively careful notes of the issues discussed. Each discussion is titled and dated correctly, and it then ends up getting scanned onto the relevant folder on our admin system. Now that's probably not that unusual - all of us will use similar systems, perhaps depending more upon direct data-entry on the computer (which I would find a distraction during the conversation).
I find, however, that it is helpful to take things a step further - so my note-taking now encompasses what goes on in my own head. For instance, when going through a manual rebalancing of a portfolio held on a Platform, or perhaps arriving at the correct percentage sell-offs in relation to a Drawdown Pension, I will itemise my calculations on the same headed and dated page of lined A4, so that it provides a complete record of the process I went through. I will note down any assumptions I am using (current cash-balances before computing the sell-off of units), any preferences or deadlines articulated by the client, any changes to the way in which the Platform's systems may have changed, which influences how I handle things. It is an externalisation of the internal running commentary which we all apply to such processes, but it provides me with a set of checks and balances (have I got this spot on?), as well as evidence of the care that I have taken over the whole exercise.
The great thing about a notebook or pad is that it has the effect of enforcing some kind of discipline upon us, in terms of its use. And that, in turn, encourages us to think about the types of information which are important to us, and why we would want to use them. Historically, many IFAs treated the FactFind as a kind of Necessary Compliance Evil, a hurdle to be conquered en-route to the all-important transaction, but what the Notebook teaches us is that there is real value in the kind of reflective exercise which is the essence of note-taking.
How are you managing the information that you work with? Do you have a box-ticking mentality? Is the gathering, recording and use of information the core of your advisory process, or a somewhat minimalist procedure which leads to more generalist outcomes for your clients?
Kevin Moss, 28/11/2014
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