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Keywords for Learning

Let’s look at a simple, straightforward and efficient concept – how to use keywords for accelerated learning and note-taking.

Earlier this year I was at a marketing conference, and saw people take notes like this:

“Step One is to make sure that your social media presence aligns closely with your marketing plan.”

“Step Two is to ensure that the followers you are engaging are actually talking with you in a 2-way conversation.”

I was a little surprised – and saddened – to see that people were still taking notes in a really inefficient manner.

When you’ve experienced a training or a lecture or even read a book, you retain almost all of it in your subconscious – and you most definitely don’t need to rewrite large chunks of it in your notes to remember the contents.

So let’s look at how to use keywords (and keyphrases) to speed up our note-taking, mind mapping and ability to learn.

What Are Keywords?

What Are Keywords?

Keywords are words that convey more than just the meaning of the word itself, within the context of a set of notes or a set of information.

Sometimes they are also called keyphrases (as often they’ll be 2-3 words in a phrase) or trigger words.

This is because hearing the word or phrase will trigger a set of associations in our memory related to that word or phrase.

Here are some examples from the productivity world:

Inbox Zero

Describes the entire concept, process and philosophy of managing your email and effectively clearing it to zero. Triggers other associations like:

Clear to Neutral

Triggers associations such as:

  • neutral work surface
  • put all your stuff away
  • close all your apps
  • fresh slate when working


Triggers associations like:

  • timeboxing
  • 25/5 rhythm
  • 50/10 rhythm
  • one task at a time
  • silo my attention

How Do Keywords Work?

How do Keywords Work?

So now that we know what keywords are, let’s look a bit at how they work.

Say you’re currently reading a book – through the act of reading, you gain an understanding of the general context of the book and what’s going on inside the book. From this, you can pull out key phrases, keywords and turn them into ideas for a mind map or a set of notes.

Think of the book as a geographical region that you’re covering, and your set of keywords as a quick and rough map of the region – the map will never be the same as the real thing, but is representative of it and will trigger your memory of the real thing.

Note: this also applies to any other context where you are taking in information – lectures, conversations, business meetings etc.

The way that this works in our minds is that every time we take in new information, we are creating neural links between different ideas (and words) in our mind. And these words will link to lengthier phrases, lengthier sentences, and more complete ideas. Something like this:

Keywords To Ideas

Following on from the map metaphor, the map is not the territory.

If you wanted to review a complete and comprehensive set of information related to the book you just read, you could just review the entire book. That, however, would be inefficient. What we want is a quick way to review something that we’re already partially familiar with – and that is where keywords, keyphrases and the notes come into play. It’s much faster to review a page of abbreviated notes, than an entire 300-page textbook.

How Do We Use Keywords?

How Do We Use Keywords?

So now that we know what keywords are and how they work, let’s look at how to actually use them for better and more efficient learning and note-taking.

The process is essentially the same for taking notes in a mind map or linear format (we prefer mind maps at Asian Efficiency).

Say you have the following paragraph (from this article):

One of the best things you can do for getting your email under control is to apply a folder structure and have a specific workflow that you can use. We are going to introduce to you a workflow which has been proven to be very effective for managing email.

You can reduce that to the following keywords and phrases:

  • Apply folder structure
  • Specific workflow

As you can see, there’s no need to rewrite the entire paragraph to capture its meaning.

Here’s another example:

Each time you process your email, the goal should be to have your inbox count at zero. Psychologically it is much better to know that you have managed your email and that you only have to process whatever is in your inbox. When your inbox is full of email, it makes it very hard to look for certain messages that you need to reply to, especially if you have to scan through hundreds of emails. And looking for emails you are awaiting for a response to is a pain when your inbox count is at 235,346. There is a simple solution for this as we will see later.

This becomes:

  • Inbox Zero is the goal
  • Benefits – psychological, easily find emails

And you continue this process of drawing out keywords and key-phrases from the information you are learning from and condensing them into easily-reviewable notes.

In Closing

Using keywords as a way to better create notes, mind maps and learn information is a very straightforward concept – just read, absorb, then write down, in words and short phrases, the information that will allow you to trigger further associations in your own mind. It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) more complicated than that!

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Oh man…this post was a kick in the butt for me. For the longest time, I wasn’t the most efficient Asian with note-taking. Back in school, I always felt the need to have really long sentences in my notes, even some phrases word-for-word. There was always that fear of missing 1 little piece of info that might be on a test.

    Even to this day, I still catch myself with super long notes in Evernote…like my notes for the Productivity Blueprint. I’m going to start practicing this way of note-taking bit by bit to see how things go.

    P.S. Procrastination was my biggest issue since forever. I purchased the Productivity Blueprint Premium version while procrastinating a week or so ago and applied some tactics right away after going through the Procrastination module. The internet marketing work I finished because of it pretty much made my money back.

    And to think I still have a lot of the course to digest. I can definitely see my procrastinating ways going away for good soon. Thanks guys!

    1. Dude, that’s awesome to hear! Glad to hear you’re having success with the Productivity Blueprint – and it’s just the beginning!

      Like you said, the fear of missing out is what is making you write down long notes. Another reframe that might help: pick any sentence you read anywhere, and take out 2-3 superfluous words. 99% chance you still understand what it means (assuming you don’t take out the core keywords). It’s the same with note taking :)

  2. So I’m one of the people who tends to be a bit more verbose in my notetaking for college, but I think this is because it’s hard for me to break down the big picture in the midst of learning new concepts in each class. Except for the very best professors, few of my lecturers continually return to a big point after emphasizing it’s details. Do you have any other strategies for reducing my wording and having the same effect while learning concepts that are brand new to me?

    1. Mind mapping – best thing ever for helping organise disorganised lectures and presentations :)

      There’s also a degree of self-trust that needs to happen with the realisation of “Oh, I know this, even if I can’t recall it consciously right now” for keywords to work effectively.

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