Update: Stuart Bruce reminded me that OneNote is now available free of charge across all your devices.
Following the previous post about using OneNote to manage your digital life, I had a number of people ask how I actually structure OneNote, so here’s a quick overview that hopefully provides some food for thought.
One of the great things about OneNote is that it’s completely adaptable to how you want to work. There isn’t one single structure or approach, rather you can fine tune it so that it best suits how you work or what you want to do. This flexibility came home to me recently when I was reviewing my OneNote archives going back to 2007 and it’s been interesting to see how the structure of my notebooks have changed over that period.
So for what it’s worth here’s how I use OneNote.
Start before you open OneNote
One of the great things about OneNote is that you can just dive in and start adding notes and thoughts, archiving emails, clipping web pages etc. However, I always advise people to invest some time thinking through how they want to use it, what are your work and personal priorities and responsibilities, what information will you put in OneNote etc.
One useful way to do this is what David Allen calls a mind sweep. This is a process of sitting down and pulling together everything you have going on in your work and personal life so that you have a good left to right view of your world from an urgent project to cleaning the yard.
The next step is outlining the priorities you have and using those priorities to drive the structure of your OneNote.
At this point you should also think about where you want to keep your OneNote notebooks stored. You can save them locally to your hard drive or you can use built in support for OneDrive and for work related content you can also use OneDrive for business. For me using OneDrive is essential, it keeps all my notebooks synchronized across all my devices. So no matter where I am, I have the latest content.
My OneNote notebooks have evolved over time, however the main structure has been consistent and works for me.
There are three active notebooks I use:
- Personal (Web) – this is the default notebook that’s opened when you install OneNote – I’ll explain why it’s easiest to use this notebook later
- 2014 Work notebook – my work notebook for the current financial year
- Reference notebook – a general notebook
Personal (Web) Notebook
This is the notebook where I spend most of my working day. I’ve structured it based on my personal and professional priorities. It includes the following sections:
- Quick Notes
- Projects Work
- Personal Projects
- Someday Work
- Someday Personal
Quick Notes – this is the standard OneNote tab in the standard OneNote notebook when you install the app. I use it because it’s where OneNote stores any quick notes you create, and if you’re using the new OneNote services like web clippings or posting to OneNote via email (using firstname.lastname@example.org) this is where those notes go.
Quick Notes is my OneNote Inbox. It’s the default place I send information from emails, to meeting notes, ideas, articles, documents etc.
I also have a shortcut to Quick Notes on the home screen of my Windows Phone so if I think of something I can quickly write or record the thought directly into OneNote.
(Note for Windows Phone 8.1 users: The other benefit of using this notebook, is that if you use Cortana this is the folder where any notes you dictate to her are sent).
The key here is that you capture everything in the Quick Notes section, then you process every item in there and file it as required. For example, review meeting notes for any actions or reminders. After reviewing them then I move them out of Quick Notes and into the relevant notebook or section. The aim is to empty out the Quick Notes section regularly.
There are a number of other tabs in this folder:
Journal – I have over the past few years kept a journal. Though calling it a journal may be overstating it a little. I don’t necessarily write it up every day, but I do jot things down and capture any thoughts, ideas, or lessons I’ve learned. I’ve found it incredibly valuable in terms of keeping a record of what’s been going on. Because OneNote can handle any information I can pop photos, text, documents, links, screen captures etc in there, and it’s accessible from my PC, any web browser, tablet, phone etc.
Agendas – In here I have a page for everybody that I’m working with. I create the Agenda page for each person by sending their Outlook contact card to OneNote. Then on each contact’s page I jot down things I need to talk to them about next time I see them, I also link to the notes from previous 1:1 meetings so I can review those notes ahead of our next meeting if required.
Projects – I have a page for each active project I’m working on. How you set this up is down to personal preference. I have a page for each project that is set it up similarly to this mock-up:
The fantastic thing about OneNote is you can then attach files, handwritten notes, links to resources on the web – and even better, links to other OneNote pages. This means that this one project page can aggregate all the information and references for a project. It’s an incredible time saver.
Personal Projects – Same as above but for Personal interests.
Someday – In this tab I have a general page that has future work related thoughts, ideas etc. Then I have an individual page for larger items or projects which I will need to do in the future but aren’t actionable right now. I review this tab every week and then migrate projects or ideas into the project tab when they are ready to go.
Someday Personal – Same as above but this is for personal projects. I also use this for capturing notes and lists such as books I want to read, movies or TV programs I want to see etc.
This is for all the reference information you need as part of work life. Each year I’ll have a specific Work notebook, and when the year ends I retire it to my archives and create a new one. This keeps all the reference material, notes, emails, files, etc. for that year together and in context. I’ve over 10 gigabytes of OneNote notebooks that contain a lot of information and resources going back over the years.
So how do you structure it? Well there are probably a number of core focus areas or responsibilities for your job. For example things like Administration, Management, Planning, then specific clients, services or products – this will obviously be specific to your work life. I have a tab for each of these areas in my work notebook.
Then when I have a relevant email, article, or meeting note I file it in the related area (and cross link them to my project pages) which creates an incredibly rich database of relevant work information.
Finally, I also have an archive tab. When a project is complete I put it in the archive folder which gives me a full inventory of projects completed through the year.
Note: Given it’s work-related information I host this notebook on OneDrive for Business – which comes with Office 365 and ensures sensitive company information is separate from your personal OneDrive.
Finally I have a reference notebook. Whereas the first two notebooks hold mostly date-specific information, this is a big old notebook that I use as a repository for evergreen information I may want to review or read again. How you structure this really depends on your interests, for me it has career related content, PR content, old manuals, interesting articles, quotes, resources, etc.
End of year
At the end of the calendar and work year, I archive the year specific content that I have in my Personal (Web) and Work notebooks into new notebooks for that particular year – one for personal and one for work. I keep any information that remains relevant for the new year.
Some additional OneNote Tips:
- Hyperlinking: The best power tip is hyperlinking in OneNote. Not only can you link to web pages, but you can link to other notes. So for example in the Agendas section. I can link to previous meeting notes so I have a complete record of past conversations I can quickly review. From your project page you can add files and links to related notes.
- Tags: OneNote has useful tagging capabilities which make it faster and easier to find information later. One absolutely killer feature is tag search. You can not only search all your notes and notebooks for tags but you can pull together tags onto a ‘summary page’ – this is a great feature.
- Outlook Integration: When I build out my projects, I’ll have a list of next actions. Using ‘Ctrl-Shift-K’ I can create an Outlook task from that action and the two items are linked, this is a great focus tool. Also, when the Outlook task is completed the item is marked complete in your notebook automatically.
- Using two OneNote windows: When you start using OneNote a lot, there may be times you want to have two OneNote windows open rather can clicking back and forth between pages (or using Alt-left or right arrow). Instead just hold down Control-M and a new OneNote window opens.
- Office Lens: One of the best things about OneNote is that you can add practically any type of digital content from anywhere. This includes making non-digital information digital. Think about that printed brochure, that receipt, napkin, whiteboard or moleskin page. Office Lens is a fantastic little app that simplifies capturing that content with your phone and transfers it automatically into OneNote. It’s also smart, optimizing capture with different modes from Whiteboard to documents and photos. It’s currently available for Windows Phone.
- Onetastic: Microsoft developer Omer Atay has created a set of great little tools and add-ins for OneNote including OneCalendar where you can view all your notes on a Calendar. It’s a free download and I recommend it.
The beauty of OneNote is it’s flexibility. You should play around and find a structure that works for you.
I’d love to hear how you’re using OneNote and if you’ve any tips or questions leave a comment or feel free to get in touch.
- OneNote is now available on Windows (both traditional desktop and as a modern app – which is really nice and worth a look if you haven’t already). Windows Phone, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android and on the web.
- There’s also a host of new complimentary apps and services for OneNote from doxie to Feedly and IFTTT.