One(Note) productivity tool to rule them all..

Somewhere along the way the true meaning of personal productivity got lost.

Instead of productivity being about doing more of the things – work and personal – that are important to us, it became about just doing more.

We’ve only a limited number of hours in a day, and if you want to perform at your best, you need to focus on getting your work life balance right and NOT just working longer hours or that ridiculous concept of being ‘always on’.

I’m always intrigued about how people stay organized, particularly in the marketing and PR world where we’re dealing with more sources, information and interruptions that ever before.

So here’s a brief overview of how I stay on top of my working day, keep focused on what’s important and get my inbox to zero practically every day.

I’ll start by giving you a rough outline of the process and then a bit more detail on the tools I use.

Tip: If you’re interested in some good, solid advice on personal productivity, I really recommend Getting Things Done. It’s a great introduction to putting some shape on all the information and commitments you’re managing every day and ensuring you’re focused on what’s important.

For me there’s four main things I focus on in terms of productivity:



1. Capture everything

When I say capture everything, I really mean everything. Capture that thought you have getting out of the shower, capture notes from a meeting, emails, that interesting photo you took, the whiteboard chart from your last meeting. Whatever it is, capture it and put it in a central repository or system where it’ll be processed (see the next section).

For me everything I capture goes into OneNote where I know I’ll process it.

You might have multiple ‘inboxes’, from your email, to your physical desk inbox, an inbox at home for personal stuff, a notebook for ideas, a note app on your device. It doesn’t matter what your inboxes are, it matters that they are capturing everything and that you are then processing those inboxes.

2. Process your stuff

Once you have captured everything then you need to process it. This is where you have to make decisions about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve captured.

What does process mean?

Well take an email as an example. Is it actionable? Is there an immediate action for you, is it part of a project, is it something you need to delegate, or delete, is it something you need to file for later etc.

(Tip: Review this diagram from David Allen’s Getting Things Done as an illustration of this process).

The trick here is to only touch an item once – make a decision about it and move on. Through this process you can build out your projects and next actions, while making sure all the related information is together.

This is the secret to not having 12,000 emails in your inbox and not forgetting stuff.  When you process all this information you should have complete project lists, task lists, reference lists etc. Then you need to…

3. Do it

I think that’s pretty self-explanatory :). Allen’s guidance is that if there’s something in your inbox you can do in under two minutes you should do it. Carving out time in your day to do things is essential, especially given you probably have a lot of meetings and calls.

4. Review it

Once you have all these lists of actions, projects and reminders you need to review them to make sure you’re moving projects forward. I typically do a quick daily review where I look at my schedule for today and tomorrow and look at what I need to get done. Then once a week I do a more detailed review, which includes reviewing my schedule from the past week, my schedule for the next week, my projects, tasks list, objectives, priorities etc. The review process is key so I actually have blocked time each Friday.

So that’s the process in a nutshell. I’ve kept it high level on purpose as my experience is that everyone’s work style is different.  There’s a lot of additional detail in terms of how you organize and process all that information.  If you’re interested in learning more I recommend buying a copy of Getting Things Done, it has some great tips and advice.


Work tools

There’s a lot of different tools and apps I use each day but there’s two apps I use most of all.

First of all I use Microsoft Outlook for all my work and personal email, scheduling and tasks. It’s a great product that I’ve used since it was Schedule+.

OneNote 2013
  If there was just one tool I could have for managing my work life and my personal life, it’s Microsoft OneNote.


OneNote is one of the lesser known parts of Microsoft Office. In the most simple terms it’s an electronic notebook, but that doesn’t do it justice. (Tip: There’s a basic introductory video here).

You can take notes (keyboard or handwritten), but you do much more. You can insert files, archive emails, capture web pages, add photos, link different notes together, share your notebooks with others and edit them together in real time.  Effectively you can embed anything in OneNote, and once it’s in there the information is searchable, you can add tags and you can organize the information using the notebook metaphor in a way that best suits how you work.

The result is in effect a complete encyclopedia of your work and personal life.

I have multiple gigabytes of content stored in OneNote going back over eight years from meeting notes, to projects, journals, task lists and reading materials.

Here’s an incomplete list of things I capture in OneNote:

  • Capturing random thoughts or notes at my desk or on the go using the OneNote phone or desktop app
  • Meeting notes (you can auto-generate a meeting note from Outlook, with all the attendees etc. already populated)
  • Project planning including outlining
  • Project plans (including hyperlinks to other OneNote pages, attaching relevant files, photos etc)
  • Archiving relevant email (one click from Outlook)
  • Saved web pages, articles, RSS feeds
  • Cut and Pasted information from other apps or websites
  • Printing documents for review (once OneNote is installed you can print a document into OneNote as you would use a printer)
  • Sharing notebooks which I can collaborate on with colleagues
  • Capturing screenshots
  • Inserting pictures and photos
  • Capturing photos of whiteboard diagrams and incorporating them in my notes
  • Scans of paper documents and brochures
  • Capture handwritten notes – both directly with a stylus or from a notebook via the camera on my phone
  • Take audio and video recordings of meetings which OneNote indexes (with the agreement of participants)
  • And much more!

It’s completely mobile. If I’m away from my desk and have an idea I just open OneNote on my phone, type a note or record my thought with voice and then by the time I’m back at my desk the note is synchronized across all my devices and the web. If I need to find something I can also search those notebooks on my phone.


That synchronization is thanks to OneDrive which keeps all my notes and notebooks available and synchronized on any my PCs, with Office Online in my browser, my tablet and my phone (I use Windows Phone, but OneNote is also available on iOS or Android).

OneNote has meant that I’m now nearly (98%) paperless. There are times I like paper and for that purpose I carry my trusty Field Notes notebook with me. It’s small, hardy and slips into my back pocket. If there’s something useful in the notebook I just take a photo and post it to OneNote.

Some additional resources on OneNote:

So beyond OneNote and Outlook what else do I use?


  • Microsoft Lync (for work calls, instant messaging, video calls, conference calls)
  • Skype (for personal instant messaging, and calls)
  • Yammer Notifier – keeps my on top of what’s going on with Yammer (and I use it with the Yammer web app)
  • Tweetdeck – my preferred Twitter desktop client from Twitter


  • Microsoft Office 365 (including Outlook, Excel, Work, Powerpoint, OneNote, Access)
  • NextGen Reader – since the sad demise of syndicated feeds with my beloved FeedDemon I’ve turned to NextGen reader which syncs with Feedly. The new sharing capabilities inside NextGen make it a great tool for not only keeping up with news and content but sharing and keeping them for later.
  • Reading List – If you have Windows 8.1 the reading list app is a great way of keeping lists of sites you want to read in the future together
  • Stacks for Instapaper – Along with Reading List I’m a long time user of Instapaper. The Stacks app for Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone is a great way of accessing deferred reading wherever you are.
  • Flipboard – I’ll just send you to Stuart Bruce’s review of Flipboard

Tying it all together

I use OneDrive to keep all my personal files, folders and information (and for Windows 8.1 my settings, browser tabs etc) in sync across all my devices from PCs to tablets and phones.

For work information and files I use OneDrive for Business – the business version of OneDrive.


  • My primary PC is a Lenovo Carbon X1 – great machine, nice touch screen, thin, fast
  • Surface Pro – nice mix of a full Windows PC with tablet capabilities, great stylus support
  • Dell Venue Pro 8" – great 8" Windows 8.1 device runs all your Windows apps, with fantastic battery life
  • Nokia 920 – love my Windows phone, plan to upgrade to the Nokia 1020
  • Two 20" Monitors – can’t live without them
  • Polycomm Communicator brilliant device for conference calls where you’re out of the office
  • My Doxie scanner turns paper docs, sketches etc. into digital content for OneNote


Other related posts:

Get your life balanced and productive

You may have seen the story about Mita Diran, a young copywriter in Indonesia, who died soon after tweeting about how she had worked 30 hours straight.  Now I don’t know if there were complicating factors, but even if there were, it’s a timely and tragic reminder that we all need to take responsibility for our work-life balance.

It’s an understatement to say the world of work has changed since I started my first job back in the early 1990s. I did have a computer, but no email. I had a phone, but no voicemail. No mobile phones, no Skype, no text messages, no instant messaging, no blogs, no RSS feeds, no social media, no Internet, did I mention no social media?

On the downside researching a new business pitch back in the early 1990s meant driving to the local library with a bag of 10p coins to feed the photocopier.

Today by comparison we face a dizzying variety of channels, and the volume of information being pushed through those channels is incredible. That’s before you think about interruptions, calls, conference calls, meetings and unexpected distractions.  Load on the growing expectations of your clients and co-workers and the ability of technology to keep you connected wherever you are. Now try and balance all these competing demands while trying to find some time for family, friends and yourself.

I see two core issues here.

Firstly, we need a better way to manage all this ‘stuff’ while remaining sane. I’ll come back to that a little later in this post.

Secondly, we need a wakeup call on our priorities.

I’ve read a number of tweets and blog posts recently, where ‘being always on’ is some sort of badge of honor. Seriously. People not only brag about it, they claim it’s non-negotiable.

What a complete canard (and I’m not being bi-lingual here).

Let me tell you something. The quality of work you produce and how well you meet your commitments, is far more important than how many hours you spend online.

End of story.

Working in PR or marketing, I’m sure we’ve all had times where we have worked for weeks on end with no break – perhaps months. Actually Mira Diran’s story isn’t that shocking to many of us. But it should be.

But besides the physical impact of this effort, there’s something else you should remember. Long before you hit ‘the wall’ of exhaustion you can be sure that the quality of your work and your decision making has dropped.

That I can guarantee you.

Whenever I’ve talked with executives I’ve found they all share a common trait.  A clear understanding that they must balance hard work with rest, exercise, balance and productivity.

The reality is that if you want to be a creative, effective, productive, high achiever, then you need to ensure you’re getting mental and physical rest. You need to be looking after yourself, exercising, resting and giving your brain downtime. That’s how you perform effectively – and ultimately come up with your best work.

Many years ago I had personal experience of burn out. After overworking for months I had a serious fright. It made me re-assess my approach to work. It motivated me to explore best practices in terms of performance, productivity and work life balance. While my wife would readily point out I don’t always get the blend right, she’ll also admit I’m much better at balancing what’s important while still delivering great results at work than I was.

At work I have the great privilege of working with a high performing team. My job is simple, help these folks  do their best work while ensuring they are achieving balance. They’ll all happily tell you I bore them to death by telling them they’re no good to me if they’re burnt out :). We work hard, but I try and ensure we also have balance.

Take stock of how you’re working, learn how to get more productive (see below), make time for what’s important from your personal health to your personal life.

This is your responsibility not your employer’s. A smart employer will understand and support you getting this balance, because they’ll understand that’s how they get the best results.

If your employer doesn’t get it, then find one that does. I can assure you that not only is it a better place to work, but they are probably delivering better results.

You are (I’m sure) primarily measured on outputs and results not inputs or how "hard" you worked.

Ensure you can do your best work by getting the balance in your life right. What are your professional and personal priorities? How are you going to achieve them?

There’s no panacea, it’s an ongoing struggle. I don’t always get the balance right, but at least it’s something I am acutely aware of. There’s one thing I can tell you, it’s not about being ‘online’ all the time.


How can you more effectively manage all the stuff you have to deal with, how can you keep a focus on the results that matter?

A couple of weeks ago I had an exchange on Twitter with Stephen Waddington, Sean Fleming, Sally Whittle, and Mark Pinsent that began about the evils of e-mail.

My view is that email is simply a tool. Used correctly it’s incredibly useful, but of course in reality many people abuse it.

So how do you manage not only your email but all the rest of the information hitting you on a daily basis while keeping on top of your commitments and deadlines?

A few years ago – after the fright I mentioned earlier – I quickly realized I was drowning in information and as I got clear on my personal and professional priorities, I also started looking at my own productivity.

How could I more effectively manage everything that was crossing my desk while staying focused on what’s important?

I quickly discovered there’s a lot of processes and systems for keeping yourself organized and focused on managing all the demands you have.  I also discovered that there’s no one size that fits everyone, it’s all taking some pointers from these systems and applying what works for you.

Probably the best known workflow is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (You can find a huge amount of content around the web on GTD.)

In summary, Allen provides a framework for thinking about managing all the stuff in your life from emails, post, to bills, a thought, an article, a tweet, a project, a commitment or an objective. He argues that unless you capture and process all this different stuff (and process can mean creating a reminder, or a new project, or just deleting it) it creates distractions which ultimately waste time and make you less productive and less focused.

He provides a framework that can be summarized as:

  • Having a system you trust to capture everything in your world. This ranges from incoming emails, tweets, drive-by meetings, phone calls or ideas you’ve had in the shower.
  • Process all these items and make decisions about them. For example, you have an email from a colleague, is there an action you need to take? If no, then do you delete it, file it for later reference, or if you can’t do it now put it on a list? If yes, what is the action? Is it a new project? Do you need to delegate it? Can you do it in less than 2 minutes? Then do it.
  • Organizing all this information into a system you can trust and use.
  • Regularly reviewing your (personal and professional) lists, commitments, goals, objectives and schedules is key. It’s how you keep the system live and relevant.
  • Taking Action. The whole point is to actually get stuff done.

Of course, like Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ you need to stop and invest time to get your system up and running, but in my opinion it’s worth the investment.

Here’s a question for you: How often do you get your email inbox empty? Every day?

Why not grab a copy of Getting Things Done and give it a read.

As we wind down 2013, it’s a great time to take stock of where you are in your personal and professional life, think about where you can make changes in the year ahead and get the balance between those lives back in check.

Remember life really isn’t a dress rehearsal, so is checking tweets at 11.55pm really the best use of your time on the planet? Probably not.

Technology is part of the solution, but only when it’s combined with clarity on your priorities and a system that helps you be more productive.

I’d love to hear about how you manage.


If you’re interested in more information about how you can use technology to help with your productivity – once you’re clear on your priorities – here’s are some recent posts on the subject:

PR in 2010: Coping with the Cacophony

As we approach the start of a new year, and indeed a new decade, the blogosphere will no doubt be overwhelmed by predictions and forecasts of various kinds concerning the future of traditional media, social media, PR, marketing etc.

So I thought I’d take a different tack.

I’m going to assume that we are indeed heading into another year of evolution and change. So if that’s a given, why not consider you. What will you do in the next year?

It’s December, it’s a great time to take stock, to review how you’re doing, and to preview where you’re going.

The world of work is changing; and I think that PR and marketing professionals face even greater challenges as we struggle to juggle our traditional work loads and responsibilities with new emerging channels, tools and relationships. So how will we cope with these challenges?

Now before I go any further, I would hate you to think that I’m living in some sort of personal Zen. I can assure you that I am not. However I have reached the conclusion that we must take responsibility for how we manage our personal and working lives. We need to actively think about how we not only cope with a broader set of responsibilities but how we succeed with them.

In short, I think 2010 is the year that you need to invest in you.

I’m not a personal development guru, but here I present 12 areas that I’ve been thinking about recently – for what it’s worth. (And there’s not one mention of unfollowing people on Twitter – that’s a promise.)

I would love to hear your views. What have I missed? What do you disagree with? Jump in with a comment or write your own post and let me know, I’ll add links here.


1. If you don’t know where you’re going.. I am sure there are many people in this world who are naturally ‘planful’. No doubt their work and personal lives revolve around a clear vision of short, medium and long-term objectives. I’m not one of them. However, I have been investing some time in thinking about my own priorities and my own objectives. What roles do I play in my personal and work lives? What objectives do I have? What changes do I want to make? Where do I want to go and how do I get there? Start small, map your roles and responsibilities and your aspirations, then review and review again.

2. Make time for your personal life… Do I need to write any more? If I do, then please refer to the beginning of this paragraph.

3. Love what you do.. It amazes me how many people hate their jobs. They dread the sound of their alarm clock. Well, they are clearly stronger than I, because I couldn’t do that. It’s a personal thing. I need to have a passion for what I do. There’s a nice quote I read recently from a Steve Jobs address to students at Stanford: “You’ve got to find what you love… If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Spot on.

4. Get smart about your workload… You face an avalanche of work, commitments, e-mail, tweets, meetings, tasks and calls every day. Do yourself a favor, start thinking about how you can work smarter. There are some great approaches to more efficient personal workflow. Research them, try them, and give yourself some time back.

5. It’s OK to be a nerd… Related to getting a personal workflow is getting smart about how you use the tools you have. Investing some time in learning to use your PC and applications – as well as the tools and services available online – more effectively, is a good investment that will give you a huge return. Get searching.

6. Get Social.. I know this sounds really obvious, but social media is here to stay. Ignorance really isn’t an option. Many, if not most of our traditional tools and channels will remain important and relevant for the foreseeable future, but social media opens new opportunities to increase the effectiveness of your efforts. The fact you are reading this on a blog means you’re probably already there, however, keep current and get involved. See point #12.

7. Consume greedily.. Keep your brain active and challenged. Find time to read, find time to listen to podcasts, find time to talk to people. Expand your mind outside your area of expertise. Build it into your objectives. Creative ideas and approaches come from many sources and many of them are surprising. Bring your Zune :-) or your Kindle to the gym or on the train. Make time.

8. Live a little… So as the quote goes, "If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got." We live in exciting times, take calculated risks, experiment, review it and measure the results. At worst it provides fantastic learning opportunities and at best will have a major impact on the effectiveness of your work.

9. Write proper…Isn’t it time we addressed the black and white elephant in the room? The advent of social media demands that we revisit how we communicate. Corporate speak is over-used and it no longer resonates with our audiences. We must change how we think about it, we must bring words to life and go back to telling stories. This is a long journey but one that is worth taking.

10. Where’s your vision… There’s a land grab underway in social media. Who owns it? Who drives it? Don’t be left behind, take control of your destiny. Be clear on your goals (and how they tie back to the business), your strategies and your tactics. Social media isn’t about starting a Twitter account it must be integrated across your business.

Remember the story about everybody, somebody, anybody and nobody?

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about this, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

11. How big was it?… Don’t look at your shoes and cough. Measure your successes AND your failures. Review them. Learn. Go again. Be accountable.

12. Know your audience… Invest in getting a better insight into your audience. It will pay huge dividends. Don’t pay lip service to it, do it.


Last but certainly not least, enjoy it… remember this isn’t a dress rehearsal…


Author’s note:

When I was drafting this post, I happened upon a post I wrote around this time of the year back in 2007. It’s still relevant.

How do you stay organised?…

With the growing volume of e-mails, meetings, blogs, RSS feeds, tasks, projects, plans, media outlets etc. coupled with balancing work-life balance and your sanity – staying organised and on top of things is a challenge.

I’m always interested in finding out what systems people use to manage the crazy day-to-day requirements of modern living.

I have filed this post under “He would say that”, as my primary tool is Microsoft OneNote.  It’s the centre of my working day and I still keep finding new features and capabilities.

What do you use? How you you stay on top of things? Let me know!


Organisation Central

So what do I use OneNote for?

Here are just some of the uses and features that I use….


imageEmail Archive: using this button on the Outlook 2007 toolbar I archive all my e-mail in OneNote automatically (including attachments) making it easy to index, search, organise and browse



Meeting Notes: I record, file and archive every meeting so that I can review the notes for actions, next steps and reminders

Bonus: If you record audio of a meeting on your laptop while using OneNote, it automatically time stamps the audio with any notes you make.


Project Planning: With OneNote I can pull together files, links, text, pictures and handwritten notes on a single page making it simple to get access to the information you need for a project.


Daily Notes: I have a new OneNote page for each day where I record thoughts, events etc.  If a particular item requires a project I can simply create a new linked page in OneNote and get started.



Next Actions: Once I’ve finished a meeting I review my notes and when I spot an action item I can create an Outlook task directly from inside OneNote.  The task then appears in Outlook with an automatic link back to the relevant OneNote page (and you can also create meetings).





Capture information: I can insert and attach files, scans, I can print documents into OneNote, I can capture web pages and articles for future reference (and OneNote automatically inserts the local URL).


Find everything: OneNote not only offers fast text search, it indexes PDFs and images and integrates with Windows Desktop Search so you can find whatever information you’re looking for, wherever you are on your PC, when you need it.



Tagging: In addition to fast search you can tag any item in OneNote.  Then at a later date you can run a report that pulls all your tagged items into a single page report.






OneNote on the go: If you have a Windows Mobile phone, you can take OneNote Mobile wherever you go and automatically add notes to your PC when you get back to the office.  You can also copy pages from OneNote to your phone to take with you on the road.




OneNote Powertools: Finally there’s a whole range of different add-ons for Outlook from utilities that let you import and export HTML pages, to gadgets that let you quickly and easily send a page to your phone. (See link below)

So… how are you staying organised?


Other tools I use:


OneNote Resources:

For those into David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach to work:



[Cross posted on my Microsoft blog]