Manage your work life with OneNote

by Jon

OneNote might not get the mainstream recognition of its Office siblings, but people willing to check it out will find a highly capable, powerhouse productivity app. Nothing beats OneNote’s flexibility and power to help you organize your work life.

But where to start?

For newcomers, OneNote’s flexibility can be a major first hurdle. Many users try to learn the software while implementing complicated, unfamiliar organization systems; with so many ways to do things, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

There are a million and one productivity systems out there, and whether you want to implement a biggie like GTD, or would rather roll something on your own, there’s always that initial moment when you’re staring at a blank notebook, wondering where to begin.

I’ve gotten a lot of people to start using OneNote over the years; it seems once you’ve been bit by the OneNote bug, you just have to share it. To that end, I’ve developed a simple notebook system that’s easy to get started with and yet leaves plenty of room for personalization later on.

So in the interest of getting new users unblocked, here’s how I organize my own work notebook.

The Notebook

First, I start with a single, all-encompassing private work notebook. Down the line you may consider convincing your coworkers to start a shared work notebook, but I recommend starting with and keeping a single notebook that’s just for you.

As for formatting, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of making your documents pretty- don’t bother. The idea here is to avoid getting bogged down in the maintenance of your notes; you want to boost productivity, not add wasteful overhead. This notebook is a tool, a searchable extension of your brain, not something you’re going to print out and hand around the office.

To create a new notebook, fire up OneNote and go to File > New. Choose to store the notebook on your computer for now, you can always move it later. Give it a name and select “Create Notebook”.

The Sections

Sections are the colored tabs at the top of the screen (left if you’re using the web app). Use them to quickly group related notes, just like tabbed dividers in a binder.

We’re going to create four new sections for our work notebook. To create a new section, simply right click on a section tab (or next to one) and select “New Section”.

Now, within your work notebook, you’ll want the following four sections:

1. Active Logs

Here is where I log my daily work. Every morning I create a new page (click “New Page” under the tab) titled with the date and the word Log. For example, for October 11, 2012, I’d use “11.10.12 Log”. Throughout the day, I add short bullet point summaries for the work I did that day. Any meetings I go to for that day, I create a separate page for meeting notes. Then I move the meeting notes as a sub-page under the day’s log page. Simply click on the page in the sidebar, drag it beneath the log page, then drag it horizontally to indent it under that log.

Sample Page:

OneNote Daily Log

2. Active Projects

Here is where I keep track of the projects that I’ve actively working on, or need to keep an eye on. I also keep useful notes in here, especially surrounding multi-step work that I need to do on a regular basis.

For each new project, I create a page with an easy to identify title, and a green project checkbox tag (see Tagging below) so I can know at a glance if the project is complete or not. I then add two headers (Ctrl+Alt+1) in the body of the page: Summary and Action Items.

Under Summary I write a quick sentence or two about the goal of the project, or why I feel the need to keep track of it. It’s usually here that I figure out whether or not a “project” is worth having its own page.

Under Action Items I make a list of items that need to be completed in order to finish the project. If it’s something that I need to do, I tag the line with a blue “Action” checkbox. If it’s something that I’m waiting on someone else to do for me, I give it a yellow “Waiting” checkbox.

I indent items that are dependent on the item above it needing to be done first. For example, I can have a blue action item “Email Bob about next year’s plan” and under it, have an indented yellow waiting item “Bob sent me the plan”. This way I can keep track of what is blocking the project from getting completed.

Feel free to add or change action items during the course of the project. When each item is done, check it. When the project is finally done, check the green checkbox in the title. Any relevant documents I write, relevant emails, attachments, etc, I can insert as sub-pages under the project page. Look for the “Send to OneNote” buttons in other apps like IE and Outlook to help you capture things into your notebook.

Now I have a miniature searchable history of the project’s work.

Sample Page:

OneNote Project Page

3. Archived Logs

Here is where I archive old daily logs for a later date. See Archiving Process below.

4. Archived Projects

Here is where I archive old projects for a later date. See Archiving Process below.

Tagging

Tags are a powerful way for flagging lines of text in OneNote pages. By default, OneNote has a ton of tags with cute little icons, most of which I find horribly unnecessary. The first thing I do with a new OneNote install is to cut things down to much more manageable three tags:

  1. @Action (blue checkbox)
  2. @Waiting (yellow checkbox)
  3. Project (green checkbox with a star)

To customize your tags, look for the Tags section on OneNote’s top bar, and click on the little down arrow at the right side of the list. Select “Customize Tags…” and in that menu you can remove all those unnecessary tags and replace them with the three above.

Customize OneNote Tags

Now, to use these tags in your pages, simply click on the line you want to tag and then select the tag from the Tag section on the top bar. (Alternatively, you can use the Ctrl+1, Ctrl+2, Ctrl+3 keyboard shortcuts.) For checkboxes, simply repeat the process to check the box, then again to remove it. (You can of course always click to check the box if you so desire.)

Archiving Process

If you’re like me, you have a combination of short and longer term projects that you need to keep track of. And when something isn’t needed anymore, I need to get it out of my way so it doesn’t distract me.

Here’s where a little archiving can help de-clutter your notebook, and, thanks to OneNote’s amazing full-text search function, keep old work around for when you need it. As we’ll see later (Archives to the Rescue below), there’s a lot of power in storing those old pages away under the “Archived” sections we created earlier. Don’t just delete those old pages! The overhead is worth it.

Bonus: Since OneNote loses revision information when you move pages between sections, archiving helps shrink and streamline your notebook. (I’ve never found the revisioning to be useful, to each their own.)

Archiving Logs

Every two weeks, in alignment with my team’s sprint schedule, I move all of the log pages from Active Logs into Archived Logs, maintaining chronological order. (You can select multiple pages at once in the sidebar by using the shift key. Also be sure to collapse down any sub-pages before moving them so they come along for the ride!)

Archiving Projects

When a project page is no longer needed (either it’s done and I’ve checked its green checkbox, or the project is being canceled or postponed), I move the page (with all of its sub-pages) into Archived Projects. This way I only keep projects that need my attention under Active Projects, and I keep a solid history of not only what I’ve done, but the stuff I needed to do to get things done.

Archives to the Rescue

So, you’ve been dutifully using your notebook to record all of your work, maybe even finish a project or two. Now it’s that “later date”, and you want to know, what was the point of archiving all that stuff? There’s a ton of powerful ways to take advantage of your archives, but here are some of my favorites:

1. New projects are like old projects

Most people have recurring or semi-regular categories of work. Say you used your notebook to track all of the work necessary to onboard a new client. And during the last time, a bunch of important minor action items came up that you almost forgot about. If you were diligent in recording those items when they came up, the next time you need to onboard a client, you have an “almost-ready” plan for doing it again. Simply copy and paste that old page into a new active project, change a few details, and now you can be pretty confident you won’t forget anything this time around.

2. So, what’re you working on?

Keeping a daily log of your work makes it real easy to give specifics to those who might not see you working day in and day out. When your boss stops by to check-in on you, or you need to justify that extra bit of time, it’s nice to be able to say, “What was I doing on Tuesday? One sec, let me check.”

3. The dreaded annual review

An extension of the above, but one I do every year. In the month before my annual review, I create a Year in Summary project page under Active Projects. I then skim through the logs for my previous year and broadly outline what I was working on month by month.

You’ll be surprised how many projects you’ve forgotten about! I always find one or two gems of “surprise work” (work that was supposed to be someone else’s, or that no one knew needed to get done) that popped up in the last year that I took care of. Reviewing the action items for finished or canceled projects might also produce other useful nuggets of work you or your boss may have forgotten about.

Now, with that yearly summary in hand, I have some solid ammunition for my annual review. From there it’s not that hard to distill down to a handful of key contributions I’ve made in the workplace. And so when my boss asks me what I’ve done to warrant a raise, I’m ready with concrete answers.

Summary

I use OneNote daily, and by keeping tabs on the work I’ve done, and the work I still need to do, it’s easier for me to keep my work life under control.

The system I use is one I’ve honed over a couple years now, and it’s considerably simpler than the one I started with. I have two sections for things I need to keep focused on, and two more for my own future use. I keep my tags simple and focus on function over making pages pretty.

My time spent in OneNote grows and shrinks with my workload. If the team’s project cycle is more focused on responding to emails, then I don’t spend much time in OneNote. If I need to micromanage a ton of moving pieces to get a project done, I spend more time tracking my progress line by line on a project page.

So, how do you use OneNote? Was this useful? Sound off in the comments!

/jon

One final tip: Don’t get too hung up on logging your work every day on the day. I find that sometimes I’m too busy to write down what I’m doing, and that’s fine. I usually just pick it up the next day or the day after, using my calendar and email history to remind me what I was doing. But trust me, it’s worth doing, especially a year from now when that annual review is looming.

Also, for your convenience, here’s a sample notebook to get you started:

>Sample Work Notebooks (OneNote 2007/2010)

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, though not on anything having to do with OneNote or Office. I’m just a huge fan of the app.