How I use Onenote

I like to read how people use software and how they come up with various usage scenarios. It allows me to discover new uses, setups and features that I’m not familiar with.

The program that I use the most and that has been storing almost all my ideas, notes, web clippings for the past 3 years is Microsoft’s Onenote.

This is one of the first and few products that I have paid for. I started with version 2003 then moved to 2007 and now thanks to beta testing I enjoy Onenote 2010.

I’m planning to write more about Onenote as this is fantastic application but for now I want to focus on my current setup and the way I use it.

The general principle behind Onenote is to resemble a paper notebook although in digital form. So the main building blocks are notebooks, sections(tabs) and pages.

For a while I’ve struggled with getting my setup the way I liked. It was either too many notebooks or too many sections. Just recently I’ve gone through a simplification process and I cut down on the number of notebooks and sections and keep things to minimum. Also I’ve stopped sweating about perfect cataloguing of information and take advantage of wonderful search capabilities and tagging options that are provided.

So how do I use Onenote?

Notebooks & Sections

"Unfiled Notes" is special section. This is a place where everything goes for the first time. I’ve set up Onenote to send all the prints, web clippings, quick notes, screenshots into this section. If you know Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen the "Unfiled Notes" section is my inbox. I review it every other day or so.

Every clipping becomes a separate page. For some reason I get the feeling that it’s wasted space so in most cases I will put the relevant notes onto one page and then file in one of the notebooks.

Main – this is my main notebook, which stores pretty much everything I use on a daily basis. I divided it into handful of sections only. I’ve created a dsktop and keyboard shortcuts so I can access from anywhere.  My most important sections are:

Task list – Since I use Onenote daily it became obvious to use it for tracking tasks. This section contains mostly single tasks that are not related with any project. I have couple pages here and each is dedicated to different context. To mark current weeks or active tasks I review them regularly and tag them. I intend to make this section one of the central point of my GTD setup so I’ll be writing more about this later.

Projects – My projects tend to be small I perfectly fine with pages. This place is mostly designed for keeping some notes on the project, brainstorming, further actions etc.

Someday – this is dedicated to storing all the ideas that I would like to do at some point. Things that I would like to buy, get, books to read, gift ideas etc. Each page is dedicated to a different area.

Reading – This section contains various web clippings and articles that I would like to read at some point. I used to use Firefox extension called Scrapbook, which is fantastic for quick capture of website content, but decided to move to Onenote strictly for consistency reasons and ease of search. I prefer to keep things in as few locations as possible in order to make finding information most effective.

MemoLists – this is a section dedicated to storing some checklists, some small things that I like to keep handy. Like router password, list of people whom we send Christmas cards. Etc.

[Current year] This is a diary/journal/catch all section. Basically I try to create a page every day and that I fill as the day goes by. I put there links to websites, some quotes, thoughts and other bits and pieces. Once I process all that and decide if there are any actions I file it into that section. It works as running reference library.

Archive – This is a Section group which essentially is a folder with various sections. It contains previous years notes, completed projects.

Blog – This notebook is dedicated to my blogging efforts. I store here ideas for posts, posts that I’m currently working on, blogging tips and some other things like design ideas, code snippets for various page elements, potential things to do on the blog.

Reference – as you can tell this is my reference notebook, I mostly put here articles that I would like to keep for future. (I could keep links only but some of them are too important to trust the web for permanent storage). I also keep here notes on the books I’ve read, some computer tips and triathlon related info like, training plans, training tips, observations etc. One of my current projects is to move articles that I saved using Firefox extension called Scrapbook and move them into this notebook so I have one big database with reference material.

Search & Tagging

Above I walked you through the manual process of organizing information and the structure I created.
No information is helpful unless you use it or able to find it when need it. Onenote offers powerful search features which returns results from text, pictures and audio. Because search features are so good I can easily limit the overhead of creating extensive structure of notebooks, groups and sections. It makes things simple which I like a lot.

Tags. I’ve for a while I couldn’t figure out a good way for them. They seemed useful but somewhat I didn’t stick with them. Using search and keywords was easier. That was until recently when I began using them again. I found a dual functionality for them:

First I use them to support my GTD system. At the moment my system is split between action listed in Onenote and in my Filofax. Because most of my actions are at the computer I decided to move them into OneNote and use tags like: Process, @Computer, @Home to track my to do items. This way I can work in slate and laptop modes on my tablet pc with out cluttering space with extra items. For things to do on the go i input relevant data into Filofax.

Second set of tags which I use are dedicated to marking important information. Things I want to remember for later, some ideas I come across, lessons learned and so on. This is useful if you are looking for something but not sure what by pulling all my tagged notes I can look through them and see what jumps out.

I try to stick with 6-7 tags mostly because they will have keyboard shortcuts (CTRL+1-9) which makes assigning them a breeze.

This is my setup, it’s not finished yet and I  tweak it a bit whenever I discover some new features. Hope you will find it useful for your own setup.

3 Lessons

In last couple weeks I’ve noticed a growing frustration with my productivity system and the little progress that I’ve been making at work. Things began to pile up and although no deadlines were missed I was not happy with the way things were going.

Obviously, I was looking who’s at fault and it appears that it was me (surprise). There are many reasons for this dissatisfaction and things didn’t move the way I wanted. One can be the fact that the tasks that I had to do were not that interesting. I had no incentive to make the effort and complete them except that regardless of when and how I would have to do them anyway.

In order to overcome this I jumped on the internet and visited many of my favourite sites for words of inspiration, understanding and hopefully solutions.

I’ve found many fixes but they are not easy. Well, they are easy in way they work but it takes some time and effort to see the results. This can be painful (mentally) and not less frustrating than the uncompleted tasks (and I wanted result now!). I’ve spend some time doing the research and there were three things that really clicked with me. Now, they appear so obvious solution that it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I didn’t use them earlier.
It seems like we are bound to understand things in own time. Anyway here are the three lessons.

Daily planning

This comes as classic time management technique. Basically at the end of the day I spend 15-30 minutes to plan my most important actions and projects for the next day. Although it’s seems like a simple solution completing this on a daily basis requires some will power. It also requires you to focus on the stuff that you "have" to do or you have committed to do. In some cases this may not be an easy thing to look at especially if you’re not a fan of your work.                

Observations
Slight improvement in the number of tasks completed.
Definite surge in effectiveness of work. I can shape most of the day in a way I want.
Less stress and pressure form the fact that you have not completed anything meaningful.
Little more frustration with interruptions – this is slight contradiction to the above but interruption put stop to carefully laid plans. In most cases you need to "defend" your self form others and their requests until your happy with the progress of the day.

Focus

Deliberately focus on a single task/action and try to avoid interruptions. Try to firewall from all possible distractions and don’t allow yourself to look at other things until the task at hand is finished. In many cases this was surprisingly easy but there are time when it’s really difficult especially if the task is boring and feels like a total loss of time.

Observations
Noticed greater ease in completing tasks which were mundane and boring – didn’t work every time though.
Deliberate practice – "hold on there" type of thing – is necessary to switch off mind and internal voice that’s distracting you.
Time really flies when you get into the right zone

Breaks

My brain works in cycles, yours probably too. So it has a peak performance time and a down time. As deliberate practice to focus on single thing consumes quite a lot of brain power. To keep the brain in good condition you need to take breaks. What I noticed is that you need to take breaks even more when your are under pressure. As you push your brain further and further they return less and less but if you give them a break just for 5min it makes things a lot easier. I go to grab a cup of water, stretch etc.

Observations 
Regular breaks (every 1h preferably) worked wonders for brain allowing to reset and refresh.
After each break it’s easier to maintain good quality focus time.

All three work well for me as I gradually work my way through the day. Even though I’ve been practising these lessons for a while now sometimes it’s difficult to remember to take break or not got carried away by some random unexpected tasks.

Here are some references that helped me learn the lessons and move forward.

  1. Zen Habits and the book “Power of Now
  2. Breaks via ezinearticles.com

Do you have any lessons you have learned recently? Please share them in the comments.

Feeling overburdened by GTD?

At a glance the concept of Getting Things Done hints you into the assumption that this is marvelous method to do it ALL. And while to an extent this system allows you achieve a lot, it’s definitely won’t let you do it all. Simply because there is always something more there is no end to things we want to see, do, buy, etc.
In principle you need to capture all things that enter your life from physical documents, digital bits to floating thoughts, and broken appliances. Then you need to make decisions about those things and place them in designated places so that you can review those places and act on them.

GTD channels your brain activity and external inputs and asks you to use external storage to park it. This allows you to look at your commitments and goals from a third person perspective. All is in front of you.

The initial process of capturing open loops, making decisions about every single one and organizing them may lead to growing feeling of overburden. You will be looking at considerable number of items that have not been finished yet.

Below you will find couple of my personal observations and thoughts that helped me to reduce the feeling of overburden and to a degree frustration that not everything is done.

Use someday/maybe, a lot
As a result of the implementation there will be a lot of actions, projects, things to do, buy, see etc. Obviously there is no reason in putting this on your current actions list as you can’t work and focus on hundred things at once. Also you won’t be able to do them all. Perhaps at this point of time these things appeal to you but this may change in couple weeks or months.

Plan (weekly review)
This is one of the hardest things to implement when getting to grips with GTD but, it’s there for a reason. Basically this is the time when you review your actions, projects and other commitments and make a decision if you want to work on them next week. One of the reasons why this is so important is that there will be many things coming into your system and pretty soon everything can go overboard. Planning your next actions and current projects will let you stay more on the ball and move The right things forward.

The fever things the simpler the system
If all you really need is to remember about handful of things it does not matter what application you use. Generally the more complex system the less usable it is and requires more time to maintain. When implementing GTD it easy to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers and come to conclusion that powerful application is needed. Over time it’s easier to see that all we need is a simple list manager. Looking for perfect application is like being Don Quichotte, you never find your ultimate target.

Also don’t focus on the implementation stage. I think too many people are focusing on this part. Attacking it from various angles: paper, electronic, mix of both. Just use one for a while and refine as you go. System is meant to help you do your work not work the system!

Complex tools are good for planning and storing
Most of your planning can be done on single sheet of paper and neatly organised on the other side of that sheet. Regardless of how many action you might have complex tools are primarily good for planning, brainstorming, creating sequences of actions. If you use them for tracking in most cases they will slow you down and require substantial time to keep them current. I’ve spend a lot fiddling with various applications and set up just to use paper in the end.

Pick what’s matters most
With piles of things you want to accomplish you may want to be like a rubber man stretched in many directions at a time. But what you real need is to balance your needs and wants and accept the simple fact that there is not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything.

Avoid “time inflation”
Every person expects gigantic surge in free time but what happens is that we quickly take it for granted and add more things to do, so we miss that point when we had more time and then complain how busy we are and that GTD does not work. There is a good term for that “time inflation” where time saved through use of GTD is spend on doing more work and not on things that are fun.

Think often think a lot
Also there is general expectation that GTD helps you create more time, accomplish more but the key should be put on fact that this is possible thanks to the thinking that you do. I believe that this is most important element of this method. GTD is about thinking, making decisions and following through. This is very much the essence of the system with core elements being processing – making decisions about the inputs and weekly review where you look at your things.

GTD can be overwhelming and weigh you down but when you approach well it will be great help for you. You need to figure things out what work well for you, that fit you as there is no magic formula. Once you test is trial it then you will be able to use the benefits of GTD in full potential.

Do you have any thought and ideas? Please share what do you think.