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.

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