Reboot: Create Custom Tags

Tags are the tool we use to bring items up out of storage (the Organize section) at the appropriate time.  If we use tags properly, we do not have to scroll through the whole Organize section to find relevant notes.

By design, tags allow us to consistently apply certain attributes to our notes.  They even allow us to include a visual clue, such as a dot or a color.  Unfortunately, OneNote tags cannot be included in the search field. This means we cannot use them in simple Boolean expressions, such as “To Do” notes that are also “Project XYZ”.  This is a probably OneNote’s biggest weakness, but we can work around it fairly effectively.

I recommend starting with the following custom tags:

  • 032-Next
  • 036-Waiting
  • 921-Tally

The numbers are simply a way to be sure the Tags Summary list the tags in the same order every time.  These tags are part of two groups I use: 000-Actions, and 900-Misc.

The numbering in front of the tag keeps the tagged items in order when I use the “Find Tags” option to create a Tags Summary.  You can use whatever numbers work for you, but as I will explain in a different post, these numbers work well for me.

The “tally” tag is for checklists, to show that I have completed an item.  You can use the default “To Do” that comes standard in OneNote.  I have some reasons which I will cover in a future post on why I do not.


So, after several months of using and adapting OneNote to a productivity model, I have made quite a few changes and adjustments.  I have updated some of the previous blog entries to reflect those changes.  For the sake of clarity, this entry represents a re-boot of the description of the model as it stands today.

The basis of the model is the GTD methodology, which uses the following five steps:

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organize
  • Reflect
  • Engage

The first step, Capture, aims to collect anything that has succeeded in grabbing your attention. So, it make sense that our model should include a bucket for Capture.

The second step, Clarify, consists of taking action on what we have captured. The items in Capture leave that bucket based on the action – trash, reference or action. Since we can perform the action from within the Capture bucket, we do not need a bucket for Clarify.

The third step, Organize, puts the action items in appropriate lists so that we can get to these items when the time is appropriate. Based on this, we will need a section for Organize.

Next, Reflect has us review our lists and updating them as needed. Since these lists are already in Organize, there is no need for an additional section.

Finally, Engage involves simply doing what needs to be done. Creating a section for Engage allows us to focus on just the task at hand, making notes as we progress.

To implement this model, we create a notebook with a title such as [My Name] GTD. Within this notebook, we create three sections:

  • Capture – For receiving everything
  • Engage – Our space for what we are currently working
  • Organize – To hold everything after Clarify, Reflect and Engage.

Review Reminders

Evernote has a built in “Reminders” functionality.  We are somewhat replicating that functionality here, and using the !Daily task of 40-Review Reminders to trigger a regular view of deadlines and milestones.

As noted before, it helps to set your system date preferences for YYYY-MM-DD.  Doing this allows sorting the reminder tags, 6-Waiting, by due date.


(click to enlarge)

Any action item that is waiting on external action should be prefixed with a date to trigger follow up.  Using Cntl+Alt+D inserts today’s date, which can easily be edited to the expected follow up date. For example:

  • 2016-05-18 Request decision on Dandy entries

This line is then tagged with 6-Waiting, so that it shows up in the tag list. Note that the YYYY-MM-DD format brings the current reminders to the top of the list when sorted.  This gives a quick view of what is due today, as well as for the next few days.


Clear Inbox

The third !Daily task is 30-Clear Inbox.  This provides a quick review of the previous day and clears your workspace for a new day.

Many productivity experts recommend clearing your desk at the end of each day.  I find that first thing in the morning works a bit better for me, since I don’t have a fixed end time – maybe that is something I need to work on.

Every morning, clear out the various inboxes through the use of appropriate tags, and then moving it to the relevant folder.  Don’t overlook the various inboxes you may have:

  • OneNote
  • Company email
  • Client email
  • Personal email

During this clear out process, update the previous day’s Work Journal to take credit for all of the things your handled. Be sure to check the Sent folder for tasks that you may have completed, but did not record.

Sometimes being on the road means not being able to adequately process items.  In these cases, use the default “To Do” tag, with a note to “Move to xxx”.  When you return to your regular workspace, search items with the default “To Do” and change them to one of your custom tags.

General process for clearing out these boxes:

  1. For each item in the Inbox, add relevant tags for what, when, who, and where.
  2. Identify any action items, tagging them with a priority (Ctrl+1 thru 6).
  3. Move the item to processed.

Start Timer, Create Work Journal

The next few postings highlight some of the daily tasks performed.

10-Set Timer

Using the Pomodoro Technique has been useful to me.  I use the 25 minute interval for work, with a five minute break.  The app I use is Be Focused Pro, which seems to fulfill my needs.

Starting the timer is the first task of my day.

20-Create Work Journal


Blank Work Journal

This template provides a consistent tracking of the day.  Steps to use the template:

  1. Copy the template from Processed to Working.
  2. Use Ctl+Alt+D to replace Date with the actual date.
    Note that date is in YYYY-MM-DD format to facilitate sorting of pages.  This has to be set up in Windows as the preferred format for your machine.
  3. Use Ctl+Alt+T to enter the start time.
  4. Enter the work location for the day.  Sometimes having a location helps me remember exactly what I was doing that day.
  5. Now that this is an actual journal page, and not the template, remove #kw_template. Substitute any relevant key words you might expect for the day.
  6. Use the Activities to track actual work for the day.  Each activity should have its own OneNote page, and the Activities portion of the Work Journal should have a link to that page.
    I also use the Goals for Today heading to to quickly capture things are on my mind as the day starts.  This is less of a work list and more of a brainstorm.  Anything that comes up here that takes more than two minutes becomes a new OneNote page to be processed and prioritized.
  7. The Fitness section is a personal section.  During my Pomodoro breaks, I try to do a bit of therapy for my knees as well as remind myself to drink water.  I also put down any injuries or pain I might be feeling just to keep track of how long problems may be persisting.

As you will see later, one of the daily tasks is Clear inbox. This includes clearing out the previous workday’s journal.  During this time, I review the journal, update the hours and then move it to Processed.


Completed Work Journal


Daily Routine

OneNote serves two main purposes for me – a repository for ‘things’ and a productivity tool.  For the latter, a key is setting up a routine.  My routine is driven by the tags ‘!Daily’ and the day-of-the-week tags, such as ‘/Monday’.

First thing after firing up my machine, I start OneNote and click the Find Tags menu item.  At the top of the Tags Summary is a list of actions I take every morning in order to keep organized.  For these particular items, numbers at the front end helps keep them in an order that works best.  A sample of these items:

The day-of-the-week tags are for activities that do not need to be performed more than once a week, such as:

  • Monday
    • Review A/R report in Quickbooks
    • Update weekly time entries
  • Friday
    • Update Project Status Reports

Tag Prefixes

After having some pages loaded, I have found that the tag strategy is less than optimum.  OneNote uses Windows Desktop Search, which ignores special characters.  So, if the search does not distinguish between ‘hashtag’ words and words used incidentally in a sentence.  For instance, if a page has the sentence “The project included multiple MS Word templates as part of the deliverables,” then that page would show on a search for #templates.

As an interim fix, I am supplementing the hashtag with a prefix, as follows:

  • Projects: #pr_
  • Company: #co_
  • Contact: #ct_
  • Keywords: #kw_

With this in mind, I can mark any generic checklists as #kw_template.  Searching OneNote for #kw_template will only produce pages marked as templates, not every instance of the word template.

Hopefully, I can keep it down to these few. In particular, I suspect I will rely primarily on #kw_

2016-10-20 Update: Yeah, no.  This became too clunky.  Just be sure to add words to the body of the note that will help find the note when needed.

Adding a Working Section

My initial approach was to use only two sections within my notebook – Inbox and Processed.  I have modified that by adding a new section, Working.  This brings the OneNote model closer to the physical workspace analogy.  In the physical world, you typically have an Inbox that allows you to receive information from others.  When it comes time to work on that information, you bring it to your work area. There you decide what to do with it – either handling it immediately or marking it for follow up later.  Once you have categorized the item, you file it away in a drawer as “processed.”

(2016-10-21 Edit: The three folders are now Capture, Engage, and Organize to align with the GTD model.)

This OneNote model follows the same flow.  Everything comes in to the Inbox Capture.  From there it is moved into the Working Engage section, where it is either worked immediately or processed for follow up. It then goes into the Processed Organize section.  This keeps with the idea  that you should keep your physical workspace clean and free of distractions.

Besides the clean workspace, this model has had a couple of other advantages found through use.  For one thing, all new pages in Inbox Capture use a custom template with the following header:









This promotes a consistent marking of all pages in my  OneNote.  Not all pages will have entries for each item above, but it serves as a quick prompt to perform at least some basic processing before filing the page away.

Another advantage I found deals with the use of pages and subpages.  If I am working on a series of tasks, I can break those tasks across pages that represent a day’s activities.  I then make a “master” page, and make each task page a subpage to the master.  Now, when I go to work on one of these tasks, I can move the whole set of pages easily from Organize  into Engage, and easily refer back to past efforts on the activity.  Once I am through with the current work session, I then easily move the whole set of pages back to Organize.

You may find that using Subsections works, or any other level in the OneNote hierarchy works better for you. That is perfectly fine as well. In fact, feel free to share your take on the hierarchy and your reasons in the space below.

OneNote Sort Order

During my testing of tag strategies, I discovered that OneNote does not observe standard ASCII sort for the Tags Summary panel.  It uses a sort order similar to Microsoft Excel, but slightly different. Excel uses the following:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 (space) ! ” # $ % & ( ) * , . / : ; ? @ [ \ ] ^ _ ` { | } ~ + < = > A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Testing of actual tag sort shows that OneNote uses the following variance on the above:

(space) ! ” # $ % & ( ) * , . / : ; ? @ [ \ ] ^ _ ` { | } ~ + < = > 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 ‘ – A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

This means forcing a tag to the top of the Tag Summary is fairly simple – prefix it with a space, or just about any of the observed special characters (except ‘ or -).  However, to force a tag to the bottom, the only option is to use a “z” since there are no symbols that follow letters in this sort.  Note also that the sort order does not distinguish between upper and lower case.

Basic Workflow


In keeping with “Keep it Simple” and to align with GTD, I have three sections in my primary notebook:


Capture is the catch-all for collecting things – ideas, clippings, emails and so forth. The section holds these until they can be properly organized.  Some items are immediately sent to trash, otherwise they get classified, prioritized and moved to Organize.


This is the clean room.  Only items currently being worked belong here.  This helps prevent distraction.


This is the final resting place of all notes.  If they have been prioritized, the tag search picks them up for future work.  If all actions are complete, the note settles into the bottom of the Organize section where it can be referenced in the future.