Zettelkasten and OneNote

Experimenting with the Zettelkasten concept with OneNote. Highlights of my OneNote adaptation:

  1. Archive – This consists of all the pages within OneNote.
  2. References – This is a separate OneNote notebook, labeled Zettel.

So far, Zettel is primarily an index of keywords used in the archive (i.e., OneNote). When a note requires the use of a keyword, using Ctrl+k allows a quick search for the Zettel page, when then embeds as a link on the note.

If this is the first time that keyword has been used within a notebook, that notebook name is added to the Zettel page.

Benefits after just a week of testing:

  1. The process generates a standardized list of keywords, making searches more productive. For example, notes always use Triple Bottom Line, at least the first time it appears on a page, rather than TBL. Thus, a search for Triple Bottom Line should find all relevant pages.
  2. Zettel pages contain a list of all notebooks that use a particular keyword. Since a closed notebook does not show up in searches (at least not reliably), looking at the Zettel pages shows what specific notebooks need to be open for a complete set of relevant search results.

This approach is not completely aligned with the purest Zettelkasten, but so far it has been a good place to start.

Save OneNote Searches

A very rough workaround

OneNote used to have a feature where you could save search results as a OneNote page. However, that feature is no longer in the production version.

I stumbled across a very rough workaround for this. This works best for ON16, since the search results are a bit more compact.

  1. Use the search function to find the pages of interest, such as History > Recent Edits > Since Yesterday…
  2. Expand the window as necessary to see the full list.
  3. Use the Snipping Tool to grab a screen shot of the search results.
  4. Paste the screen shot into a OneNote page.
  5. Optional
    • Right-click the image and select Copy Text from Picture.
    • Paste the text into the OneNote page.
    • Delete the screen shot.

The page list will not be ‘clickable’ per se, however, you now have the page titles. You can now copy the page title of interest and enter that into the search field. The page of interest will come back at the top of the results, within the “In title” group.

Automate Meeting Planning

Use workflows to create prep checklists for meetings

With the current lockdown, I am having quite a few video conferences.  Before these meetings, there are a few steps I take to help make the meeting as productive as possible.  For example:

  • Verify calendar date, time and location
  • Review meeting attendees
  • Create a Meeting Note
  • Sync relevant documents to iPad
  • Sync OneNote notebook to iPad
  • Check teleconference software operability

Typically, I use Microsoft To-Do to help me with checklist.  That means I have to create each of these tasks before the meeting with enough lead time to avoid a last-minute rush.  To make this a little easier, I can use a workflow in Microsoft Power Automate that creates these tasks for upcoming meetings.

Microsoft Power Automate (formerly Flow) lets you create automated workflows, in particular between Microsoft Office apps.  In this case, I want to create a workflow that creates items in To-Do whenever a meeting appears on my calendar in Outlook.

To create the workflow, I go to my Office 365 site and use the ‘waffle’ in the top left corner to choose Power Automate.  In the left menu, I choose Create.

In this case, as of this writing, there is no template that includes To-Do. Therefore, we will have to create the workflow from Start from blank and then choose Automated flow.

In the next screen we give the flow a name and chose the flow’s trigger.  Search for ‘event’ and scroll down to When a new event is created.  The window changes to the flow editor, with the Outlook trigger at the top.  Within this first step (the trigger), choose which calendar we want to monitor.  Now we can tell Power Automate what we want it to do when triggered.

Click +New Step, which allows us to choose the action.  We want to use the Add a to-do action from Microsoft To-Do.  In the Subject field, enter our first item Verify meeting time and location. For Due Date, we are going to use a little math so that this happens the day before the meeting. Place the cursor in the Due Date field and click on Expression.  Now scroll down to Date and time and choose addDays. In the expression editor, place the cursor between the parentheses and click Dynamic content.  Since we want to start the task the day before the meeting, we add -1 to the expression and click OK. The resulting formula:


Since we will have multiple meetings on our calendar, we will want to know which one we need to verify.  To do this, we enter the meeting subject line in the Body Content field.

We now click on Save  and then use the Flow Checker to find any obvious issues. If there are no problems, we can test the flow with a Test Event on the calendar we chose as the trigger.

That is the basics.  If you want to create items for everything on the prep list, you can add a new step to the workflow for each item.

Use “My Day” as a dashboard across O365

Track activities across multiple applications

At this point we have captured tasks in Microsoft To Do, Outlook, OneNote and Planner. Each application has its own situations that make it the most appropriate way to create a tracked action.  However, this has the potential to make daily planning quite complicated.  How do you check each one of these applications as you start your day, to ensure no tasks are overlooked?

This is where a particular feature makes Microsoft To Do actually worthwhile.  Microsoft To Do can collect all of your pending tasks across the Microsoft product suite.

Let’s start with a simple feature that really helps me psychologically – at the beginning of each day, My Day is empty.  There is no overwhelming list of actions left from yesterday, or the day before.  In many tools, the list of incomplete and overdue tasks keeps accumulating over time until they create frustration and may lead to abandoning the tool.  In contrast, the My Day view in Microsoft To Do starts clean each day.

What practical affect does this have? Primarily, the day starts off with a win.  Rather than seeing everything still outstanding from yesterday, you can start with by adding your Daily Routine to My Day.  For the Covey fans out there, this is Quadrant 2 – non-urgent, but important. For me, I can usually knock out this list in about thirty minutes. This results in actively responding to priorities, not reacting to crises.

Once you have your tasks added to My Day, simply click the check mark as each one is completed.  You can choose whether to show or hide completed tasks.  I prefer to hide completed tasks, as there is a certain satisfaction seeing the list slowly dissolve to nothing.

Once all the tasks from your first round are complete, click on the Today button (the lightbulb in the top right). A panel will open up with a list of pending tasks to add to your My Day view. The list includes items due today, items from the past that are still open, and tasks that will be due soon.  Clicking the plus sign (+) next to selected tasks will add the item to your My Day view.

This list of pending tasks comes from various sources.  For instance, if you flag an email in MS Outlook, the email shows up in MS To Do.  If you have been assigned tasks from MS Planner, those tasks will show up in MS To Do with due dates.  If you flagged items for follow-up in a OneNote Meeting Note, those items show up in MS To Do.

Since Microsoft To Do searches across the Microsoft Office 365 suite to find outstanding action items, you are free to use the most appropriate tool based on what you are doing when you become aware of the tasks.  Then, when it is time to complete those tasks, they can all be found in one place – Microsoft To Do.

 This is the final part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Track Project tasks with MS Planner

Coordinate and Collaborate on Projects

So far, we have made use of the Microsoft To Do application to provide us with a simple list of daily tasks. What about more complex scenarios, such as when you depend on others to finish their assigned tasks before you can begin yours? If you are a real heavy hitter, you might turn to Microsoft Project. However, for most of us MS Project is simply too complex. Besides, it does not come with the standard Microsoft Office 365.

Might I recommend that you take a look at Microsoft Planner, which comes with most Office 365 business subscriptions and is part of the standard applications found with Microsoft Teams. Planner allows you to generate a set of tasks, typically related to a single project or effort. You can then assign these tasks to team members and then track progress. Microsoft Planner gives you greater visibility and collaboration than MS To Do, without the significant overhead of using MS Project.

Microsoft Planner includes task boards with buckets, calendar views and a collection of progress charts. Tasks assigned to you can be quickly called up through the built-in My Tasks view.

Adding a Plan to a Team

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel to be associated with the plan.
  2. In the channel header, click on Add a tab +.
  3. In the Add a tab window, choose Planner.
  4. In the Planner window, select Create a new plan, and provide a name for the plan. (Note: The name provided will be used on the channel tab, too.)
  5. Click Save.

Opening an Existing Plan from Teams

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel associated with the plan.
  2. In the Teams header, click on the tab for the plan.

Use Teams Notebooks

Share your ideas with your team

Let’s add a new tool to our productivity toolbox – Microsoft Teams.  A OneNote notebook can be created for each MS Team.  This means that any idea or action item you captured within OneNote can easily be shared out to your team.  However, from a usability standpoint, the Teams interface with OneNote is a bit more limited than the desktop version of OneNote. (In fact, as of this writing, the Teams version of OneNote has been limited to ‘read only’ due to all of the users working from home because of the coronavirus outbreak.)

This lack of functionality is not a problem though, because the very same notebook can be accessed using the OneNote desktop application. So, create the notebook from MS Teams, but maintain and add to the notebook from the desktop version.  This provides the full functionality while still collaborating with other team members.

Side note: In the past, I have recommended keeping to a single notebook for all of your notes.  I have abandoned this approach due to the strains on performance.  I will share my new, evolved philosophy in a later post.

Creating Team Notebooks

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the relevant Team.
  2. Within the Team, choose one of the Channels, such as General.
  3. In the Teams ribbon, click the plus sign (+) to add a tab.
  4. In the Add a tab dialog window, choose the OneNote application.
  5. Expand the default team notebook by clicking on the triangle next to the notebook name.
  6. Click the plus sign (+) for Create New Section.
  7. Provide a name for the new section (recommendation: use the name of the channel).
  8. If desired, leave the check in ‘Post to the channel about this tab’ to notify team members that the notebook now exists.
  9. Click Save.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Use Quick Notes

Don’t let random ideas interrupt your productivity

Good ideas can happen at any time – which is good and bad.  While creativity is key to competitive advantage, you still have to maintain productivity if you want to get anything done.  David Allen goes into great detail describing how the mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

So, how to clear your head without losing these great ideas?  I recommend the use of Quick Notes.  Windows is able to call up Quick Notes from any application.  You just have to use the keyboard shortcut ÿ+n (Windows key and the letter n). This will pop up a stickie-note window.  Now, simply jot down the thought or idea on this note, with just enough information that you can make sense of it later – do NOT try to capture and clarify.  Just capture the idea.

After capturing the idea, go back to whatever you were working on, giving it your full attention.

Later, such as your next break or at the end of the day, review your Quick Notes. At this time you can make an initial attempt at clarifying the idea, expanding and filling in details such you can identify any actions that you need to take.

Creating Quick Notes

  1. From whatever application you are using, use ÿ+n.
  2. Type your thought, idea or reminder on the new note.
  3. Return to whatever you were doing.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Use Meeting Notes

Before, during and after meetings

The meeting notes feature of Office 365 connects Outlook Calendar with Microsoft OneNote. It serves as a great tool for preparing prior to a meeting, capturing action items during the meeting and then reviewing notes after the meeting.

Within Microsoft Outlook, Calendar captures meetings and appointments.  When you select a meeting, the Meeting Notes icon displays in the toolbar ribbon. If you are the meeting organizer, you have the option of taking notes for everyone. Otherwise, you can choose to take notes just for yourself.

Once you choose whether to share your notes, Microsoft Office creates a new page in OneNote.  The page will include the meeting details as a header section.  Below the header, a space is provided for taking notes.  If you have a tablet with pen capabilities, you can use this space to capture handwritten notes.

If any of the notes represents an action, you can flag that item for follow-up using the Outlook Tasks feature.  Flag items will show up in the Outlook Task list and in Microsoft To Do.

The Meeting Notes feature makes it easy to find your captured notes in multiple ways.  If you have a fairly organized OneNote structure, you can of course browse through your OneNote folders to locate the note.  If you recall the meeting subject, attendees or key words, you can use this information in the OneNote Search field.  If you know when the meeting occurred, probably the easiest way to find the Meeting Notes is to open the Outlook Calendar item and click Meeting Notes.  Office will then locate and open the Meeting Note associated with that Calendar item.

Thus, Meeting Notes allows you to prepare before the meeting by capturing your own discussion items and reminders.  During the meeting, you can capture responses and other items of interest. After the meeting, you can review your notes to identify and then flag any action items.

Creating Meeting Notes

  1. In Outlook Calendar, create or select an item.
  2. In the Meeting tab, click on Meeting Notes.
  3. In the pop-up window, choose whether to create shared notes or to take notes on your own.

Office creates a Meeting Note in OneNote.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Flag Emails

Take a step towards ‘inbox zero’

Just about every productivity system recommends maintaining an empty, or nearly empty, email inbox.  The very idea of moving emails out of the inbox terrifies some people.  They fear they will never be able to find what they need, when they need it.

I am not going to go into the philosophy of Inbox Zero, as there are plenty of websites that can cover the concept in-depth.

To achieve an inbox of manageable size, I recommend the use of follow-up flags within Microsoft Outlook.  These flags allow you to mark those emails that require some sort of action on your part.  Let’s look at an example.

Consider an email that you receive that has some specific actions that you need to take. As shown in the video, Alice has two actions that need to be taken.  She quickly scans the actions and determines that they cannot be done in under two minutes. As such, she decides to address these later.

To ensure she does not let these actions get buried, she uses the Follow Up feature on the Outlook Home ribbon. The defaults allow you to mark it for Today, Tomorrow, or some custom date. Since she needs to clarify what exactly the actions are, she selects Today. This does not mean that she is going to perform the actions today, but she is at least going to plan how she is going to complete these tasks.

Once she selects Today, a red flag appears on the email listing next to the Preview pane.  She can now drag the email to her Archive folder, confident she will be able to find that email later today.

Exactly how does she find it later?  She uses Search Folders.  The New Search Folder dialog allows her to search all of the folders within her email account.  When she clicks on that folder, any email that has been flagged for follow-up will appear in this search folder. (Don’t get me started on Tags vs Folders, though. That’s a discussion for another day.)

Creating Search Folders

  1. In the Navigation pane, right-click on Search Folders and choose New Search Folder…
  2. In the Select a Search Folder dialog, under Reading Mail, select Mail flagged for follow up.
  3. Click OK to close the dialog box.
  4. In the Navigation pane, expand Search Folders to display the For Follow Up search folder.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.


When it has to be done right

We often perform task analysis for clients – identifying those tasks performed frequently, as well as complex or important tasks.  When we identify task that meet these criteria, we typically recommend the use of a checklist to help ensure correct performance.

Besides consistent performance, a checklist has the benefit of capturing improvements to performance.  Any additional steps, or modifications to a step, can be easily incorporated into the process by editing the checklist.  Every time you do the job, you perform it at least as smart, if not smarter, than the last time.

As well, checklists make knowledge sharing easier.  Should someone else need to perform a job, such as when your responsibilities change or you need to be away from the office, providing them a copy of the checklists increases the likelihood that the job will still get done properly.

First thing, I recommend that you make two groups within Microsoft To Do: one group called Checklists, for all of your new checklists that you are going to create. I also recommend that you create a second group called Used Checklists. Microsoft does not allow you to just ‘archive’ a checklist after usage. So, if every time you use a checklist, you just keep duplicating the ‘master,’ your Checklist group will fill up pretty fast.  This will make it difficult to find the masters checklists in the future. Thus, you have two options.  You can delete the checklist once it is completed;  or, if you create a Used Checklist group, you can put the completed lists there.  I prefer the latter, as I like to keep past checklist for future reference. Should I something go wrong, I can go back and confirm I performed all the required steps or consider if I need to edit the list for future use.

With the folders created, now we can create our new lists. Let’s consider a scenario where we need to create a relatively complex report on a monthly basis.  Our first task involves getting data from all the regions, so we make each region a step in the task.  After the new data is loaded, we need to refresh the pivot tables within the workbook.

Oh, yes, last month one of the managers noticed that the graphs did not reflect the data shown in the pivot tables.  So, let’s add a step to also verify that the charts are correct.

Now that we have our ‘master’ list, we add it to the Checklist group.  For April, we duplicate the report checklist and move it outside the group folder.  We then check off the steps as they are performed.  Once the checklist is done, we have confidence the reports are accurate and complete. We now simply drag the checklist down to Used Checklists for future reference.

Another checklist could be reviewing presentations prior to a sales call. Some things we want to check before getting in front of the client: spelling and grammar (always!); fact check (are the quoted prices correct?); graphics and company branding (no ‘your name here’ entries).

The third example is prepping for a meeting.  Does the meeting actually have an agenda?  Do you have ready access to all of the relevant support materials?  Have the attendees confirmed?

As per David Allen’s GTD strategy, we now spend less brain power remembering all the necessary steps and more brain power on the quality of the work.

In brief:

To Do Setup

Create two new groups:

  1. Checklists
  2. Used Checklists

Create Checklists

  1. Click New List.
  2. Name the checklist.
  3. Optional: Add an icon.
  4. Add tasks to the list.
  5. Optional: Add steps to tasks.
  6. Drag the list to the Checklists group.

Use a Checklist

  1. Make a copy of the ‘master’ version of the checklist.
  2. Rename the copied checklist.
  3. Move the copy out of the Checklist folder.
  4. Mark off tasks as you complete them.
  5. After completing all tasks within the list, either:
    1. Drag the list to Used Checklists group for future reference.
    1. Or, delete the checklist completely.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.