I vowed to use 2019 as an experiment in rebuilding my productivity process in order to address these weak points.
A year ago I found that although the method I was using with OneNote was not necessarily broken, it certainly was not as effective as I needed it to be. Here is how the original recommendations stacked up with regular usage:
Keep It Stupidly Simple – As the amount of data captured increased, the notebook-minimalism approach just did not work.
I use ON16 on a day-to-day basis, but keep checking back on the ONW10 version. When I went in today, I found the tag search was available. However, I found it still falls short.
The search appears to based on the label for the tag. For example, if you use the out-of-the-box tag “Critical” (!), you have to enter “critical” in the search box. So, you can search for custom tags but you do it by the tag label, not from a drop down of available tags.
The implication here is that ONW10 does not differentiate between a box that is checked versus non-checked.
In a previous post, we looked at how adding dates to tags allows viewing To Do lists sorted by when the action should be done. One way to take advantage of this is by using a preparation checklist.
In my case, I have certain tasks that I perform in preparation for delivering a classroom session. In particular:
25 days prior to the class: Send a quote for the class, reconfirming the class as originally scheduled.
3 weeks prior to class: Review any special requirements for the class, such as setting up scenarios in the training sandbox.
2 weeks prior to the class: Confirm travel plans
1 week prior to the class: Print/ship participant materials
2 days prior to class: Dry run and review content
Day before class: Stage my instructor materials
In order to capture these in my daily plans, I use an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the dates, counting back from the class delivery date.
In this case, B1 contains the class name, with the scheduled date in B2. Cells B5:B13 contain the lead times for each of the preparation tasks in column A. Cells D5:D10 rolls back weekend days to the previous Friday. Finally, E5:E10 simply combines columns C and A.
Once the dates are calculated, E6 becomes the title of the OneNote page. Cells E5:E10 are copied and pasted into the body of the page. I then add checkbox tags to each item.
Opening the Tags Summary pane, the checkbox items are listed and sorted by date, with the first task in the sequence at the top of the list. As more classes are added, the Tags Summary builds to include all preparation items.
This process minimizes the chance of getting so caught up in preparing for a class that the upcoming classes are neglected.
It’s been a while since we restructured our OneNote to fit the ‘SecretWeapon’ methodology (https://thesecretweapon.org/). Overall, this has been a qualified success.
As we come to the close of the year, and the start of a new one, it is time to take inventory of the past, and gaze into the future. Looking backwards, we started to see the impact the very large notebooks is having. In some cases, it has resulted in corruption of a notebook (very bad). Generally, though, where we see the practical impact is on mobile. It appears that anytime that OneNote does a full stop on a mobile device, it has to perform a reload of data. When we are out and about, and internet speeds can be choked, this can be quite a nuisance. In particular, it truly interferes with the “quick note” concept – that is, get things out of our head quickly and get back to what we were doing.
Looking forward, Microsoft definitely talks to collaboration being the key to the future. As such, our notes should be available to anyone who would benefit from them. For instance, our notes on a specific project should be shared with the whole project team. However, if we are using the single notebook approach then we cannot share just a subset of our notes.
So, these two perspectives – large notebooks are slow notebooks, and visible information is good information – require some deep thought on how to properly organize the OneNote environment. The biggest drawback is simultaneously the biggest strength of the ‘big notebook’ strategy: we don’t have to remember where we put something because Search is smarter than we will ever be. If we break up our big notebook and put the pieces in Team sites scattered across the ether, we have to tell Search all of the places our something could be. Further, we must load all of those notebooks into OneNote before we can search them. Ooof.
In that spirit, we are going to use 2019 as another experiment – an experiment where we break and then try to renew the Keep It Stupidly Simple (KISS) rule. We will break out notebooks and put them up for display. While doing this, we will work on KISS strategies on how to find things when we need them.
Last year, Microsoft released To-Do which was derived from Wunderlist. The promise was all to-do’s in one place, a focus on today’s activities and integration with Office 365. I looked at it as a possible bridge for OneNote Windows 10 while that version of OneNote awaits tag search. What I found was much to-do about nothing.
To-Do offers a quick snapshot of the Tasks residing in Outlook.
Since the Tasks actually exist in Outlook, additional functionality can be found in Outlook (e.g., sorting and filtering).
My Day does allow the user to focus on just what you have chosen for today.
No reporting on the past dates. For example, if you want to review last week’s tasks for completing your time sheet, you can’t do that in To-Do (but you can do that in Outlook).
Although it can sort, the sorts available just are not that useful (but again, you can do it in Outlook).
To-Do task notes cannot include links, such as to your work notes, or a relevant web site (wait for it – Outlook!).
Essentially, if you use To-Do, you end up spreading activity management across three applications:
Focused activity list: To-Do
Notes on activities: OneNote
Review completed activities: Outlook
Right now, I can do all three in Outlook. But for other reasons, I prefer to keep everything in OneNote:
Focused activity list: OneNote
Notes on activities: OneNote
Review completed activities: OneNote
So, To-Do offered no functionality or features that were not already available in OneNote. Using To-Do means opening another window and scattering information across multiple applications. This seems to go against the rule of Keeping It Stupidly Simple.
Tagging the actions allows us to use the Find Tags feature to create a To Do list, aka Tags Summary. OneNote sorts the list alphabetically, which is not the most useful arrangement. To make the list a bit more practical, we can place a date at the front of the action item. For best results, we use the ISO date format (YYYY-MM-DD). Now when we refresh the Tags Summary, OneNote sorts the actions based on the date.
In the demo, we go back to our meeting notes and apply dates to the actions. For me, I use the date that I need to perform the action, not the due date (although these are often the same). I also have my computer default date format set for YYYY-MM-DD, which allows me to use Shift+Alt+D to easily enter today’s date.
Once again, we refresh the Tags Summary to see all of the actions sorted by date. When planning my day, I simply work the list down through today’s date. As I finish each task, I click the To Do tag checkbox to mark it completed. Using the option Show only unchecked items in the Tag Summary removes the completed items, keeping my To Do list nice and clean. Alternatively, if I do not finish an item, it remains on the list until completed.
Meeting Notes are a great way to capture your notes along with critical meeting information such as subject, time and attendees.
To take advantage of Meeting Notes, go to the Calendar view and locate the meeting. After selecting the meeting, in the Calendar Tools > Appointment menu, click the OneNote icon to create Meeting Notes. A dialog box opens asking if you want to take notes for everyone (if you are the organizer), or take notes on your own. Click one of these options to continue.
At this point, OneNote opens up a new note. The title of the note will match that of the meeting subject. The new note also includes meeting details: meeting date, location, original message and participants. Notice that there is a link to the original Outlook message. So, if you are reviewing your notes and want to respond to the original invitation, simply click this link. Since the new meeting note also includes the participants, you can use the OneNote Search function to find past meeting notes with specific attendees.
Below the heading Notes you can enter personal notes from the meeting, either taken directly during the meeting or transcribed from your handwritten notes. Be sure to include any key words that will help you find these notes in the future, such as project name and agenda items.
Since the Quick Notes section is our holding area until items are reviewed, this is where all items should go first.
Microsoft has built in capabilities for sending content from other Office applications to OneNote, using the Send to OneNote button. Applications that have this feature include:
Web content (Internet Explorer or Edge)
Print to OneNote
To set this functionality such that new pages go to Quick Notes:
In OneNote, click on File in the menu to open the “backstage.”
On the left side toolbar, click Options.
In the OneNote Options dialog, click on Send to OneNote in the Category list.
For each location option, use the drop-down menu to select Set default location…
In the Select Location in OneNote dialog box, click on the Quick Notes section of your notebook.
Click OK to close the dialog box.
Repeat this for all of the location options.
Once all locations have been set to Quick Notes, click OK to exit the settings dialog.
You can also associate an email address with OneNote and send anything to your notebooks by emailing it to email@example.com. For instance, you can use this as the cc: address for flight and hotel confirmations.
Previous iterations of the OneNote strategy recommendations used a section named ‘Inbox’. This section was the entry point for all notes coming into the OneNote system. Actually, OneNote already has such an entry point: Quick Notes.
Quick Notes is a default section in OneNote, with special features. For instance, ⊞ Win+N creates a new note located in Quick Notes. So, let’s go with the flow. ALL new notes should start in Quick Notes. Whenever you start taking notes, either use the ⊞ Win+N combination or click Add Page within the Quick Notes section. Once you have finished with the note, move it to the appropriate location.
One of the ways that I differ from Microsoft’s official line about OneNote: Do NOT create a notebook for everything and anything. What I have found is that this complicates finding notes. While OneNote is very good at searching for terms within notebooks, the notebooks have to be open to be searched. This means having all of your notebooks open to ensure you can find what you are looking for. As well, after creating a note, which of the myriad of notebooks do you put it in?
My recommended structure:
That’s it. Compare that to the days when we would carry around our paper-based personal organizers. We didn’t carry around an organizer for each client. We didn’t keep a separate organizer for our business and another for home life. We had a single organizer and kept everything timely and relevant in that organizer.
As far as the three sections are concerned, I use:
Quick Notes – Basically, my inbox for unprocessed notes.
Agenda – Includes a Work Journal for planning my day, as well as tracking events of the day.
Archive – At the end of the week, everything goes to the Archive.
The general flow in this structure:
All notes come in through Quick Notes.
Once processed, they move to the Agenda section.
At the end of the week, everything moves to the Archive section.
This simple structure ensures I am able to leverage the core benefit of OneNote – I can find my notes when I need them.
To see how this hierarchy has evolved over the last couple of years, compare this to the article OneNote Hierarchy.