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OneNote GTD: Productivity with Freeform Notes

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You've likely heard of Getting Things Done or GTD, the productivity methodology popularized by David Allen's book with the same name. In it, he outlines five phases of achieving stress-free productivity, by collecting information, then processing and doing the things you need to do. That, in a nutshell, is the GTD system.

The GTD system helps you not just to sort through everything you need to do, but also to prioritize them, so it will be more automatic to do tasks requiring immediate attention before you do tasks that aren't pressing. There's tons of apps to help you work this way, from the popular OmniFocus to simpler tools like Wunderlist, but Microsoft's free-form notebook app OneNote can also be a great GTD tool.

OneNote will help you keep track of different types of information, such as researching products you need to buy, storing info on items you already bought, web sites you need to spend time on, articles you need to read, meeting notes you need to keep and refer to, and of course, images and audio for any of this. It's flexible enough to let you work using the GTD methodology in the way you want, and in this tutorial, I'll show you how to turn OneNote into the ultimate tool to help you get things done.

Screencast

Organizing with Sections, Pages and Section Groups

In OneNote, create either a new notebook or a new section group in an existing notebook. (For the purpose of this tutorial, I created a new notebook.) Create a row of tabs – what OneNote calls Sections – with the following names:

  • Collection
  • Current
  • Review
  • Someday – Maybe
  • Archive

Also create a section group called Reference (discussed in more detail below). If you’re new to the 2013 or Mac versions of OneNote, you might wonder where the button is to create a section group. There isn’t one! To create a section group, right-click a blank spot next to the row of tabs and choose New Section Group from the popup menu. (See below.)

Your notebook should now look like this:

main onenote screen
In OneNote 2013, right-click a blank spot next to the row of tabs to create a new section group

Collection Tab

The Collection tab is a triage area for collecting all information: it’s where you send items that either get immediate attention or that you’ll deal with later. You don’t want to keep items in this tab, because it’s just a first stop. Every day or two, empty it out by moving items to other tabs.

Current Tab

The Current tab is for projects that you’re doing now. Inside this tab, create main pages and sub-pages as you need. One thing that’s nice about OneNote is that not only can a main page have sub-pages, but you can collapse and expand the sub-pages by clicking the small down arrow on the right side of the main page. The Current tab of my notebook looks like this: 

set of pages and sub-pages
You can have pages nested under top-level pages, and selectively collapse sub-pages

Also if you’re using the 2013 or Mac versions of OneNote, creating sub-pages is another hidden feature. To add a sub-page of the currently selected page, press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-N (Windows) or Command-Option-Shift-N (Mac).

Review Tab

The Review tab is for items that you need to read, watch, listen to or think about. They could be books, articles, web pages, notes from meetings or phone calls, and so on. Eventually, you might want to move these items into the reference section (see below). On my computer, this is the Review tab.

the Review tab
OneNote automatically creates links from web addresses

Someday-Maybe

There are some items you’ll want to think about for a later time frame. These are tasks or ideas that aren’t critical, and you might or might not do them. Rather than clogging up your active, important sections, put these items into the Someday-Maybe section. On my computer, it looks like this:

the someday-maybe tab
OneNote doesn't allow slashes in tab names, so I called this "Someday-Maybe" instead of "Someday/Maybe".

Archive

After you’ve completed a task or a project, you don’t want it taking up space in your ongoing activities, but you probably don’t want to delete it, either. You might want to see the items, later. For that, you have the Archive tab.

In my notebook, I use it to store information on purchases that I’ve made. If I need to buy another one or need to return something, I have all the information right there. It also makes it easier if you need to itemize purchases at tax time.

For purchases that you make online, this is simple, because you can copy receipts from web pages and confirmation emails directly into OneNote. For items that you buy in person, it means taking the extra step of scanning receipts, operating your scanner with the Scanned Images button on the Insert tab. On my computer, the Archive tab looks like this:

the archive tab
You can scan documents directly into OneNote

The Reference Tab Group

Since OneNote mimics a notebook, what it does best is collect and hold on to many pieces of information indefinitely. That’s why I suggest creating a whole section group for References (see the first screen shot, above).

What you put in the References section is up to you, but here’s how I organize it. I have one tab for miscellaneous technical notes that’s divided into info on hardware issues, and issues for software. There’s another tab for web sites I want to make note of.

Since I do WordPress development, I have a tab that has general info and code snippets for WordPress that I can re-use. There’s another tab for code snippets of other languages, like JavaScript and PHP. And I also have tabs to keep info for software applications that I teach.

So my Reference tab group looks like this:

the row of tabs in the reference group
A section group is a collection of tabs nested inside the main section. You can even have section groups inside of section groups.

Examples of GTD in Action

Here are three examples of capturing data, then sending them on their way.

Entering Text and Graphics Directly

I already have a page that I created, with a title of Business Improvement meeting notes. In this page are sample notes that I typed, and a picture that goes with the notes. This is for an ongoing series of meetings and discussions. I might even tag it as Important.

typed meeting notes and a picture
Typical page of typed text and an inserted image

Data Copied from a Web Site

Let’s say we want a good set of keyboard shortcuts to use on a Mac in OS X, so we’ll go to this page on Apple’s Web site:

http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1343

Select everything on the page, then copy to the clipboard (Ctrl-C in Windows or Command-C on the Mac).

Switch to OneNote, create a new page, and give it a title of OSX Keyboard Shortcuts. (Or don’t give it a title, and copy-and-paste from the web page.) Click in the page, then paste (Ctrl-V in Windows or Command-V on the Mac). The screen will now look like this:

pasted web page of OS X shortcuts
When you paste text and images from a web page, OneNote usually keeps the formatting. The 2013 version does the best job of it, including from browsers other than Internet Explorer.

Note that at the time of this writing, the Mac version of OneNote is new, and doesn’t fully support formatting from web pages. So when you paste, you’ll get the text, but links may get removed, and images won’t come in at all. But formatting, links and images that you collect and create in the Windows version will get synced properly onto the Mac.

Alternately, you can install the OneNote Web Clipper into your browser, and save an entire page to your OneNote notebook in one step.

Info Sent from Outlook

Another way to collect info is to send it directly from Outlook. (Note: only the Windows version has this feature.) Go into Outlook and open a message that you want to store in OneNote. On the ribbon bar, click the button for Send to OneNote.

sending an email from Outlook into OneNote
The Send to OneNote button might be bigger on your computer

In the Select Location dialog that appears, choose your Collection tab, then click OK.

choosing which tab to send the email message
You can insert an e-mail message into any section of any notebook that's open

OneNote pops up, and the e-mail becomes a new page.

onenote with email message inserted
When you send an e-mail message to OneNote, it becomes a new page, with the header formatted as a table

Processing the Information

Now that we’ve collected information and created an organizing structure, let’s process what we collected. Depending on the data you collected, where you process the items may be different, but this will give you an idea.

The e-mail about Welcome to Your iPad Air is something that I don’t need to pay attention to right away, but it’s something I want to look at later, when I have time. So I’ll right-click the page title in the Navigation bar, and select Move or Copy. In the dialog that appears, I’ll select the Review tab, then click OK.

move and copy options for pages
Similar to e-mails, you can move any page into any section of any open notebook

I’ll do the same Move procedure with the OS X Keyboard Shortcuts page. This belongs in the Reference section group, inside Tech Notes. If I find that I have a lot of notes related to OS X, I might create a new tab just for them.

Finally, I’ll move the page of meeting notes into the Current section. Rather than using the Move dialog box, I’ll drag the page onto the Current tab and hold my finger down on the mouse button for one or two seconds until OneNote switches to the tab. Then I’ll let go of the mouse button, and the page gets deposited there.

Conclusion

The Getting Things Done system is an effective framework for keeping on top of your information, so you can set priorities and work with them. And it’s flexible, because each of us works in a slightly different way. OneNote is flexible, too, so if you discover that you want to restructure your notebook —maybe you need a whole section for something, rather than just a page—you can change it around at any time. Use it however it’s most comfortable for you.

Give it a try, and feel free to share what combination of notes, notebooks, tags and more makes the perfect OneNote GTD system for you. Or, if you'd like to try something different, be sure to check out our tutorial on how to turn an outline app into a GTD system.

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