Stay Organized with Microsoft OneNote

Office OneNote 2010
Office OneNote 2010. Screenshot © Microsoft

An Ideal Tool for Students and Pros to Stay Organized: Microsoft OneNote is an excellent tool for organizing both personal and professional information. It's a digital version of a tabbed binder or multi-subject notebook that allows you to capture Web information, make notes (handwritten or text), and collaborate with others much as you can with a whiteboard.

From Niche Program to New Essential App: Despite its robust and unique features, however, OneNote hasn't really caught on yet as the organizational powerhouse it can be.

It's been mainly targeted towards students (fitting because of the notebook interface) and tablet PC users (due to its excellent handwriting recognition support); the general public, however, may be unaware of OneNote's potential, much like they were with the long-abandoned Microsoft Binder application which was also designed to consolidate different types of information. With the inclusion of OneNote into the Microsoft Office family, starting with Office 2010, however, this may (hopefully) change -- professionals and home users, as well as students, may now find OneNote an essential tool they didn't know they needed.

The OneNote System

OneNote is a great information management tool because it provides a centralized place for all kinds of data: typed or handwritten notes, Web pages, images, video, and audio. The interface, though unique, is conducive to planning or creating reference materials; if you've ever used a tabbed binder before, it's also pretty intuitive:

OneNote has several advantages over paper-based systems in that you can tag and search for information across notebooks (even search in handwritten notes and mathematical equations!), collaborate with others on a notebook page, and easily rearrange pages. As a capture tool, it's similar to Evernote, but OneNote's more familiar notebook-like user interface and compatibility with other Office programs make it a more robust organizational tool.

  • Notebooks: Each OneNote notebook is a separate file that can contain all your pages relating to a broad subject such as "Work Projects" or "U.S. History" or "Home Improvement".
  • Sections: Within each notebook, you have tabbed sections to group information like "Meetings" or "Assignments" or "Stuff to Buy".
  • Pages: Within each section, you can add pages for individual items like "12/1 meeting with Jeff" or "Research on the Civil War and Literature" or "List of kitchen gadgets to buy".

Helpful Organizational Features in OneNote

Here are some of the cool features OneNote offers to help you stay organized (or at least capture and manage your information):

  • Use context menus to send information to a OneNote page from Internet Explorer or Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. For example, you can highlight contact information on a website and send it to OneNote for future reference -- you can even flag it to be reminded in the future to call that contact.
  • Type quick notes from the taskbar using the "New Side Note" feature -- kind of like a little notepad that pops up to capture those random ideas that are so easily lost if not written down.
  • Create task lists or calendar events that sync with Outlook.
  • Embed links to other Office files and create notes about them. You can create an index, for example, of project-related files.
  • Share your notebook with others and show each collaborator's input. Add an image, for example, of the latest design concept and get feedback directly on that page.
  • Access your notebook (in limited format) online via Office Web Apps or on your Windows Mobile phone.

Types of OneNote Notebooks

The nice thing about OneNote is its flexibility. You can create as many notebooks as you may need and organize them however you wish -- the way you would organize a typical physical notebook. You can create a notebook for general work needs, for example, with sections for meetings, reference materials, forms, etc.

You can also have separate notebooks per client and sections within those notebooks for individual projects. Personal notebooks like travel plans or recipes are also ideal for OneNote because you can group pages into sections for "Disney," for example, or "Fish".

OneNote Organizer: If you're a fan of the Getting Things Done or another productivity system, you can also use a OneNote notebook as a basic planner or organizer: Set up a "GTD" notebook, for example, and create a section for each of your lists (Action lists, Someday/Maybe, Waiting, etc.), and within these sections you can add pages for each individual item.

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