How to Use OneNote as a Task Manager, Notepad, and Journal

Make a bullet journal in OneNote

There are many excellent mobile and desktop apps for tracking to-dos, taking notes, and setting goals. Still, many of us prefer pen and paper. What the pen and paper approach lacks is convenient tagging, reminders, and search capabilities of digital tools. Combine the bullet journal paper method of note-taking with the digital powers of OneNote to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Instructions in this article apply to OneNote for Microsoft 365, OneNote 2019, OneNote 2016, and OneNote for Windows 10.

OneNote bullet journal

Bullet Journals

Bullter journals organize a paper notebook to capture and quickly find tasks, notes, events, and more so that you can stay structured and be more productive. OneNote is ideal for this note-taking method because it's the closest to looking and acting like a physical notebook.

A few basics about the Bullet Journal system:

  • On each page, you quickly jot down the information you're trying to capture, which is called rapid logging.
  • Pages can include tasks, notes, and events.
  • For tasks, create a page of the current month's events (for example, meetings or birthdays) and another page for the month's to-dos. After those pages, create a daily calendar, moving your tasks from the month list to the current date.
  • Use a check box to denote a task, a bullet for a regular note, an exclamation mark to note a great idea, an eye symbol for research, and a star to mark an item as a priority.
  • Bullet journals have an index page at the beginning of the notebook where you mark the page numbers for different topics. You don't need to create an index page in OneNote, as the program does the work for you.

Create a OneNote Bullet Journal

Applying the bullet journal discipline to OneNote requires a bit of setup.

  1. Open OneNote.

  2. Go to the View tab.

    The View menu in OneNote
  3. In the Page Setup group, select Paper Size.

    The Paper Size option in OneNote
  4. In the Paper Size pane that opens on the left, select the Size drop-down menu, and choose A4.

    Size menu and A4 option
  5. Change the sizes in the Print Margins section if desired, then select Save current page as a template to make it the default paper size.

    The "Save current page as a template" option
  6. Enter a name for the template, select Set as default template for new pages in the current section, then choose Save.

    Save as a Template dialog box
  7. Select to File > Print > Print Preview.

    Print Preview in OneNote
  8. Select Scale content to paper width and choose Close.

    The "Scale content to paper width" option
  9. After you set this template as the default for the section, create custom tags that match the shortcuts (or change the tags to whatever you prefer). Go to the Home tab.

    The Home tab in OneNote
  10. In the Tags group, select the More arrow next to the Tags box.

    The More button in the Tags section
  11. Select Customize Tags at the bottom of the list.

    The Customize Tags option
  12. Choose the tag you want to change and select Modify Tag.

    The Modify Tag button
  13. Make any desired changes to the tag's display name, symbol, font color, or highlight color, and then select OK. Repeat for any other customizations you wish to make.

    Modify Tag dialog box

Get the Most Out of Your Bullet Journal

With the template and the tags set up, you're ready to use OneNote as an electronic journal. Here are a few suggestions for making the most of this tool.

Topics and Entries

Use short one-line entries with the recommended notation (the OneNote tags) to keep notes, events, and tasks effectively sorted. If you add general entries, don't use the date as a title because OneNote does that automatically. This technique works great in tandem with the Onetastic OneCalendar add-in so that you can check each day's notes with a minimum of clicks.

However, if it's a specific topic, use the title space on the OneNote page. Labeling the page will help when you search for these entries. When it grows into a complex topic (for example, with many spreads or pages), consider creating a section with a different name.

Page Numbers and Sorting

Page numbers are mostly irrelevant if you use OneNote because it's powerful search (Ctrl+E) does the sorting for you.

You can organize your pages by dragging pages in any order you like. You could group pages in subpages to avoid creating sections for topics somewhere between simple (one-page) and complex (one-section) ones.

Another useful feature is using OneNote's internal hyperlinks. Right-click any entry and copy the link to it. Then, right-click and link (or press Ctrl+K) anywhere else and paste it.

Monthly, Weekly, and Daily Calendars

The best way to emulate a Bullet Journal monthly or daily calendar is to use the Onetastic OneCalendar tool. Combine it with the OneNote Tag Summary. To use the Tag Summary, go to the Home tab and, in the Tags group, select Find Tags. A Tags Summary pane appears.

The Find Tags button

Migration or Irrelevant

At the beginning of each month, check last month's task entries, migrate tasks to the new month's page, and mark those tasks as Migrated. This step keeps the previous month's entries accounted for, so you know you didn't leave anything behind. If any task is not relevant anymore, tag it so. This way, when you recheck past entries, you realize that these entries will not reappear in the future because the entries lost meaning.

To keep a sense of hierarchy, consider grouping sections into another OneNote notebook. Since OneNote searches through every open book, you won't lose track of entries in different notebooks. Keep the main one (usually the default Personal Notebook) as your regular entry journal.

Go Further With OneNote

OneNote is a powerful tool. Pairing it with the Bullet Journal system is a smart way to organize your notes and schedule. One of the best parts of this system is combining OneNote with Outlook to get reminders for tasks and events.

It's even better if you have a Windows tablet PC with a stylus as you can write in your OneNote notebook just like you would with a paper one—only with the advantages of search, tagging, syncing across devices, handwriting recognition, and similar benefits.

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