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

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OneNote Bullet Journal template. Melanie Pinola

Even though there are tons of great mobile and desktop apps for tracking your to-dos, taking notes and setting goals, many of us prefer the tactile, more memorable experience of writing with a pen and paper. What the pen-and-paper approach lacks, however, are the convenient tagging, reminders and search capabilities of digital tools. Combine the best of the Bullet Journal paper method of note-taking with the digital powers of OneNote to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Bullet Journals

The Bullet Journal system is "for the list-makers, the note-takers, the Post-It note pilots, the track-keepers, and the dabbling doodlers." It's a way of organizing a paper notebook to capture—and quickly find—all the tasks, notes, events, and more so you can stay organized and be more productive. OneNote, because it is closest to looking and acting like a physical notebook, is ideal for this note-taking method. 

A few basics about the Bullet Journal system before we get started: 

  • On each page, you quickly jot down the information you're trying to capture. This is called "rapid logging."
  • Create an index page at the beginning of the notebook where you'll mark the page numbers for different topics (e.g., notes that deal with travel or your monthly task list). At the top of each page either write the date or the topic name. (The index page won't be used in our OneNote system, however.)
  • Pages can include tasks, notes and events.
  • For tasks, create a page of the current month's events (e.g., 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 checkbox to denote a task, a bullet for a regular note, an exclamation mark to note a great idea, an eye symbol for something to research and a star to mark an item as priority.

Applying the Bullet Journal discipline to OneNote is straightforward.

Download the OneNote Template Page 

Download the A4-sized page template from http://sdrv.ms/152giJe.

  • Download the page and double-click to open it in OneNote.
  • The date is in Spanish, but if you click the calendar to select the current date, it'll switch to English.
  • If you change any other settings/features (e.g., get rid of grid lines), click the arrow next to New Page then choose Templates. At the bottom, you can save the current page as a new template.
  • To set the template as the default, click the arrow next to New Page, go to Templates, and at the bottom use the drop-down box to select the default for this section.

The template uses an A4-sized small-squared page lines with landscape orientation and a division line. Ready for printing or for using it digitally.

Cheat tips are available near the title with shortcuts for the custom tags you should create. For example, the template shows which symbols to use to mark text as a task, note or event, as well as make them a priority, idea, etc.

Create Custom Tags

After you set this template as the default for your section, you should create custom tags that match the shortcuts (or change them to whatever you prefer, but you should use shortcuts). Click the Tags button on the ribbon in OneNote, then choose Customize tags to assign the shortcuts to the suggested icons.

Start Using the Template

With the template and the tags set up, you're ready to use OneNote as an electronic journal. 

Some suggestions for making the most of this tool include—

Topics + Entries: Use short one-line entries with the recommended notation (i.e., OneNote tags) to keep notes, events and tasks effectively sorted. If you add general entries, don't bother using the date as a title—OneNote does that automatically! This technqiue works great in tandem with Onetastic's OneCalendar tool, so you can check each day's notes with a minimum of clicks. If it's a specific topic, however, use the title space on the OneNote page—labeling the page will help when you're searching for these entries. When it grows into a complex topic (i.e. with many spreads, pages, etc.), consider creating a section with a distinct 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, however, organize your pages simply by dragging them in any order you like. You could even group them in subpages to avoid creating sections for topics somewhere between simple (one-page) and complex (one-section) ones. Another useful thing 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 Bullet Journal monthly calendar is best emulated by using Onetastic's OneCalendar tool. Combine it with OneNote's Tag Summary. To use the Tag Summary, click Find Tags and a Tags Summary pane appears. Daily calendar is also better achieved with Onetastic's OneCalendar tool.

Migration / Irrelevant: At the beginning of each month, check last month's task entries and migrate them to the new month's page and mark them as Migrated. This step will keep last 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 check past entries again, you realize that these entries will not reappear in the future because they lost meaning.

To keep a sense of hierarchy, you could also consider grouping your sections away into another OneNote notebook. Since OneNote searches through every opened book, you don't need to worry about losing track of entries in different notebooks. Just keep a main one (normally the default Personal Notebook) as your regular entry journal.

Closing Thoughts

OneNote is a powerful tool; pairing it with the Bullet Journal system is a smart way to use it for organizing your notes and schedule. One of the best parts of this system is you can combine OneNote with Outlook to get reminders for tasks and events. 

If you have a Windows tablet PC with a stylus, it gets even better, because 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.