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

Make a bullet journal in OneNote

There are tons of excellent mobile and desktop apps for tracking your to-dos, taking notes, and setting goals, but 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 best of 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.

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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. 

Because it's closest to looking and acting like a physical notebook, OneNote is ideal for this note-taking method. 

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 (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 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. Select the View tab.

    View tab in OneNote
  3. Select Paper Size in the Page Setup group.

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

    A4 in Paper Size menu
  5. Change the sizes in the Print Margins section if desired and choose Save Current Page as a Template to make it your default paper size.

    Set current page as a template link in Paper Size pane.
  6. Enter a name for the template, select Set as default template for new pages in the current section, and choose Save.

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

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

    Scale content to width in OneNote Print Settings
  9. After you set this template as the default for your section, create custom tags that match the shortcuts (or change them to whatever you prefer). Select the Home tab.

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

    More arrow next to the Tags box
  11. Select Customize Tags at the bottom of the list.

    Customize Tags in OneNote
  12. Select the tag you want to change and choose Modify Tag.

    Customize Tags dialog box
  13. Make any desired changes to the tag's display name, symbol, font color, or highlight color and select OK. Repeat for any other customizations you wish to make.

    Modify Tag dialog box

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 technique works great in tandem with Onetastic's 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'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 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 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 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 by using Onetastic's OneCalendar tool. Combine it with OneNote's Tag Summary. To use the Tag Summary, select Find Tags in the Tags group of the Home tab and a Tags Summary pane appears.

Tags Summary in OneNote

Migration / Irrelevant: At the beginning of each month, check last month's task entries, migrate them to the new month's page, and mark them as Migrated. This step will keep 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 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 open book, you don't need to worry about losing track of entries in different notebooks. Just keep the main one (usually the default Personal Notebook) as your regular entry journal.

OneNote is a powerful tool; pairing it with the Bullet Journal system is smart 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.