In this post, I will share how I use OneNote to stay organized, manage a team, keep track of their tasks and assignements, and get things done meticulously even during hectic work hours, full of interruptions.
All it takes is a customized template, and OneNote’ task summary feature.
This technique doesn’t require any other program, avoiding the complexity or redundancy involved with other tandem-solutions (OneNote + Outlook ; OneNote + Microsoft Todo ; OneNote + Wunderlist ; OneNote + Todoist…) : while I am enticed with those more sophisticated solutions (I have tried really hard some of them, believe me !), they definitely don’t work for me.
To get started, watch my video which will walk you through my workflow.
After watching, you may be willing to come back here, and read some additional considerations below, and share your experience in the comment section.
Frequently asked questions :
Does it work in OneNote UWP ?
Yes it does !
Although you need to design your template in OneNote desktop first.
All the features shown in the video will work the same in OneNote UWP, except Linked notes. The task summary feature (described below) isn’t available in OneNote UWP neither.
Why striking out the initials of the Owner, when an action is completed ?
When you search for a text (in my case, the initials of a team member I will meet with or phone to), OneNote highlights the text string found in yellow.
So I have no way to quickly know if the action is still pending (highlighted in yellow if in progress, or not highlighted if not yet started), or not anymore (initials highlighted in green).
The solution I have come up with is to strike out the initials, in addition to highlighting them in green : then, I can benefit from a clear visual signal when scanning my notes manually (Ctrl Pg Up / Pg Down), and a more subtle but still effective way to avoid confusion when scanning my notes with the search feature.
Highlighting must be done after striking out (otherwise you lose your selection).
Why not using “Outlook task” indicators ?
A good task management system should handle :
- Responsible to execute the action
- Due date & Priority
- Status of the action (completed, in progress…)
- A convenient and flexible way to get a summary (with the possibility to sort them)
- A mean of communication (two ways) with the Responsible of the action
Outlook does exactly that, so if it’s your mail program, why not simply use it ?
① When you use Custom Task (Ctrl-Maj-K), an Outlook pop-up prompts you to fill in the Due date, interrupting your workflow ; but worse : if you select other flags (such as today, tomorrow, this week, next week), the task is automatically created in Outlook, with its corresponding Due date, without letting you the chance to inform it’s Owner… You should then remember to do it, and go back and forth in Outlook before moving to another task
② If you update the task’ Description in OneNote, it won’t update Outlook… It’s the same for the Due Date (and Owner), which are duplicated in OneNote & Outlook – but not linked – so any change in one program won’t be reflected in the other.
That’s an issue for me, because I use to switch the Owner to reflect the progress of an action. Imagine I need to book a meeting with a customer :
- At the beginning, I’m the Owner of the action, because I need to find a date in my agenda, and propose this date to my customer
- Once done, my customer’ assistant become the Owner, because I wait for him/her to confirm the date that suits her boss
- Then, my assistant becomes the Owner, because I may ask him/her to organize my trip there
- And so on…
③ I need not only a short description of the action, but also its context : OneNote helps me to get precisely that, either just below the task description, or through hyperlinks to e-mails (stored in OneNote), url, files or other notes ;
④ It’s not easy to re-arrange the order of the tasks’ list in Outlook : basically you can sort by any column (due date, status, category…) but not manually ;
⑤ Last but not least, Outlook is a bit overwelming so I prefer to stay in OneNote, as far as task management is concerned !
Long story short : staying in OneNote avoid duplication (with the underlying risk of discrepancy) & keep it simple.
OK, so you don’t use Outlook tasks that offers a consolidated view of tasks, so how do you get a task summary then ?
Well, I use the flag (indicators) summary within OneNote desktop.
I suggest you set up some custom indicators, for the people you interact with most.
Then, you may run a “Find tasks” in the Home menu, to get a summary of all pending actions categorized by team members (or else).
Please note :
- that the task summary don’t fit well with the proposed template (the first category of flag goes inside the table, while the remaining goes below the table…), so you should run it from a blank section ;
- that if you tick a box in the summary, it won’t tick the corresponding one in the original note :
- that if you combine several flags for an action (such as “Todo by me” and “Important”), the summary will show them twice (once under each category) ;
- that the flag summary is meant to be short-lived : if you generate a summary without erasing the previous one, you will get all actions twice.
Setting these awkward behavior apart, this solution is great because of it’s simplicity :
- you can reorder the actions in the summary simply by dragging – dropping each line using the chevron on the left of each line ;
- you can instantly access the context of the action, hitting the tiny OneNote’ logo on the left of each task (linked notes).
I also suggest to move the Tag summary to a “mobile” notebook (a notebook opened in your smartphone) : this way you have your Todo list available when travelling, and you avoid duplication if you run the Tag summary twice.
Why keeping a spare “blank” section ?
Even if most of your notes will use the A4-three columns template, you may still want to add some blank pages, and benefit from the “unlimited” format.
Thus, it’s convenient to have a section with no template, close to your main section, where you can Add a new page, and easily drag and drop it back to your main section.
Also, if you use the Flag summary, and its underlying Linked note feature, you will notice that the Back button (in a Quick Access Toolbar) won’t lead you back to the summary after hitting the tiny OneNote logo on the left of the action : Having a “Blank” section next to your main section makes it easy to go back and forth between the summary, and the original notes you may consult for context.
You say one row per task is better, but you put more than one in your video !?
① Well, I’m human, so I’m highly flexible and… full of contradictions !
② It’s also a matter of preference : consider both ways :
- Pros : more structured (indented), easier to read
- Cons : you can’t use the paragraph handle to switch the order of two micro-tasks. Doing it manually requires 3 copy-paste (one for each field : Description, Owner and Due date)…
- Pros : easy to switch their order
- Cons : micro-tasks are not indented, leading to a less legible report. Plus, if you want to move one macro-task (aka its header and all micro-tasks below), it’s a little bit more complicated, since you need to select the corresponding rows first, and use the paragraph handle then.
Why A4 ?
A4 (or Letter) is convenient to print (directly, or after exporting to PDF).
Nevertheless, you may still write outside the A4 page, if you change your mind, or want to add some sides notes.
How to design your own ?
In OneNote desktop :
- Add a new page
- Select A4 format (View>Paper Size)
- Add a 3 columns table, and set the right size for the “Responsible” & Due Date columns (type sample initials and date to get enough width)
- Add gridlines (View>Rule lines)
- Select Align to grid (Draw>Shapes>Snap to grid)
- Draw two vertical lines, aligned with the table’s borders
- Draw one horizontal line
- Add a text container, and type “Resp. Date”
- Remove gridlines (View>Rule lines)
- Capture (with Snip or else) the lines and header, as an image
- Add a new page
- Select A4 format (View>Paper Size)
- Add a 3 columns table
- Paste your image
- Move it to right location, and adjust the size if necessary
- Set it as a background image (right click, Set as Background)
- Set this page as your template (Insert>Page Template>Page Template>Save current page as template>give it a name)