OneNote

You’re likely to run across lots of information during your day. Much of it is disposable, but some you’ll probably need to refer to in the future. A lot of it might be useful someday, but you just don’t know right now. Given how easy it is to search digital information, and how cheap storage is these days, you may as well keep it. I’ve long experimented with “digital junk drawer” applications for this use. I’ve tried Evernote, Yojimbo, Google Keep, Apple Notes, and Org Mode for Emacs, but my favorite thus far is Microsoft’s OneNote.

I keep a lot of stuff in OneNote: clips from web pages, quotes from famous people, impressions from books I’ve read, ideas for future presentations, meeting minutes, half-formed thoughts, etc. OneNote provides easy means to clip snippets of information from web pages and other apps whether I’m on my Mac, iPhone, or iPad. This makes it possible for me to keep a central repository of things I’m learning as I go about my day. It all syncs through Microsoft’s cloud, so all three devices have the latest information on them.

But OneNote is more than just a scrapbook for me: It’s also where I keep my projects organized. Whenever I start a new project, I open a new notebook in OneNote devoted exclusively to it. OneNote notebooks can have “sections” in them. Most of my projects have at least two sections: “Notes” (random notes, including scribbles to myself) and “Meetings,” where I record meeting minutes. Some notebooks also have other sections, such as “Admin” and “Research.” I aim for consistency with the naming and color schemes I use to differentiate these subjects. This allows me to quickly make sense of what I’m looking at when I switch projects.

Whenever I have an idea I want to explore or am capturing notes from research or a meeting, I create a new page in OneNote. I do so either in the appropriate section in a notebook​ or in an “inbox” where I keep uncategorized notes. I mostly type these on my Mac, but I can also use the Apple Pencil on the iPad to sketch and write by hand. I can also photograph notes I’ve taken on paper using Microsoft’s fantastic Office Lens app, which scans and imports them to OneNote. Once there, the system allows me to search my handwritten notes. I can even do so on notebooks that I haven’t downloaded to my device, which comes in handy in small devices like the iPhone.

About once per week,​ I take an hour to keep OneNote tidy: I scan notes from my paper sketchbook and move the notes I’ve collected in the inbox to the appropriate notebooks in OneNote. (The ability to search handwritten notes makes this process relatively easy: I can find groups of notes on the same subject and move them as a block to the appropriate notebook.) Sometimes I also create a new notebook or retire an old one. (This means closing it in my computer. Remember, the notebooks still live in the cloud, where I can always search them.) These review sessions are important for making the system usable. As powerful as search is, I still find stuff faster if its archived in the right place.

I’ve written more about OneNote and how I use it here and here. I’m always surprised by how few people know about it, especially when compared to other applications in the Microsoft Office suite (such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.) It’s a fantastic system that has become central to my work and productivity.