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Note-taking, project management and staying organised with OneNote [WITH VIDEO TRAINING]

For a long time, I felt that I needed to be somewhat disorganised and under constant pressure to produce good creative work. Time and experience have shown me that this is not always the case – and as I managed to make better use of my time (and calendars!), I started to figure out the best ways of organising my work and study. But I’ve always been a person who takes notes heavily, even more so when I became a responsible adult because the age of the Internet has completed my transformation into a forgetful blue tang.

But if I have a list in front of me, or notes from the class, I’m sure I will remember. I’d have a pen and paper no matter where I am, or if I didn’t, I’d use whatever I have to capture the ideas (the back-of-the-napkin-or-receipt-notes are real, folks!) A couple of months back, I figured that having software that helps you manage your daily tasks can be a useful alternative, too, and I gradually switch my notebooks to it, a step at a time.

I know that the beginners might struggle with figuring out their method, especially when using completely new software – this is why I decided to show you how I make sure I use OneNote effectively. It works for me, but feel free to make it all yours! And believe me, there are some real benefits to switching from your trusty notepad. I’m a traditionalist – I just learn better when I make thousands of handwritten notes and diagrams, so it’d be tough to just drop the old habit. Fortunately, I don’t have to – I can use handwriting on most touch-enabled devices.

The obvious benefit is its versatility. OneNote automatically stores your notebooks in the cloud, which means that you’ll be able to have access to them on any device that’s connected to the Internet. Backup? Checked. (When at uni, I once lost a 1,500-word essay and I had to rewrite it ALL throughout the night before the deadline – dear Reader, I wouldn’t wish this stress on my worst enemy, so I promise you that it’s worth it to back anything and everything up every five minutes.) And if you digitise your existing notes with a small app called Office Lens, the software will try its best to make them searchable – if you’re like me, you probably have a few stacks of notebooks that you archive and can’t let go of, and that significantly minimises the effort. Because you’re able to tag your notes, it’s also super simple to find the contacts, links, or checklist elements that aren’t yet taken care of.

I also love the fact that it’s so easy to stay organised with OneNote. I’m studying at the moment, and if there’s one thing that I’m sure of is that I’ll never stop – so figuring out a plan to use the software and making sure that my notes are always with me and sorted in some sort of order is crucial. Not to mention the benefits when the topics you’re learning about intersect… For instance, I’ve got all my coursework typed down and linked neatly across a dedicated section of my notebook – when I prepare for the final assessment, I can always pull it out and present because I’ll be sure everything is filed neatly exactly where it belongs.

Not only that – it’s also environmentally friendly. If I can do something like this to go paperless and save some trees in Amazon rainforest with some resources that I already have, what should stop me?

Check out the comprehensive video tutorial that covers the basics and a few tips below. These OneNote tips and tricks should teach you the basics of using the software effectively and share a couple of useful techniques you can implement when you start using it. If you’d rather read it, scroll down for a quick overview. Enjoy!

Creating notebooks, sections and pages

Notebooks can be anything. You can separate them by any criteria you wish – although it’s good to take a quick look at what others are doing, make sure that the structure you choose to create suits your lifestyle first. You might decide to go for a personal notebook with a planner, some budgeting and to-do lists and a separate one for work that helps you to manage your projects and collect your thoughts. If you’re a student, it might be worth it to create a notebook solely dedicated to your study with sections for each module, and if you need to complete a dissertation, an additional one for your research could be a good idea. The sky is the limit!

Sections are smaller portions of the notebook that you can also group together with colour-coding. These are the equivalents of dividers in your traditional notebook – but you have no limit on how many you can create.

To create a notebook, click a little arrow in the top left corner of the section/page panel to show the notebooks, then click +Notebook in the bottom left corner of the window. A pop-up will ask you for a unique name for your new notebook.

Click + Section and +Page to add a section and a page, respectively. To colour-code a section, right-click it, move mouse over Section Colour, then pick a colour from the palette.

Notebooks can also be shared, which makes them a collaborative heaven. Just select Share in the top right corner (no 1 on the screenshot below), then type in the email addresses (2) and select the permissions – either to edit or to view (3).

Screenshot - sharing a OneNote notebook.

What’s even better, you can protect some sections with a password so if you share a notebook, you can still keep some section closed – just for yourself, or until you’re ready to open them to the rest of the group. Right-click a section that you want to protect, then select Password Protection and Add Password – the app will ask you for a password. Clicking on the lock that appeared next to it, you can toggle whether the protection is on or off.

OneNote password protection

Creating pages

Pages are your notes. They’re your blank canvas, and OneNote is capable of bringing it to life. You’ve got basic text formatting on your fingertips, and if you take a peek at the Insert tab, you’ll be able to see that it supports a few content types. You can insert tables, links, images, Office docs, PDF pages or even videos and Soundcloud/Spotify tracks. They’ll play directly from your note, as demonstrated in the video above. Attaching audio notes is also easy – talk about simple transcription, for example! Also, nothing stops you from adding stickers and GIFs from Giphy… just saying.

Insert tab in OneNote.
Insert tab in OneNote.

You’ll also notice the Researcher function – it’s brilliant when you’re assembling resources because it’ll remember the topics you used and help you to create bibliographies. And it helps you to look for credible websites and academic journals! Click on Researcher, then type a quote or a term in the search bar that’ll appear on the right-hand side, and off you go…

You can either type your notes or use handwriting to doodle away. The only problem I’ve ever faced was connected to taking notes as a film critic (because I constantly keep on scoffing at people to switch off their darn devices, and that’s why I’m not about to pull out a screen that glows in everyone’s faces…) but digitisation comes in handy here. Write in a special notebook that allows you to easily erase your notes, then scan it with Office Lens and wipe out the notes. A reusable notebook costs just as much as two fancy Moleskines (come on now, I’m a writer, I know what a stationery addiction is…), or five traditional notebooks, so it really checks out!

Got a few related pages within a section? Group them in a subsection for easier display. Right-click the note you want to make a subpage, then select Make Subpage.

Tagging and search features

OneNote is fantastic at making sure you’ll always find everything that you need (your handwriting included, depending on how “standard” it is). Its search features are simple but if you come up with a system that helps you find your stuff, it makes all the difference. To boost the search function, learn to use tags – they will make your notes thoroughly labelled!

Firstly, let’s create a checklist with OneNote. To do that, type in your task, then go to Home tab and click the drop-down next to the checklist icon. Then, select a tag – for us, it’s a To Do – see a screenshot below. That’ll add a little checkbox to your tag that you can also tick to indicate completion.

OneNote has a handful predefined tags (i.e. Critical/Question, see highlight 2 below) but you can easily create your own. Just select Create New Tag (3) at the bottom of the dropdown menu, then give it a name and select an icon in the panel that’ll appear on the right. Voila! You can now use your custom-made tags!

Why is it so useful, you ask? Now, if we click the search icon or use CTRL + F shortcut, we’ll be able to search not only by typing a keyword but also by the tag. When you type To Do or any other tag name into the box (screenshot below, number 1) you’ll be able to see all instances of the tag throughout your notebook, section or page. You can also use some of your most-used tags (number 2).

Type in a search term or use a tag in your search.
You can apply your search results to a notebook, section, or page.

A good thing to consider is to also add a keywords section at the bottom of each note – spend an extra minute on adding these and you’ll be able to find your notes in no time. Just click anywhere on the page, type Keywords: with any formatting you wish (you can make these match the colour of the background to make them invisible if you so wish…) and add a couple of keywords that describe your note best.

My sample keywords template, including deadline/contact custom tags.

Other than that, you can link from one note to another. Not only does it help you to quickly jump between pages, but you can even make your own table of contents – I used this for my coursework, for example. You can create a note that serves as your TOC, then copy the links to each page related to the topic (to do that, right-click the page and select Copy Link To Page) and paste the link you’ve just copied them into the first page.

Sample TOC with descriptive categories and links to notes will also help you find the information quicker. Also, yes, this sticker seems to use Comic Sans and I’m not sure if we can do anything about it.

Creating notes quicker – page templates

To make sure you’re not retyping the same info over and over – i.e. while creating that checklist or a daily planner – you might want to set up a few templates. I recommend creating a brand new section, then creating all pages that will be your templates inside it – see the screenshot below. Create a section as normal, then create pages within it – the only difference is that what you’re putting on the page will be a template to copy and create new notes from. Feel free to use tags to make it even simpler!

After you’ve created your templates, you can start using them right away. Right-click the page, then select Move/Copy and pick a destination section from the pop-up. Click Copy button at the bottom of the pop-up. If you navigate to the section you chose now, you’ll be able to see your template copied. Change the title and fill in the details – you’ve just saved yourself some time!

Making use of OneNote Web Clipper

Want to be able to save articles or bookmarks to your notebook directly to your browser? Worry not, OneNote has you covered. Just install a browser extension called OneNote Web Clipper – it’s available for all major browsers. Its official Microsoft page will detect your browser and help to install it. When you’re done, a small OneNote icon will appear on your toolbar.

If you click it, you’ll get four options to save the current page.

  • Full Page – this option will allow you to save a full screenshot of the page; it comes in handy when you don’t want to copy anything from the article after the fact, just save it for later; also useful if you need to save a receipt/proof of purchase/transaction number/etc.;
  • Region – it’ll allow you to drag-and-drop over a page fragment you want to save;
  • Article – it’ll save the entire article as an editable note – you’ll be able to copy from it easily, make highlights, as well as change the font size or type – it’s my choice in most cases;
  • Bookmark – saves page title and link in a separate note so that you can access it later.

Select an option that’s the most appropriate for your case, then pick a destination section from the drop-down and click Clip. Now, if you navigate back to your notebook, the content you saved should be filed away.

Got more OneNote tips? Share them in the comments below, and feel free to ask questions!

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