Sharpening the Saw: OneNote

ImageAll the way back in February I made a commitment to explore new tools in support of my professional development. This was inspired by a post by Jane Hart, social learning and collaboration expert. In my post, I pledged that the first tool I would discuss would be OneNote, and then we’d see where I’d go from there.

On Jane Hart’s Top 100 Tools, she briefly describes OneNote(along with EverNote) as a “note-taking tool.” I’d challenge that description as a bit confining – OneNote has a variety of uses that extend beyond note taking. Notepad is a note taking tool. OneNote easily serves more as a curation resource.

Let’s start with the basics:

Remember your TrapperKeeper back in high school? The one that you used to carry your class notebooks, and homework assignments, and notes, and pictures, and all that other stuff necessary to survival in high school? That’s OneNote.

Yes, you can take notes on it. But you can also store emails in that notebook. Or documents, Or images, including web screenshots and PowerPoint slides. Anything. In one place.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Different Nooks in the Iceberg:



The Move to OneNote button in Outlook 2010.

Our company is heavily invested in email as its primary source of communication. So much so that several of us frequently max out our email server quota. There are ways to manage this, of course, but those ways frequently cause me to spend more time searching for the emails that I need than I’d like.

“Is it in my archives? No? Did I put it in the wrong folder? Maybe I’m looking for the wrong subject.”

OneNote has a convenient button in the Outlook Ribbon. Press it, and your email goes to the Notebook/Section Group/Section of your choosing.  Attachments will go with the email, openable from OneNote. PLUS, you can then change the title of the page on which the email is located to better find your notes after the fact. PLUS, you can type any of your notes to the page holding the email to add context.



From the OneNote 2010 Home menu, you can opt to insert Meeting Details into your OneNote page.

Once upon a time, I had tried to use Outlook as a central location for many of my notes. It made sense: I’m in there a LOT.

I attempted to keep my meeting notes in Outlook: for a brief moment, attached to the details of the meeting; for another brief moment, within a Journal entry that corresponded to the meeting time. Both methods required that I search for these notes later, and remember how and when I had stored them. “When was that meeting again?” became a tough question to answer with my meeting-packed schedule, especially since Outlook pulls old meetings off my active calendar after they’re done.  Now, I keep my meeting notes in OneNote.

OneNote allows you to insert the meeting details from your Outlook Calendar to provide context to the notes. I merely create a page for the meeting, placed in the appropriate notebook section, and select “Insert Meeting Notes.”  The meeting subject, date and location, and invited attendees will be inserted on the OneNote page.  If your Outlook Calendar has the meeting agenda included in the details, or some talking points to address, those will be included as well.

Things To Do:


You can sort OneNote notes into to-do lists, question lists, even Outlook tasks by selecting a (fairly) descriptive statement, and then clicking a tag.

I do a lot of project-based work. I’ve tried to use Microsoft Project to keep organized and set schedules, but I’m rarely successful. Again, it’s a matter of where the information lies for me. I can make a list, I can check it twice, but all the other stuff I need to be successful lies scattered in Outlook.

I tend to use tasks in Outlook to keep on top of the things I need to do. However, those aren’t necessarily project-based. (Yes, I do use the Categories feature, and that mitigates some of my  issues, but not all.)

Since I’ve already got a OneNote Notebook section set up to hold my project emails and meeting notes, it becomes an easy task to create a front page that lists all the tasks I need to associate with that project. I can then:

  • Create a checklist  using the To Do tags.
  • Mark items as important using the Star tags.
  • Indicate a item I have a question about using the Question Mark tag.
  • Use the “Insert Outlook Tasks” feature, which will place that task in my Outlook with a link to the OneNote page.

A caveat to this feature: I still need to be rather thorough in describing what I’m tagging. Let’s use the Outlook Tasks feature as an example: because it will appear in my Outlook, I’ll want to be sure that when I look at the task, it doesn’t make me scratch my head and wonder what I’m supposed to do (The details don’t transfer from OneNote to Outlook.). An example of what I mean: one of the first tasks I created in OneNote was: “Step One.” It made sense in the context of the page, because the page contained SO many more details and links, but it made little sense within Outlook.

Other stuff:

OneNote provides other tools for you, and suggestions on how to use them.

  • You can store audio clips in your notebooks. You can even record a meeting in OneNote using your laptop microphone.
  • You can send PowerPoint slides to a notebook, and annotate them. Useful for presentation reviews.
  • I mentioned screenshot clipping – that’s a nice feature that many of the MS Office programs have. If you haven’t used that, try it out!  However, OneNote works with Internet Explorer to allow you to select content from a web page and send it to a notebook.
    There’s a lot going against IE, and I do tend to use Chrome, but this feature enhances IE’s usability.
  • I  mentioned that I create a front page to list the tasks for a project. I can also create links on that front page to other pages in my Notebook – sort of a cross-referencing tool.
  • I haven’t used the SideNote feature yet, which opens OneNote in a side window to capture notes while you’re reviewing content in another program. As an instructional designer, however, I can see how this could be useful in the Analysis or Evaluation phases.


Frankly, there appears to be a lot that you can do with OneNote, and with each new discovery I find I’ve only scratched the surface of how much more I can do. I’m currently in the process of adopting OneNote as my central source for the information I need to do my job. I’m able to store my notebook on the network, and sync it to my computer’s hard drive. I’m able to reduce my “Outlook footprint” and hopefully the amount of time I search for notes and information buried within the emails I receive. I’m able to keep task lists and meeting notes close to other information surrounding the topics.

Ultimately, it’s all about collating the information I need in one space. For that, OneNote seems to fit the bill.


Footnote: Yes, there’s a plethora of other cloud-based note-taking software available. I mentioned EverNote at the beginning of this post. I’ll post in a little bit about why I’ve decided to cancel my EverNote account and stick with OneNote, and why I’ve retained my SpringPad account.

One thought on “Sharpening the Saw: OneNote

  1. Ree Klein says:

    Hi Paul,

    This was a nice overview of OneNote. I’ve been considering this as a tool for my work. Nice blog!

    Ree ~ I blog at

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