How should I organize my notebooks in OneNote?

One of the most common complaints I hear with OneNote is the challenge people have in getting it organized.  Now, I know that seems counter-intuitive for an application designed around organizing information, but this is a case of flexibility being a foil rather than a feature.

When setting up OneNote one of the earliest things you need to grasp is the differences between notebooks, sections, and pages.  (Yes there are section groups as well but let’s leave those out for now.) Feedback number one I hear is, “How do I organize my notebooks?” If there were only an easy answer.

The notebook metaphor is a good one in OneNote because it’s connected to a physical construct making understanding its purpose fairly easy. Unfortunately understanding what a notebook is doesn’t address how best to use it. When creating notebooks in OneNote it’s easy to wind up with a bookshelf full of notebooks and no clear way to keep things straight.

This is a good time to address the one notebook / multiple notebook kerfuffle. For some, the management of all their information in one notebook makes clear, simplified sense. For others, why would you be able to create multiple notebooks if you weren’t supposed to use them?

Strategically I ask people answer a few questions before deciding how they want to proceed:

  • Do you want to share the notebook with other people who would have no interest in some of the content of the notebook

  • Is your notebook likely to become extremely large with file attachments or other content

  • Will you be accessing your notebook on a mobile device

If you want to share specific content it’s often better to create a dedicated notebook rather than giving someone access to a generalized notebook and then telling them where to find what they’re looking for. If you’re going to create big notebooks, you could be impacted by sync speed and reliability issues as well as place your content at risk if something bad happens to the notebook. Finally, if you’re going to be accessing the notebooks from mobile devices, smaller targeted notebooks can help compensate for small storage and slower connections.

Moving day

If you’re capturing content into a Quick Notes section frequently (something that happens a great deal if you’re capturing from a mobile device) you’ll want to get comfortable with the move command.  I don’t recommend trying to reorganize your notes from a mobile device (the usability is a bit suspect right now) but rather use a desktop or UWP version of OneNote for page and section moves.

TIP – If you’re doing bulk cleanup, close the notebook on any other devices you may have it open. This will prevent any sync issues as much as possible as you do your house cleaning.

Keeping Organized

Cross-linking is one of my favorite ways to deal with notebook organization.  Let’s take a simple example.  I have a photo of a receipt from my spouse’s visit to the dentist.  The question is, does it go in my Medical notebook, my Taxes notebook, or my Spouse Information notebook (no it’s not actually called that but you get the drift.) I decide on the destination based on the place I am most frequently going to need that item.  In this case it goes into the Medical notebook.  Now in the Taxes notebook I have a page for Medical Expenses and I add a link to the corresponding link page in the Medical notebook.  I do the same thing in my Spouse’s Notebook.  This way I only have one copy of the original but I can get to it from three locations depending on need.

TIP – In many versions of OneNote you can highlight a paragraph on a page, right click, and copy a link to the paragraph.  That link will take you to the page AND highlight the paragraph to make it easier to find.


With content spread across pages, sections, and notebooks, it can be a pain to keep track of all of it for specific purposes.  Let’s take a professional example.  You have a staff meeting at 10:00 a.m.  You need to be prepared with the information from the last meeting, reference notes you gathered between the sessions, emails, PowerPoint presentations, and a checklist of things to do.

Now you could move all that content in to one notebook for the meeting, but why go to all the effort of moving things around.  When I assemble a meeting agenda I create an outline of what needs to be covered and then in each section I create links to existing content. My links always go to pages because that’s where the information is rather than linking to sections and notebooks where I still have to drill down to get to what I want.

Using the outlining features also mean I can reorganize the content, change sequences, and assign to-do tags all without altering the original items.  Remembering that OneNote is a working productivity tool and not just for storage can make planning out your notebooks much more effective.

#Tags suck in OneNote

I know that sounds harsh, but they do IF you’re coming from a world where you can do text based tags such as #doctor or #email. OneNote can’t search for those specific types of delimited tags yet so it makes it difficult if you’re used to organizing that way. What options do we have as alternatives to hashtags and other text based markers?

OneNote can do a search for specific strings as long as they are alphanumeric characters. (Really Microsoft? No #? Really?). What I do is use a combination of “xTagx” to identify tagged items.  So if I need to flag something for the Dentist it’s “xDentistx” and can search for that specific phrase.  Yes it’s a bit cumbersome but it does play well with search and means I can leverage the core concepts of OneNote search with textual tags.

TIP – The same trick works with any alphanumeric character so if you’d rather use “xxTag” or “oTago” feel free.  Just try to be sure you use a combination that doesn’t result in being part of a common word.

I love it when a plan comes together

OneNote is a highly flexible and forgiving application when it comes to organizing your information.  Regardless, you will be best served by putting together a plan of how you want to organize your information and then adapt that plan as you grow and use OneNote more.

Like these ideas? Have suggestions or your own? Come share them in the TIP Community here on The Idea Pump!