Strategy, Techniques

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!


24 Hour Productivity

There’s a concept in productivity circles that productivity is a measure of “doing” things and you are only productive when you’re checking things off a to-do list. Problem is, productivity isn’t just an at-work, focused kind of thing. True productivity runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock

If we want to have a truly holistic approach to productivity we need to think about more than the 8 (or 10 or even 12) hour working day and take the full 24 hour period into consideration. All parts of the day are equally important regardless of if they are attached to a paycheck or not.  It’s our failure to take the rest of the day into consideration that often has the greatest impact on our productivity. Let’s start with the one we hear most often.

Get some sleep

There’s no question that sleep is one of the biggest victims of our modern drive to be productive. So often we push back on sleep, overdrive our systems through stimulants such as caffeine, or throw off our sleep cycles for not putting down the phone early enough before bed. Based on studies done by far smarter people than I, I’ve assembled a table for myself to see when I should be waking up to best match my circadian rhythms.

Working off the assumption the first sleep cycle runs 90 minutes and then subsequent ones run from 100-120 minutes a 9:00 p.m. bedtime results in a 5:00 a.m. wake up before the next sleep cycle begins. Interestingly enough if you work the math and I have a 10:00 p.m. bedtime I can wake at 5:10 a.m. right at the end of a sleep cycle. The caveat is I am cutting out an entire cycle this way.

Why does this matter?

Have you ever woken up before your alarm clock? You know, your eyes pop open, a sudden fear of having overslept washes over you, only to be offset by a glance at the clock with five minutes before your alarm is set to sound. That’s hitting the sweet spot on your circadian rhythm. Making sure you time your sleep cycles so you’re not struggling to wake up mid-cycle can make all the difference even if you have to wake up a little earlier than you would normally like.

Food and fitness

There’s plenty of content on the internet about the impacts of exercise and diet on your physical well-being so I’m going to focus on how it affects your productivity. We all have peaks and valleys during the day and it’s important to be aware of when we’re at our best, when we’re not, and what are the triggers. Rather than look at the medical reasoning, let’s take a look at how we can use productivity techniques to help our understanding.

Create a personal log

Start by using your favorite note-taking tool to track when you feel your best and when you feel your worst during the course of the day. Don’t tie this to mood; focus on your energy and drive level. This isn’t something that will give you decisive insights in a day or two so expect to take a few weeks to track yourself. There are digital tools that can help with this but don’t feel you won’t be successful without some fancy fitness tracker. A pen and paper are just as good for getting insights into your energy levels.

This isn’t all tie-dye and flowers

Some people struggle with this kind of exercise because they consider it to “touchy-feely” to be of any practical value. I’ll challenge you to change that thinking. For example, if you were setting up a solar cell to power a water pump, would you configure it so it only works when the sun is out or would you find ways to conserve and store some the of peak energy and find alternative ways to supplement your power sources when the clouds come out? Focus on the realistic parts of the problem: doing the right things in the right ways at the right times.

TL;DR – How can I be productive 24 hours a day?

Know what you can accomplish best in each hour. If it’s work, optimize the work. If it’s eating, optimize the food. If it’s sleeping, well you get my drift. Consider everything part of your productivity system and you’ll quickly get a sense that success is more than checkboxes and bullet points.

Comments, thoughts, disagreements, strong but civil opinions?
Come share in the community!




Taking Time to Be Prepared

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States and at the same time a Category 4 hurricane is headed directly for the East Coast of the U.S. We’ve had storms, floods, and all sorts of events that put our information and even our lives at risk. There is no better time to consider how you prepare for disaster than before it happens so here are my five recommendations to be ready just in case when it comes to your information.

Use the cloud

Protecting your information by posting it to a cloud based system such as OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive means you have a much better chance of not losing that information should something terrible happen to your possessions. Take a few minutes and make sure your files AND your phone are backed up to the cloud.

Pro TIP: Use a tool such as OneNote or Google Docs that allow you to store your information online as well as offline. There is no guarantee you will have connectivity when you need it so make sure your information is accessible from as many places as possible.

Photos of everything

Take photos of all your valuables, including the tags electronic devices indicating model numbers and serial numbers. Insurance companies need that information to process claims quickly and after a loss is not the time you want to be struggling with an insurance agency over preventable missing proof and information.

Don’t trust a fireproof safe

Fireproof safes are excellent for valuables and some documents depending on the manufacture of the safe, but they’re not watertight and water is one of the worst enemies of paper. Take 15 minutes and take photos of all the key documents in your firebox using a tool like Office Lens. The process is quick, the information stores to the cloud, and if you’re concerned about privacy you can delete the images after the hazard passes.


Take photos of all your prescription bottles and any prescription paperwork you may have. After a disaster, medication can be in short supply and being able to prove you need what you’re asking for can make all the difference.

Pro TIP: Create a medical quick reference note listing all allergies, special medications, and relevant medical history information you might need in an emergency. Save that quick reference online as well as offline (this may be something you want to print and put in a sealed baggie just to be extra sure.)

Make a charging bag

Take a Zip-Loc freezer bag and put in it a car charger, extra charging cable, wall charger, and second zip-loc bag for your device. You may have to leave quickly and having this as part of your go-bag can make all the difference in the coming days.

If you have external batteries for your devices make sure they are fully charged. Keep them plugged in until charged and then into the bag with them to protect them.

Text, don’t call

During a disaster calling can become almost impossible due to downed cell towers and limited power. Using a messaging application that can work over cellular data or wifi is your best chance to get messages out and back. Applications such as Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, or WhatsApp are your best choice but direct messaging using Twitter will also work.

If you can get access to the internet posting updates about your status can be reassuring to your loved ones. Don’t just post about how hard it’s raining. If you need help, ask. If you can provide help, respond.

Natural and man-made disasters can be the most devastating things we ever face. Taking time to prepare yourself and your information means it is one less thing you need to worry about when things go wrong. Be safe and be prepared.

Comments or questions? Please share them here.

If you want to learn more about digital preparedness or other productivity related topics, please join me in the Productive Professionals Community.


Turning your to-do list into a to-done list

Whenever we think about to-do lists or task lists we’re always thinking about ways to tic those checkboxes and feel like making progress. Here’s a question though…have you ever put items on your list you’ve already finished just to check them off?  Is this wrong?

I use Todoist to track my task list and one of the nice features is the ability to mark tasks with a tag to tie it to a specific project. I’ve taken to using the tagging option to go back and identify work I did during the course of the day to get a better understanding of where I’m putting my time

Each project in Todoist can have a color assigned to the project and any tasks assigned to the project also receive that color marker. By doing this when I look at the productivity chart it shows the number of tasks I’ve completed each day and color bars representing the number of tasks completed for each project.

For example, if I’m doing chores around the house I may also do a little car maintenance and decluttering. If my task is “house chores” for Saturday, it doesn’t give me a perspective as to if I’m keeping up with the auto maintenance or is the decluttering getting away from me. There’s a side benefit from capturing things after they’re done.

A sense of accomplishment often eludes us when we’re hard at work. Taking time to look back and appreciate the amount of productivity we’ve had rather than what we think we should have. Taking time to account for work we’ve done even if we haven’t captured it in advance is just as valuable to our productivity as making that list first.

Do you put done items on your to-do list? Does it help or hurt?


Turning your to-do list into a to-done list | Productive Professionals

Whenever we think about to-do lists or task lists we’re always thinking about ways to tic those checkboxes and feel like making progress. Here’s a question though…have you ever put items on your list you’ve already finished just to check them off?  Is this wrong?

I use Todoist to track my task list and one of the nice features is the ability to mark tasks with a tag to tie it to a specific project. I’ve taken to using the tagging option to go back and identify work I did during the course of the day to get a better understanding of where I’m putting my time

Read More…


Why do we tinker with our productivity systems? | Productive Professionals

We all know people like this.  I’m one of them and if you’re reading this I’ll bet you’re one too.  One of those people who thinks they have their system working well but are convinced there’s a way, a tool, or a technique out there you haven’t found yet that will make you just a bit more productive. We tinker.  We tune. We try to go from 90% to 91%. Why can’t we just leave well enough alone and get things accomplished?

Based on the years I’ve been working in the productivity space I’ve noticed a few common threads among people who tinker with their productivity systems: FOBO, change, inspiration, and frustration.

Read more…


Ideas on combating ageism in the workplace

The technology field has always been considered a field for the young.  Startups look for the bright eyed youth willing to put in 60-80-or more hours a week with the hopes of a grand success and easy future. Those of us who have been through the industry know that’s the exception rather than the rule and wish the kids would listen. 

When your career spans more years than some of your colleagues have been alive, you learn a thing or two.  You’ve seen the management theories come and go.  You’ve seen the latest, greatest project management methodology be adopted like wildfire and dropped just as quickly. You’ve seen technology ideas form, execute, and fade away, only to come back again touted as something completely new (I’m looking at you, thin client computing.) 

The problem is, with the bias in the industry that technology is for the young, there is a natural prejudice against the wisdom and learnings that come from experience. How can we get others to recognize the value of having been through the wringer a few times and knowing how to be prepared? Think about it this way, if you’ve had a 25 year career, you’ve covered the lifespan of five startups. 

I’ve worked with two companies over the years where the average tenure of the staff is more than 15 years a person. The technology groups have seen things change only to stay the same.  They don’t adopt the latest thing that comes down the pike. They don’t jump on the newest methodology. They’re in it for the long haul and their strategy and their people reflect that.

How can we combat this perception that in technology fields experience has less value than youth? The first step for those of us with years under our belt is to recognize this is not a level playing field and that we can’t play by their rules. If we try to out-hustle, out-work, and out-play them to prove we are just as good we’re wasting the strongest asset we have…our experience.

Don’t challenge just because it’s been done before.  Challenge to see if what caused it to not work has been resolved. Don’t argue just because it hasn’t been tried, draw the comparisons to what has been successful and show the steps that need to happen. Recap completed efforts rather than just running into the next one.  Don’t accept minimum viable product because it’s part of the methodology, accept it if it’s delivering the value you know the customer wants from experience.

Taking the role of a mentor for colleagues (not a know-it-all, that’s a different problem) and helping them learn the questions to ask and the skills they need beyond the ones and zeroes demonstrates that experience I’m talking about. The concepts of DQ (digital intelligence) vs. EQ (emotional intelligence) marry nicely to the concept of wisdom. Anyone with motivation can learn a technology. Learning how to read, understand, and adapt to people and personalities only comes from experience.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of ageism in the workplace.  There’s no hashtag we can get behind that will change how things are. (Though #getoffmylawn works for me.) The best thing we can do is to remember we didn’t get where we are over so many years by being distracted by the newest thing. If you know you’re being discriminated against because of your age there are steps you can take, unfortunately it’s not so obvious that it’s easy to document. Be aware, discliplined, and don’t fall for the myth that years are a weakness.

How do you deal with ageism in your workplace? Have you encountered it before? Are you guilty of it? Tell me about it.