Bending OneNote and Outlook to Fit my GTD System
I am now using Microsoft OneNote 2007 as part of my GTD (Getting Things Done) system. I talked about this a bit before in my post on EverNote vs. OneNote. My approach is a bit different than Rob describes in his 7Breaths blog. Where Rob tends to use OneNote as the hub of his system, I use the Outlook task list. I am really only using OneNote for three purposes:
- Capturing daily notes on the fly for future processing,
- managing projects, and
- storage of reference material.
I am not living inside OneNote throughout the day. Instead, I use Microsoft Outlook to manage my task lists (by context). Rather than pushing stuff from Outlook into OneNote, I am capturing and storing stuff in OneNote, then pushing it to Outlook during my weekly reviews. OneNote serves as an inbox and as a storage location for project information and reference material.
Here is my OneNote landscape (see screenshot below). One of the first things you’ll notice is that there is not a lot of complicated structure or oodles of tabs. It’s fairly clean and uncluttered. Everything is in a single notebook labeled “2007″. I deleted all of the sample tabs and pages that come with the OneNote install. The primary tabs/sections in my OneNote GTD system are: @DOING, @PROJECTS, @FOLLOW_UP, and @DONE.
In my world, things are either done or they’re not done. Stuff in the first three tabs is “not done”, and stuff in the “@DONE” section is “done”. My approach is not unlike the ants in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. When Wart goes to live amongst the ants, he discovers that they only have two descriptive words. All people, places, and things are either “done” or “not done”. Pretty clear. Anything that is “not done” gets checked during the weekly review. The “done” stuff only gets seen again if I am looking for reference material or trying to remember some bit of obscure information. I might find it by using the OneNote search box, by searching OneNote tags, or through Windows Desktop Search (WDS). Otherwise, the “done” stuff is out of site and off my mind.
One of the modifications I made to the OneNote 2007 workflow was to abolish the “unfiled notes” section (blue circle above). By default, OneNote stores all incoming data, including print-outs sent to OneNote, screen captures, and web clippings to that section. I changed the settings to have all incoming data go to my “@DOING” section. In a future post, I will walk through all of the setup screens (updated – linked to setup details). If I click the button circled in blue, it now takes me to my @DOING tab.
The other thing you’ll notice is that I tend to only have one page that stays in my @DOING tab. Other pages come into the @DOING tab, and I either deal with them immediately or move them to the @FOLLOW_UP tab. The page that always stays there is my “DROE” page. This name is a hold-over from my Franklin Planner days where notes were captured on a page titled “Daily Record of Events”. This is a running life log where I capture notes, ideas, jotts, meeting minutes, etc. The DROE is driven by a set of AutoHotkey scripts that allow me to quickly open OneNote and jump to the top of the DROE page, automatically enter a time stamp, and start typing before the idea slips out of my head. I will share my OneNote AutoHotkey tool in a future post. UPDATE: Here is a link to the DROE tool!
The next tab is the @PROJECTS tab. Here I create a list of my projects, with one page for each project. The list of pages (shown on the left side of the screen below) is my project list. I created a project template and set it as the default template for the @PROJECTS tab. To add a project, I simply click “New Page” and fill out the information in the template.
Here is what my project template looks like. In this case, you see it filled out for a Basement Remodeling project. The page title contains the title of the project along with a project tag enclosed in [brackets]. I set a unique tag for each project and try to be as descriptive as possible in 10 letters or less. In addition to the project title, there are three main sections to the project template page:
- OUTCOME – This is a high-level mission statement that describes the goals of the project and the desired final outcome. It’s typically 2-3 sentences long.
- ACTIONS – This is a bulleted list of actions that need to be completed to move the project forward. As much as possible, I try to make each action a succinct doable task. During my weekly review, I will brainstorm for new actions, and also decide which ones on the list should be “next actions”. To make it a next action, I click the “Task” button on the OneNote toolbar. This creates a task in Outlook using the synchronization feature between OneNote and Outlook. I can then right click on the flag to open the task, make additional notes, and set the context. The project tag will also show up in my Outlook task list since it is in the list here.
- NOTES & REFERENCE MATERIAL – This is a section for any notes, files, links, attachments, etc. that are pertinent to the project. The assumption is that anything attached here has already been processed for possible actions. I will often copy notes directly from my DROE and paste them here in reverse chronological order. I can also paste particularly important emails here… I usually strip the attachments first using an Outlook VBA macro that I wrote. This keeps the size of the embedded email small. The VBA macro replaces the files with links, so no traceability is lost.
The @DONE is actually a section with multiple tabs (see below). I made this into a section because I wanted to be able to create some hierarchy in @DONE, but I also did not want to clutter my work area (@DOING) with a bunch of “done” tabs and pages that would pull my attention away from the “not done” work. As I mentioned in my previous post on “EverNote vs. OneNote”, one of the main reasons I chose OneNote is that it can be indexed and searched by a desktop search application (WDS). Because of this, I can send all of my processed material into this section and not worry about it.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the tabs in the @DONE section:
- The DROE Archive tab is where I store all of my processed notes (Daily Record of Events), both typed and handwritten. About once a month I will move stuff here to get it out of the way. I have a special method to allow later indexing and searching of even the handwritten notes, similar to what EverNote’s Advanced Image Recognition (AIR) feature provides, but much simpler. I will share that in a future post.
- Key Information is where I keep things like passwords, account numbers, personal data, etc. The tab is password protected and not included in my Windows Desktop Search results. There are only a few well-organized pages in there so that I can quickly browse and find what I need without having to depend on WDS.
- The Project Archive tab is just what its name says. When a project is complete, I right-click on its page tab and send it to the Project Archive. A project is considered complete when all possible tasks are done or moved to the Outlook task list. There must also be no unprocessed information on the project page. Any notes or attachments remaining on the project page are simply reference material that can be found later via desktop search.
- The Articles & Reference section is a dumping ground for all other data that has been processed. Any tasks or actionable ideas from these pages have already been captured. The section just contains a long flat listing of pages in no particular order. The information here is for reference only and can be found later via desktop search.
So that is the basic landscape of my OneNote GTD system. As promised in a few places above, I will share set up details, tips & tricks, and weekly review methods in a future post. If you have other tips or would like to share how you are using OneNote 2007, please post a comment here!
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