Manage Tasks and Docked Lists in OneNote

Poor Relation Comes Good

OneNote stood for many years an overshadowed and undervalued piece of software without a clear audience or purpose. However it has matured in the last few years and established itself as an excellent organisational and productivity solution with few rivals. This is not only due to the stability  of the app but also the flexibility and customisation that can be achieved. OneNote has reached a point of universal access across operating systems, browsers and device types that few can match (Evernote, maybe?) and through the stability of the desktop Microsoft Office ribbon features and the flexibility of cloud storage and syncing (and web based access and editing) is now at home anywhere.

Put It In It's Place

At its core, OneNote is a notebook application, designed to allow pages of text, handwriting, images and documents to be grouped under tabs of similar content, and where appropriate these tabs can be themselves grouped inside tab groups. This hierarchy can be viewed vertically in a sidebar or horizontally across the top of each page, like a drawer of foolscap files. OneNote allows you to separate this material further by keeping tabs and tab groups in separate books that you can keep open in a library list to one side, or only open when you need them, the way we tend to engage with other document formats such as in Word or Publisher.

This organisational analogy is how in the real world we divide our address book, sections in a ring binders and leaver arch files, bills in our foolscap document boxes and recipes in a kitchen organiser.

Tab groups can be separated into different notebooks for each project or subjects
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OneNote does this digital organisation very well, helping us file anything with endless flexibility of system, and by managing documents on pages as well if we need it to. As such, there are few systems that cannot be translated to OneNote successfully, and I've yet to find one process that is not improved, streamlined or better-defined by the transition in some way.

The Productivity Tool

So tabs, groups and pages rule, and everything can be put in its place. But beyond this, OneNote wants to be more for you: it has ambitions beyond being the filing clerk and keeper of the passwords and so its designs on being rock-star famous see it creeping manipulatively towards front screen phone app status ('Not hidden in a folder for me') and a coveted pinned icon of the desktop ('Don't hide me the shade of a menu'), to this aim Growing Extra ribbon tabs that even Word and Access view enviously. Suddenly the easy going poor-man's database tool sports digital inking, task management features, calendar and email integrations all with the clear-cut simplicity that has become the definition of Microsoft Office in its most recent iterations.

Ticked Right Off

Let's explore some of the ways not only to label and group tasks, but also to present your task collections and work with them on your desktop, tablet or phone.

Single Task Lists

First of all, let's look at making a single list of tasks on a single note. For example, let's make a tab called 'To Do' and a single page named with the project, for example 'Prepare Summer Action Plan'. The page is automatically labelled below the title with the date and time it was made, but clicking on this allows me to change it if I want it to reference a different date.

Here we have written a list of jobs to do, and used the formatting tools, just as in Word, to make them easier on the eye. Next, by selecting the text and choosing the make task icon we can make each line a into a checkbox item that can be ticked on completion of the task. This is the basic of all tasks in OneNote.

 2017 03 30aA range of formatting choices for task tick boxes

Organising Sets of Tasks

A OneNote note (page) could contain an unlimited number of tasks or task groups, perhaps driven by context or location. Eventually new lists become necessary and additional notes within our 'To Do' tab are required. Here a decision about how you best organise your lists becomes necessary: Do you title additional pages by tasks? Do you make a new note each day? Week? Month?

Mixing It Up

So now I can write a list of things I need to do and with the Home tab visible, add a tick box to each one and tick it off as I achieve. It feels good. Then I want more: I can change up the tick boxes for a range of different icons that are relevant to the task, and even separate them into groups on a page with sub headings that I colour code, format and resize. Put them in a table just using the tab key? No problem.

 What next? How about we use the flag tool to define the urgency of each task, and have Outlook keep a list of them automatically? I can do that with just one click. Let's really commit - If I click on the task statement and press Control+Alt+K (or choose 'custom' from the Outlook Tasks Icon) I can link that tick box straight to an Outlook task that is now synced between both programs, and can be ticked off or edited in either.

2017 03 30aThe Tags dropdown allows a range of pre-set and custom icons to be used

2017 03 30gOutlook tasks dropdown menu

Make It a Date

So a tab called 'To Do' with pages of lists could be the greatest to do list manager you'll ever have. But there are other little tweaks we can make to our workflow that are some of the standout features that put OneNote above other productivity solutions on the desktop.

Firstly, in the same way Google would let me link a Keep note to a gCal event (sort of), I can click the meeting icon and link a OneNote page to a meeting in my outlook calendar. The page can be opened from either application, and again the full functionality of OneNote remains available, so if I want to I can hand write notes, draw diagrams, put a word doc, pdf, spreadsheet, meeting PowerPoint on the page, or even record a voice audio note or video note to the page, both before the meeting, during or afterwards.

2017 03 30hAdd a meeting link to your page, to link the note to a calendar event

Open or Side-lined?

With a widescreen monitor, or even dual monitors OneNote can be even more useful. Still on the ribbon View tab the 'New Docked Window' icon takes the current page and docks it to the side of the screen in a magnetic fashion, allowing access to my lists and notes from a more minimal space saving iteration that I can drag wider or slimmer and zoom in or out as the whim takes me. The freedom to open multiple copies of OneNote and see different pages or even different parts of the same page means I can be productive on one page or OneNote, whilst viewing to do lists, notes or reference material on another. This works very well for both creative and factual writing, or even checking lists of bills to pay and file or letters to send.

2017 03 30iThe View tab of the OneNote ribbon has options to dock the page to the side of the screen

Finding Your Way

As soon as to do lists span multiple pages finding everything to be done becomes its own challenge. Now, how do you know there are no to do items lying not done on pages you have not visited, unless you check them all each day? There are several solutions here.

Option 1: Visit every page every day. I'm not in favour of this - David Allen's GTD system can work well in OneNote, but that approach clearly defines a weekly review process and smaller reviews as required, however there is no productivity gain by implementing a system that needs you to check every aspect all the time. You'd never sleep.

Option 2: Yes, I was leading you towards this. OneNote can search not only by text but by the task icons we looked at earlier and by the urgency of a task flag or by Outlook linked tasks. It can also sort the results by any of these variables. Happy days. To utilise this function, click the 'Find Tags' icon on the ribbon home tab.

The list of results that appears can then not only be kept as a new page (choose 'Create Summary Page') but also as a side docked page itself (choose 'Pin Search results'). This has the added benefit of being always visible, but also of being a dynamic list in that it is responsive to items ticked off anywhere else.

2017 03 30jA To Do list docked to the desktop whatever other apps are open

Here are several examples of how this can be sorted in more helpful way depending on our needs.

  • Grouping by priority or urgency
  • Grouping by section or page
  • Grouping by Outlook category

OneNote plays so well not only with other Office apps but also with a wide range of third party apps and web services, that covering and defining its productivity potential is a goal post that stays ever distant. Please see below for related OneNote articles covering other ways it can enhance your workflow, organisation and therefore productivity, and if you have any questions, amendments to this information or requests for other articles please do let me know in the comments.

Last modification: Sun 2 Apr 2017