Be effective in recording thoughts and ideas

Da Vinci and Edison kept notebooks. They captured their thoughts, observations and ideas. They wrote, they drew. They were prolific!

Note-taking is a great habit for knowledge workers. Now we have digital tools for quality prolific note-taking; tools with smart features to aid in flexible organising and discovering of the notes taken. I adopted MS OneNote over a decade ago, and can’t imagine life now without digital note-taking. Digital note-taking is even more integral to my life with the addition of a tablet laptop with which I can draw and handwrite notes, when typing is undesirable or limiting.

This resource explains some of my note-taking activities; features I value in MS OneNote to support those activities; and rules-of-thumb for how I have structured and organised my notes.

A. My note taking practice
B. Key features of MS OneNote
C. Organising and structuring notebooks


A. My note taking practice

I have kept note books over the past 30 years. My notebooks contained lists I of things I wanted, observed or planned to do; quotes, songs or poetry I collected; reflections on about books I read, movies I watched or presentations I attended; and other musings about life as I saw it.

I now have 18+ electronic notebooks covering personal and professional aspects of my life. Notebooks for my poetry, my home projects, my vocational musings, my company development, product development, my client’s projects, books I’ve read, collections of quotes I like. I’ve even transcribed some of my handwritten notebooks into electronic form.

Note taking scenarios

  • When in meeting or seminar, I take notes. Sometimes tagging as I go. Sometimes tagging after the fact when I organise my notes, and supplement them with additional information. I tag to indicate actions I want to take, as well as highlight items for further research or musing.
  • When reading books or watching videos, capturing the salient points so I can readily access them at any time.  (I tend not to annotate printed books now, as my notes are then tied to the book, that lives on a bookshelf in a single location that I can’t always access, and that I can’t easily scan/search to discover some useful part.)
  • When managing professional projects and doing business analysis work. I use a notebook per project as a single location for work reference material, plus my thoughts, my action lists, my research notes, my in-development content that has yet to be formalised into a Word/Excel template for publication and distribution to others.
  • When organising and ‘managing’ personal projects. e.g. Home Garden. I write, draw or type notes on-the-fly and when actively musing. I collect reference material that supports my plans and decision making. I make action lists.
  • When collecting own reference collection of articles, extracts of articles, emails, books, etc on things of professional or personal interest. I copy the article to the relevant notebook, and tag it according to what action I want to take, or what status I want to give it.
  • When collecting a play-box of ideas, triggers (quotes, photos, text), half-baked content; things that I am developing or incubating (course, blog, paper, venture, service, product). I write, draw or type notes, on-the-fly and when actively musing.
  • In addition, I use a small paper notebook that I keep in my handbag, and the camera on my smartphone to capture items when my computer isn’t around or on.  I then transfer these items to relevant notebooks.

B. Key features of MS OneNote

B1. My top seven features (in no particular order)

  1. Tag items with preset or custom-defined tags that can be discovered in batches of same-tags.
  2. Insert documents as ‘printouts’ that can be annotated on or against: either with typed text, or with tablet inking feature to literally highlight words or include handwritten notes. Depending on the original document format, can search for text within the inserted ‘printout’.
  3. Don’t ever need to save – it’s automatic. I can focus on the flow of what I’m writing and typing without having to interrupt myself to do the Save action. Particularly useful when taking notes in meetings, and the flow of note-taking needs to keep pace with the flow of the meeting/session.
  4. A single notebook tool that captures note taking regardless of whether it’s personal or professional content. Only need to learn one tool (and its features) and can apply the tool in multiple scenarios for all note-taking needs.
  5. Place text easily on any part of the page, to add ancillary notes to other content. Text is in boxes that can be dragged around and formatted separately from text in other boxes. I don’t have to confirm to linear sequential layout.
  6. Set-up notebooks to be shared with another computer, and when networked to other computer – there is automatic synchronisation in both directions to update notebooks. For me, this supports mobility with notebooks on laptop, and provides security with an automatic duplicate copy managed on main desktop computer.
  7. Flexible organisation with multiple notebooks, which have sections or section groups, which have time-stamped pages (can even backdate the time stamp if it’s important).

B2. Other features of value (in no particular order)

  • Cut-n-paste content from other locations (i.e. web page, inside MS Word document), and the content gets pasted (automatically) with the URL of the source location.
  • Tag items with a special tag ‘To Do’ that gets treated in special way in search results, (i.e. show unchecked items only) and can interact with the search results list to a) change the status of the tag; and to b) link back to the source location of the tag for associated/contextual information.  ‘To Do’ items can also be linked into MS Outlook’s task feature.
  • Create a summary page of tagged search results
  • Insert audio file, play it and take notes, and notes are time-tagged to the time when the note was taken in listening to the audio file
  • Hide menus to get maximum screen space for reading and writing
  • Export a page or set of pages to PDF or MS Word to share with others
  • Share a notebook with other people
  • Add-ins in Internet Explorer, MS Outlook, etc, where items from web or email can be directly sent to OneNote for filing.
  • Open up a note-taking page without need to open the full application.
  • Have note page open on screen, and on top of other applications including another OneNote page to facilitate reading/viewing from one place and note-taking in another place.
  • Create note without need to place it in the location where it will/should be filed. (Unfiled Notes)
  • Use as much page space as I want – don’t have to conform to a A4 space or fixed orientation.
  • Search across all notebooks or parts of notebooks for single words, and get a list of search results that give useful context to the location of the word (i.e. Title of note page, time-stamp of page, Title of section where page is located)


C. Organising and structuring notebooks

C1. Mapping your notes to notebook elements

MS OneNote provides a number of structural elements for note-taking. In order of hierarchy: Notebook, Section Group, Section, Page, Sub-page, Text Box.

Here are examples of the structure I have used to organise the contents of some of my notebooks.

Section Group (s)
‘Poetry’ Store completed poems and feedback on poems.  Working space for ideas for poems and poems in development. n/a ‘Completed poems’
‘WIP poems’
(per poem)
(per response)
‘Home’ Working space for ideas and plans for home improvements.
Store reference material to guide decisions about home projects.
n/a ‘Inside’
(per aspect)
‘Reference’ Store reflections on books and movies, lists of things (i.e. books I want to read), collections of quotes I like, collections of interesting words and definitions, etc n/a ‘Quotes’
‘Misc – Humour’
(per theme for quotes, humour, definitions)
(per book, movie)
(per aspect)
Store course materials. Working space for learning and assessment activities. n/a (per Course Unit)
‘Reading: x’
‘Presentation: x’
‘Notes: x’
‘Assessment: x’
‘Vocation’ Working space for ideas and plans for vocational development. Store reflections on work experiences. Store results from tests, testimonials and feedback. n/a ‘Reflections’
(per aspect)
‘Knowledge Dev’ Store collections of useful articles and resources. Working space for ideas and insights. Store collection of samples or exemplars of published work in the field. (per field)  ‘Leadership’ ‘InfoMgmt’
‘Change’ ‘Engagement’
‘R&D for me’
‘Article: x’
‘Sample: x’
‘Idea: x’
‘Thoughts: x’
‘Questo’ (company) Working space for ideas and plans for company development and business development. Store archival collection of promotional content. n/a ‘Questo Web’
‘Internal Dev’
‘External Dev’
‘Product Dev’
‘Next Actions’
‘Reference: x’
‘Notes: x’
‘Activity: x’
‘Idea: x’
‘Research: x’
‘Client XYZ’ Working space for all client information. Store collection of project related resources provided by client.  Initial store of record/business transaction details prior to formalisation in other documents, e.g. invoice, contract. n/a (per stage of project) ‘Notes: Talk with x’
‘Next Actions’
‘Meeting: x’
‘To Talk with x’
‘Idea: x’
‘Activity Plan: x’


C2. Tagging content within pages

Tagging is a way to consistently highlight meaningful paragraphs of content within a page. Tags can also be given to the titles of a page. Multiple tags can be assigned to the same content.

I use these predefined tags:

  • To Do – action items that I have defined and need to execute
  • Schedule Meeting – a special action item that requires consideration of calendar
  • Contacts – a contact and/or contact details

I have created some custom tags. Listed below with details about the associated symbol and purpose.

All Purpose

  • Idea (light bulb) – an idea that is worthy of further consideration
  • Important (star) – something important and in need of further consideration
  • Critical (exclamation mark) – something critical and in need of priority attention
  • Content to Read (book) – content or name of book to be read
  • Activity (two people) – details of an activity to run with a group of people (like a recipe card)
  • Research Further (speech bubble with question mark) – details of something needing further research
  • Process Further (double circle) – details of something needing further processing
  • Feedback (triangle) – feedback receipted that should influence future action

Applied specifically to Client Projects

  • Communicate with Others (speech bubble) – key message to share with others
  • Benefit (sunflower) – benefit to promote in communications
  • Learning Point (thumb tack) – insight or fact to share in education and communications
  • Put into Project Work Plan (lightning bolt) – item to include in Project work plan

C3. Conventions for organising and naming pages and section

I have some conventions as to how I name and organise pages and sections to provide common logical structure to my notes.

Pages within sections in Notebook

A. I prefix titles of pages with the following key words: Notes, Sample, Article, Activity, Idea, Reading, Presentation, Thoughts. For example:

  • NOTES: Conversation with J Smith
  • OUTLINE: Thinking about and engaging with the Future (for my notes taken at a presentation)
  • ARTICLE: 20 Things you can do in 20 minutes to be more productive at work
  • ACTIVITY: How-to create a pivot table (for content that outlines an activity I might run in a workshop)
  • SAMPLE: Social change promotional website
  • IDEA: Better way to do staff induction (for semi-developed content that I intend to develop further)
  • RESEARCH: About Clifton Strengths Finder
  • MUSINGS: Ways to think about the future (for scrappy content of my own insights and musings that are unlikely to make much sense to anybody else)

B. I create key pages in some notebooks as focal points for my attention. For example:

  • ACTION: xxx (to collect miscellaneous action items that aren’t embedded in other notes pages)
  • TO TALK WITH x (where x is Manager, Client or Project Sponsor; page is list of conversation topics to cover when I next meet with person specified)
  • MISC: xxx (to collect small miscellaneous thoughts and notes extemporaneously therefore quickly, for later refiling into relevant pages)

Special Notebook with Section Groups and Sections

I have a special notebook called ‘Knowledge Development’ which is a collection of various knowledge areas in which I am developing and acquiring knowledge. Each Section Group, has the same Section headings: Articles+References, Samples, R&D for me (includes my own ideas).

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Author: Helen Palmer, Founder, Questo

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