Get things done with OneNote

Applies to
Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 Service Pack 1 or later

Once in a while we come across an idea that changes the way we think. For me, one of these ideas was David Allen's five-phase workflow processing system discussed in his book Getting Things Done — The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. David Allen is an author and creator of productivity improvement programs for professionals. In this article, I'll discuss how I've implemented his workflow processing system using OneNote and how it's helped me improve my efficiency and productivity as a Program Manager for Windows® Media Foundation Technology at Microsoft Corporation.

Mr. Allen breaks workflow processing down into the following phases: 1. Collect, 2. Process, 3. Organize, 4. Review, and 5. Do. Following these steps helps me effectively process all the meetings, phone calls, documents and hundreds of e-mails I'm faced with every day and makes me comfortable with what I'm not doing, because I know for certain that what I am doing is more important. If you've never heard of workflow processing before, don't worry. I'm going to focus on one primary area of the system, the area where OneNote really shines: Organize. Though you don't need prior knowledge of the workflow system in order to organize in OneNote, I recommend investigating David Allen's ideas further; they're a great boon to all-around productivity.

Workflow processing with OneNote

As a program manager running many concurrent projects, organization is critical to staying on top of all my responsibilities. In addition to projects and action items, I need to keep track of and be able to easily refer to all the important materials pertaining to my projects including meeting notes, links to Web sites, contacts, and so on. Not only does OneNote allow me to keep all my information in one place and to review it with ease, its flexibility makes it the perfect tool for the way I work, for the way I want to implement the workflow system.

David Allen breaks our work down into what he calls levels of abstraction. Levels of abstraction are described as different perspectives for defining your work. OneNote allows me to easily organize work into these levels because the various levels of notebook organization (folders, sections, pages, subpages and note flags) lend themselves perfectly to organizing your work into these levels of abstraction.

I'm going to focus on the three most concrete levels of abstraction: current responsibilities, current projects, and next actions as I walk you through my own notebook organization. For the sake of example, I've positioned myself as the social coordinator for a fictitious OneNote enthusiast's club. Our motto: Use OneNote to be more productive so we can spend the rest of our time having fun.

Using sections to organize current responsibilities

Areas of responsibility encompass small and large projects. An area of responsibility normally has an outcome requiring six months or more to complete and has a number of projects that need to be completed in order to achieve the goals of the area of responsibility. To create an area of responsibility, do the following:

  1. Create a new section and title it with the name of the area of responsibility.
  2. Title the first page in the section "Overview."
  3. On the Overview page, describe the nature of the area of responsibility, and list all the projects within the area. I've broken my Overview page down into the following categories:
    • What: what the area of responsibility covers
    • Why: why it's important to achieve success in this area
    • Projects: a list of projects within this area


Try creating a page of stationery for your overviews. Make headings for the categories of information that you find most important for your overview. Add customized Project note flags for creating a list of projects. You'll save time by reusing the same template when you create your next overview page.

The following illustration shows my area of responsibility called "Social Activities" open to the Overview page. Note that the other section tabs display the names of other areas of responsibility, including Reviews and Recruiting. The page tabs on the right of the screen display the names of the individual projects within the Social Activities area of responsibility. In my role as guardian of mirth for my club, I take this area very seriously!

Area of responsibility as a section in OneNote

Using pages to organize projects

Within an area of responsibility, I use pages to organize my individual projects. Each page contains a project, and since projects have many action items and reference materials associated with them, I add these to the project's page. The following illustration shows a page from my Social Activities area of responsibility called "Annual Summer Picnic." Action items and reference materials associated with this project are listed on the page.

Action items and links to reference materials on a page

Small Projects     Some of my projects are small and aren't associated with a particular area of responsibility. My notebook would quickly get out of hand if I had to create a new area of responsibility for each little project. For example, I need to get new tires for my car. That's just a few action items: check prices, call the shop to make an appointment. To solve this problem I created a section and named it "General" to contain all my small projects. The following illustration shows the General area of responsibility in my notes.

Small projects in their own notebook section


When a small project falls within an area of responsibility but is so small it doesn't warrant its own page, create an area on the Overview page for the area of responsibility for noting very small projects with only one or two action items. You can also add a heading for small projects to your stationery for Overview pages.

Large Projects     Sometimes, what starts off as a small project ends up growing into a much larger project. For example, if the annual summer picnic were to involve OneNote clubs from across the country, it would require a great deal more organization, and might become its own area of responsibility. OneNote provides the flexibility to grow projects as their scope increases. Larger projects often require more than one page to contain all their action items, reference materials, and so on. Therefore, I add subpages grouped with the main project page. If a project gets so large it warrants its own area of responsibility, all I have to do is create a section and move all the pages for the project into the new section.

Using note flags to denote projects and actions

David Allen suggests basic categories for keeping track of details pertinent to your work. His suggestions include a "Next Actions" list, a "Waiting For" list and a "Projects" list. Action items and the projects they pertain to are perfectly suited for note flags. Whenever I have an action item, an issue, or I'm waiting on information for something in order to be able to proceed with a project, I mark it with a note flag. I've customized three note flags to reflect these categories:

  • Action: Marked by a blue check box, this flag denotes action items. Once I've completed an action, I select the check box.
  • Waiting: Marked by a yellow check box, denotes material I'm waiting for someone else to deliver. I select the check box as these are delivered.
  • Projects: Marked by a green sun note flag, this flag denotes anything that's considered a project.

Note flags are great for reviewing your projects and action items on a regular basis. Even though I arrange all my projects into pages and subpages, marking them with a note flag allows me to run a note flag summary and see a list of all my projects in one place. Likewise for action items: Note flags make reviewing my action items on a weekly basis a breeze. The note flags summary makes it easy to spot action items within a project, within an area of responsibility (section) or across several areas of responsibilities (several different sections).

Using OneNote to fit your individual style

What I've described here is just one of many ways to use OneNote to achieve David Allen's workflow processing. The beauty of OneNote is that it allows you to organize and customize it to fit the way you work best. The flexibility provided by sections, pages, subpages and note flags give you many ways to organize your areas of responsibility, projects and action items. If the system I've described doesn't work perfectly for you, I encourage you to experiment with OneNote and David Allen's productivity systems to find your own method for implementing the workflow processing system. Then you, too, can use OneNote to be more productive and spend the rest of your time having fun!

Gareth Howell is a Program Manager with the Windows Media Foundation Technology group at Microsoft. Much of his time is spent on the audio and video features in the next version of Microsoft Windows.

David Allen is an author and creator of productivity improvement programs for professionals. You can read more about The David Allen Company at

Applies to:
OneNote 2003