A year ago, I wrote about how I used OneNote flags to coordinate tasks according to the "Getting Things Done" philosophy. OneNote 12 goes worlds beyond the original OneNote as a platform for "GTD," so I thought I’d write about how I’ve adapted my original system.
One of the essential ideas in "GTD" is maintaining as few "collection buckets as you can get by with." Within Office 12, the two programs that are most likely to be used as collection buckets are Outlook and OneNote; my premise is that while Outlook has "tasks," OneNote is by far the superior program for managing them. In my system, Outlook is used for its Inbox, Calendar, and Contacts list, while OneNote is the central organizing tool.
The key to using OneNote as a GTD tool is that OneNote can instantly gather and summarize flagged items and group them by name, and filter them so that only unchecked items are visible. Once set up, this gives you immediate access to your "next action" items:
To do this, you have to customize your OneNote flags, a simple process that is marred only by the fact that instead of acting on the underlying notebook (which you’ll share between computers, as we’ll discuss later), customization is on a per-machine basis. So you have to perform this process on every machine.
In "GTD" every multistep task is a "project," every single task is an "action," and the next physical action you need to do is the "next action." The heart of GTD is breaking projects down into actions and next actions, so that your to-do list is a set of achievable tasks "Buy 10 pounds of nails at Home Depot" rather than overwhelming things like "Build the house."
Additionally, I break down my projects into 3 categories: "Urgent" projects on which I should be concentrating, "Ongoing" projects, and "Deferred" projects (some people call these "Fallow" projects).
With that in mind, I customize my note flags. I use open checkboxes for actions, and starred checkboxes to indicate projects. I use green, blue, and yellow to indicate urgent, ongoing, and deferred categories:
You’ll notice that I additionally have a "Waiting" flag assigned to Ctl-9 and that the "Next Action" and "To Do" flags have an @ prepended so that they "sort" to the top of my "Note Flag Summary" view. Another important keyboard shortcut is Ctl-0, which clears all notes on an item. So now, you have assignment of actions and projects near at hand.
The original OneNote had a design philosophy of using a single notebook, with many sections, many pages, and many subpages. OneNote 2007 has a much more flexible philosophy, with multiple notebooks and hierarchical sections. One of the biggest decisions you can make in a OneNote-based GTD system is how you will organize projects — with notebooks, sections, or pages/subpages?
To be clear, you can make a project just using a hierarchy and note flags:
But generally, "real" projects involve gathering data and thoughts and meeting people and lots of sub-projects: in other words, they typically involve gathering all the other stuff OneNote excels at. And this is really the key reason why OneNote is perfect for "Getting Things Done": it’s not just a "To Do List" manager or an outliner. Unlike dedicated outliners, it doesn’t impose an outline or hierarchy on everything you do. That’s very important: to be able to take the note, capture the thought, etc. before it’s categorized / placed within a hierarchy.
For me, projects are best organized as either page/subpage combinations or as sections/subsections. Do not create a section for every project: it clutters your notebooks too quickly. Currently, I primarily use page/subpage combinations for personal projects and ongoing themes (blog entries, exercise goals, shopping lists, etc.) and use section/subsections to organize clients and projects (as a contractor, I create a subsection for each billable contract, and use "Print to OneNote" to keep convenient copies of the estimate / invoice / payment process.
I use a minimum of notebooks: Personal, Work, and Archive for my GTD-oriented activities and then a couple of others dedicated to my creative outlets and hobbies. When a task is checked completed, it is filtered out of the "Note Flag Summary," but during the Weekly Review, I delete completed trivial tasks and move finished projects / sections to the Archive notebook. (Of course, I visit and re-prioritize my projects and tasks.)
Perhaps my favorite feature in OneNote 12 is sharing notebooks between machines. With 7 machines, including 3 Tablet PCs, I may be an outlier, but even if you just have two machines, shared notebooks are an incredible boon. Essentially, this is one of those "it just works" facilities — when you create a notebook, say that you are going to share it between machines, and, bang!, OneNote keeps them synchronized — even when both are open simultaneously! It’s fantastic, I can be writing on my Tablet out on the porch, get stuck, go inside and do some keyboard-intensive research, pasting into OneNote, go back outside, and everything is synched perfectly.
Special bonus productivity program:
The other essential program to keep me productive is Sciral Consistency, which is almost perfect for tracking repeating tasks with soft deadlines.
As you can probably infer, you create a task and set "minimum" and "maximum" days for each cycle: do the bills every 10 to 15 days, exercise every 1-2 days, download Website logs every 20-40 days, etc. Here, you can see that I haven’t been exercising enough and that I should haul trash and sweep the driveway in the next couple of days.
There are only two improvements I’d desperately love for Consistency: a version for my PDA (synchronized, of course) and the ability to attach a note to a "check," which would make Consistency an awesome training log.