GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts

As alluded to in the previous post, there were too many shortcomings in my implementation of the GTD method in OneNote. In particular, I was spending too much time “defining my work” rather than actually doing it. My setup was also missing a component present in most GTD apps, namely a dashboard. Here are my attempts to circumvent these issues. As suggested, by the title of this post, they were not successful, but essential steps toward successful solutions.

Manual processing

The biggest issue with my system is the time spent updating manually all the tables in my OneNote GTD Notebook (see GTD using OneNote my way). The key to my system is to use tables (with several informative columns) rather than simple lists as suggested by the author of Getting Things Done. However, as acknowledged when I decided to go for OneNote as my GTD organizer, OneNote is not a task manager which means I have to put in a lot of manual work (to update these tables).

Using Tags

As described in How to set up OneNote for GTD?, an alternative approach to tables, especially to manage the Next Actions, was to use OneNote tags.

I used to have a separate section for “Next Actions”, but that required every project action to be in two places, once on the project page and once on the “Next action” page.John Drake

As alluded to in GTD using OneNote my way, I have the same issue; not to mention that this redundant processing is the major drawback (in terms of wasted time) of my system. The solution offered by John Drake (i.e., tags) is, however, not satisfactory because not as complete as my tables. Let me explain.

While the tag approach (and the magic of the Find Tags feature) has some values, it has too many limitations. In particular, if I were to use multiple tags (e.g., @computer, 15 min, low energy, and important & urgent) for a task to provide the same info that I have in my Next Actions tables (i.e., the context, the time required, the energy level, and the priority), this task would appear in four lists (one for each tag) instead of a composite list. If I were to look at the @computer list only, I would not know that the task is important & urgent, that I could do it when I am tired, and that it would take only 15 min to complete. I have all this info with a simple glimpse at my table.

Unfortunately, I could not find a way for OneNote to create composite tags automatically. And given the number of possible combinations (I let you do the math: 17 contexts, 6 time periods, 3 energy levels, and 3 priorities), no way I could create all these composite tags myself!

Using Excel embedded sheets

In keeping with the wasted time updating all my tables, I thought I could try to automatize this too; updating the number of Next Action, Waiting for, and Calendar in the Project list table, in particular (see GTD using OneNote my way).

Interestingly, you can add an Excel spreadsheet to a page in OneNote, and because you can automatically update one Excel worksheet from another sheet, I thought I got my solution. I would simply replace my OneNote tables with Excel tables and, with some formulas, would manage to have everything done automatically. No more laborious updates!

First, I tried within a single Excel file and just one spreadsheet. As expected the updates were instant. Then, I tried with different spreadsheets (within the same file), and again it was working just fine. When I moved to the next level – i.e., having tables in different Excel files – I encountered a first drawback: all files had to be open for the automatic update to take place.

But when I moved to OneNote – with embedded Excel sheets, the game was over. Nothing was working anymore. I could have figured it out earlier by reading Microsoft documentation, this paragraph in particular:

Keep in mind that changes you make to the spreadsheet in OneNote won’t appear in the original file in Excel. Likewise, if you change the original Excel spreadsheet, your changes won’t appear in the copy in OneNote.

Indeed, OneNote is creating a copy of your original Excel spreadsheet – a static image of an existing spreadsheet actually – and you don’t have an actual Excel sheet embedded. So, even with Excel open in the background, this workaround would have not worked.

A dashboard

A graphical summary of various pieces of important information, typically used to give an overview of a business.

Most GTD apps come with an aesthetically pleasing dashboard that keeps everything in view, and equally important, allows one to focus on what matters today. In addition, these apps allow you to check what is due today, tomorrow, this week, or later. I wanted to have this kind of functionality in OneNote. Unfortunately, OneNote does not have any database functionality.

My first idea, nipped in the bud (see above), was to use embedded Excel sheets to accomplish just that. But my trials failed miserably. My second shot was with tags; the Create Summary Page feature, in particular. I naïvely thought that I could create such a page as a Dashboard page (with a clever selection of tags), and that it would update automatically. Oh naïve! Clicking on Refresh Results was not helping; it just refreshes the sidebar, not the already created Summary Page.

Other minor flaws

More aesthetic than functional, there were also minor things I would have liked to improve or implement, but not to avail.

Checked box font

One trick I am using to know whether a Next Action (in my Project Plans & Support tables; see GTD using OneNote my way), is to use three different font attributes: plain back text for parked items, strikethrough text for “activated” Next Actions, and green colored strikethrough text from completed tasks. A checkbox tag that would do this automatically would have been welcomed. For example, I could have added this tag to “activated” Next Actions (to differentiate them from the parked ones), and when I would check it, it would strike through the text and change its font color to green.

OneNote tags allow you to change the color font of the text you attach a tag to, but not to have two options for unchecked and checked boxes. There is a way to do it: with the macro “Tag Complete & Strikethrough” by Onetastic. But you have to pay for it.


When there is a time-sensitive task, given that I am not yet at the level of trusting my GTD system on blind faith, I use Outlook integration. Specifically, I add an Outlook task to my Next Action. I could have even used this approach to manage all my Next Actions as illustrated in the video below:

By SimpleFly Tech

Unfortunately, there is no way to do that within OneNote, thus eliminating the hassle of switching platforms. Except if you purchase a plug-in like the “OneNote Reminder” by OneNote Gem.

Given all these glitches, I even re-consider my choosing OneNote as my GTD organizer, but I found good arguments against this idea in this video and kept searching for solutions.

[OneNote] is a complete solution for note taking and organizing notes. If you use GTD (Getting Things Done) concepts, then you can use it for task management. However, if you expect to be reminded to do a specific task, you will either have to integrate OneNote with Outlook tasks or find some other product that had alerting system.Almir Mustafic

Coming soon: My OneNote GTD setup 2.0

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