How to set up OneNote for GTD?

Burned out and overwhelmed, I desperately needed a system to help me organize my work. My life raft came in the form of David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, and Microsoft OneNote.Jessica A. Walsh

Deciding to use OneNote as my GTD Organizer (or lists manager, should I say) was one thing, creating my GTD-ready task management system tailored to my unique needs and preferences was another story. Granted, I had the blueprint of David Allen for his ultimate GTD app; still, getting a little help could be welcome. From blog posts to videos to templates to the official GTD guide, I’ve checked them all…

Help for free…

Forums

Starting with the David Allen Company Forum(s) – searching for OneNote “forum.gettingthingsdone.com” in Google – I thought that (among the 6060 results from Google) I found some interesting threads by AFG who has posted several times about [his] experience (trying) to use Microsoft OneNote for GTD. However, I wasted my time… A few other people, such as moseylissa, shared their setups, but I could not find what I was looking for. That being said, there were some interesting inputs (e.g., using Outlook together with OneNote) from Kelly, the one who wrote the OneNote Guide.

…GTD only with Outlook is possible
…GTD only with OneNote is non-viable
…GTD with an Outlook + Onenote combination is the best option

There is a Reddit thread called Give me your OneNote GTD setup. Great? My hope faded quickly as I read through it, though. There was not much indeed, except for some pointing to the “official” David Allen setup product (see below), as well as a mention of an obscure Michael Linenberger’s paid video class. Another thread, OneNote as GTD tool, turned out to be a lot more informative; the comment provided by MasterYogurt, in particular.

What you do NOT want to do is rely on tags. You cannot search by tags on mobile OneNote and tag search, while effective, can get out of hand quickly.MasterYogurt

Of course, there is the Microsoft forum and one question, in particular, about the integration between OneNote and Outlook for GTD. However, it was more about getting the inbox to zero than a full GTD setup.

Blogs

OneNote makes it easy to move things from list to list, to tag items with priorities or type, to quickly text search for reference material, to move information in and out of Outlook and other apps, and to manage your system from anywhere you happen to be.River Run

With titles like How to Implement GTD using OneNote or Getting Things Done With Microsoft OneNote, and promises like In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to turn OneNote into the ultimate tool to help you get things done, I was hoping to find some great ideas for my implementing GTD within OneNote. Importantly, all blog posts were hailing OneNote as a great cross-platform app, but also for its hyperlink feature and tags.

OneNote for Android lets me create shortcuts to specific pages right on my home screen. I’ve created a link to my Errands page so I can easily check it whenever I’m out. There’s also a link to my Inbox which gives me another way to get things into my system.Joe Cotellese

However, my hope turned into disappointment very quickly when I read these posts. Some were using OneNote, but with so many other apps to make it work their way, that it was just not practicable1. On the other end of the (tech) spectrum, most people were just using OneNote the same way they would use a simple paper-based notebook (with hyperlinks, though), just creating bullet lists – i.e., nothing more than the paper-based approaches mentioned in a previous post.

OneNote is great for taking notes. But if you are not structured it becomes just a digital notebook that is equally messy as the physical one, just digital.Ståle Hansen

The only exception2 – in terms of OneNote use and informative article – was the idea of using OneNote tags (for the former) and the Hacking OneNote 2013 for Getting Things Done post by John Drake (for the latter). Using specifically the custom tags with checkboxes, he tags each task; each of his tags relating to a GTD context (e.g., @computer, @errands, etc.). And with the magic of search, these tags can be brought together from many different pages – or more technically, from the Home tab, click on Find Tags – and voilà!

On the right hand side of OneNote will appear a list tags. I select Group tags by “Tag Name”, check “Show only unchecked items” and at the bottom make sure the search is for “This Notebook”.

Once I complete an action item, I check the box, hit refresh, and the item disappears.

Furthermore, each of the tags in the search box link back to the appropriate page. So if I write a vague action item, I can quickly discover what it refers to. Or when I complete an action item, I can look back at a project and see what the next action item should be.

I also like his “No project” page with repeatable tasks and non-repeatable tasks.

The beauty of the tagging system is that no matter how many projects you have, because the next actions in each project are tagged a comprehensive list is a simple search away.Jason Fitzpatrick

Videos

A lot of manual processing and reviewing

My search for video tutorials proved fruitless too. Not that I didn’t find any video about How to use ONENOTE for Getting Things Done (GTD) or Getting Things Done: Microsoft OneNote Second Brain. However, they were as lame as the blog posts in the sense that their setups were way too simplistic. Or, as they acknowledged, Granted, this is not pretty. It’s not synced and it’s nowhere as good as any task manager could do. But OneNote is not a task manager […] you have to do a lot of manual work to keep this relevant, up-to-date, and timely. Indeed, as opposed to bloggers, Youtubers3 tend to have a bad opinion about using OneNote for GTD.

Microsoft OneNote isn’t the best software. Duddhawork

… vs. paying for help

Templates

With such a tagline, how to resist? Maybe the price! Here is indeed the OneNote GTD template you can buy from Auscomp – with a (more expensive) pro version, of course. These templates come in the form of easy to install OneNote Notebooks and include (in the pro version):

  • Step-by-step guide to get you up and running
  • Weekly template for your goals and tasks
  • Ongoing Tasks & Goals
  • Project Template
  • Weekly Review – Clean & Catch Up
  • Weekly Review – Brain Dump & Triggers
  • Weekly Review – Review & Reflect
  • Cornell Note Taking

You can have a glimpse here:

By Auscomp

The notebook structure can be customized to fit the specific needs of any user and their work environment.
“Or to do it myself from scratch, it will be cheaper!”

Of, note, Auscomp is not the only company providing paid templates or any (free included) templates for that matter. Some people share their templates for free. Here are a few examples of GTD templates kindly provided by:

Unfortunately, they are as dull as the one they describe in their blog posts (see above).

Books

OneNote is a tool to achieve the principles of Getting Things Done.James Heer

In keeping with the idea of a lucrative market (see OneNote as my GTD organizer), there are (too) many books on how to set up OneNote for GTD. I have compiled a non-comprehensive list below:

TitleAuthorPublication yearNumber of pagesReview (source)
OneNote User Guide to Getting Things Done: Setup OneNote for GTD in 5 Easy StepsJack Echo20151173.7 (amazon)
How to Get Things Done with OneNote: Set Up OneNote for GTD in 15 Minutes, Improve Productivity and Lead Your Way to SuccessDominic Wolff2014803.5 (amazon)
Getting Things Done the David Allen Way with Microsoft OneNoteDavid Negrette2012283.3 (amazon)
How To Use OneNote – Easy OneNote User’s Guide To Improve Your Productivity And Get Things Done Fast!Eric Petersen2015303.0 (goodreads)
OneNote GTD: How to Use OneNote for Getting Things DoneJames Heer2015382.8 (amazon)
OneNote: The Ultimate Guide on How to Use Microsoft OneNote for Getting Things DoneChris Will2017192.7 (Rakuten Kobo)
I did not provide any link (to these books) because I do not participate in any affiliate marketing program. My only way to finance this blog is via your generous help (see footer). Thank you.

“Which book? I cannot read them all. I don’t have the time nor the budget.”
“Some are cheap, some have only a very few pages…”
“Yep, but all have a low review score.”
“That should be enough to help you decide.”4

The guide!

Our best-practices guide for implementing GTD® with OneNote® 2016 for the Windows® desktop.gtd

According to their website, This Guide will show you how to:

  • Understand the fundamental GTD best practices
  • Optimally configure OneNote in the way we have found works best for GTD
  • Integrate your actionable email
  • Create GTD lists in OneNote
  • Create useful reference lists
  • Use tags creatively
  • Integrate with Microsoft Outlook
  • and much more!

“I can afford a $10 book pdf and I should manage to read 50 pages…”

Coming next: OneNote Setup Guide

– Emendation –
Upon delving into this post, you may find yourself sharing the initial sense of disillusionment that I experienced during my fruitless quest for an answer. This post was indeed about this part of the journey – when I asked myself “How to set up OneNote for GTD?” – not about the solution.
Now, perseverance led me to a method that has proven to be exceptionally effective. You are invited to embark on the journey I undertook, commencing with the subsequent installment in this series — specifically, the Microsoft OneNote 2016 for Windows Setup Guide — and progressing through each following post. Alternatively, you may opt to leap straight into my personalized approach to GTD with OneNote. Yet, I urge you not to halt your exploration there; the evolution of my system is unveiled in My OneNote GTD Setup 2.0.

May 6, 2024


1 As I have already mentioned a couple of times, I do not like to add too many apps on my phone or simply to have too many accounts (not to mention the extra fees, if any). ^
2 In fact, there is another blog worth mentioning: GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 by Michael Wheatfill. While a little outdated, this comprehensive tutorial, which consists of six parts, is really valuable. ^
3 One exception, though: Crystal Clear Life video series. Her enthusiasm contrasts with the aforementioned detractors and, in addition to being refreshing and candid, her videos are informative. ^
4 For those who were wondering, this was a conversation with my geeky little bird. ^

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