My OneNote GTD setup 2.0

As alluded to in GTD using OneNote my way, I was spending way too much time “defining my work”; instead of actually doing it. The biggest issue with my system was the time spent updating manually all the tables in my OneNote GTD Notebook. Granted, OneNote is not a task manager, which means I had to put in a lot of manual work (to update these tables); still, there must be a way… Determined to keep using OneNote as my GTD organizer, I kept searching for workarounds (see GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts). Here is my improved setup and how I solved all the shortcomings of my previous OneNote GTD system.

Projects and Next Actions

As described in GTD using OneNote my way, the Project Plans & Support pages, of which a screenshot is displayed below, were – and still are – the core of my system. This is where I centralize all the info about my projects; in the Brainstorming, Organizing, and Next Actions parts, in particular. While these pages have dramatically improved my productivity, my workflow, which involves filling and updating two tables on other pages (Next Actions and Project list, respectively; see the end of the aforementioned post), has produced the opposite effect.

Natural Planning Model (GTD)
Project Plans & Support page
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Not only there is a redundant processing of items – a Next Action being processed both into the Project Plans & Support page and the Next Action section – but also the whole procedure requires many extra steps (e.g., to update the many tables manually) that are time-consuming.CogitActive

The full potential of tags

“Tags? I thought this approach had too many limitations (see GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts).”

The main problem I had with tags is that OneNote does not create composite tags. Let me explain what I mean by this. If I would tag a Next Action with four different tags – one for context, one for time required, one for energy level, and one for priority – this Next Action would appear under four different tag lists instead of an integrated list. Given the number of possible combinations, creating these composite tags myself was not an option. So, how did I manage to 1) keep the info that I have in my Next Actions tables (i.e., the context, the time required, the energy level, and the priority), and 2) use tags to avoid redundant processing of Next Actions?

I create custom tags only for context!

“But what about the other info – the time required, the energy level, and the priority – then?”
“I found a trick!”

In my previous system, I had my Next Actions tables on different pages (in the Next Action section) organized by context. I had 12 contexts grouped under different areas – @ Work, @ CogitActive, @ Home, and @ Special locations/events – and one extra context called @ Anywhere. Not only did I stop using these context pages (thanks to my new custom tags), but I have also updated my contexts. Taking advantage of the three colors of the OneNote tags – blue, yellow, and green – I divided my contexts into three areas: Work, CogitActive, and Life, respectively. For each area, I used the checkboxes of the respective color.

Custom checkbox tags in OneNote
OneNote checkbox tags
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There are nine symbols for each color, from which I could choose, but I restricted my choice to the eight checkboxes with some extra icons in the top left corner (see right). I used the symbols with the star icon for my Anywhere contexts (one blue for Work, one yellow for CogitActive, and one green for Life), the symbols with the exclamation mark for what I called Crucial contexts/tasks (for the kind of Next Actions that are so important and urgent that I have decided to give them a special emphasis; not in line with the GTD principles I have to admit), the symbols with the arrow for my On the road contexts (e.g., while out of town during international meetings), and the symbols with the mystery man for my Delegate contexts/tasks. I keep the symbols with the numbers (from 1 to 3) for actual places at work (i.e., my office, my lab upstairs, and my lab downstairs, respectively), specific activities for CogitActive (i.e., website, graphics & audio, and podcast, respectively), and specific locations for Life (i.e., at home, in the car, and the cave, respectively). Last, but not least, I use the symbols with the flag icon for my time blocks (e.g., PubMed at work, Blog post for CogitActive, and IT at home). At the time of this writing, I have ten blue/Work contexts, eight yellow/CogitActive contexts, and nine green/Life contexts; that is a total of 27 contexts (compared to 12 + 1 I had originally).

Now, when I need to do any predefined work, I just have to go to the Home tab, click on Find Tags, choose the appropriate context (always looking at the Crucial tag first), and voilà! This Tags Summary tab fulfills my quest for a dynamic dashboard (see GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts); at least for the Next Actions.

“Wait, I still do not see how your approach differs from the one you’ve rejected because you claimed it was unsatisfactory!”
“You are right, here comes the trick I have implemented…”

To each Next Action – listed under the Next Actions section of the Project Plans & Support page – not only do I assign a contextual tag (see above), but I also start its name/description with something special; a code that informs me about the time required, the energy level, and the priority of that Next action. The key, here, was to find a code that is short, meaningful, and can be ordered alphabetically.

For the time required for that specific Next Action, I have six codes, reminiscent of the six – now retired – Time tags I had in my previous version (see GTD using OneNote my way): less than 2 min, 5 min, 15 min, 30 min, 60 min, more than 1 hour. The codes are, respectively, <2, 05, 15, 30, 60, and hh. Nothing special you might wonder; except that they are two-character long, meaningful, and what is more, listed alphabetically by OneNote. Based on my available time, I can move down the list (or not) and choose the most appropriate task.

Next, after a space (for clarity) comes the code for energy level. I had three levels in my previous version: Low, Medium, and High. I kept this info, but in a more condensed way: <, =, and >, respectively. Again, the key was to find characters that would be ordered by OneNote from Low to High. Not only does my choice of these one-character, math symbols do the job, but they are also meaningful.

Last, comes the code for the priority of that Next action; again Low, Medium, and High. It was relatively easy to come up with this: !, !!, and !!!. Because they come last, it was not mandatory to have the same number of characters; small downside: I would have preferred to have the high priorities Next Actions listed on the top. Anyway, here is an example of the full code for a Next Action that should take 15 minutes to accomplish, that is not so demanding, and yet that has a high priority:

15 < !!! _ description of the Next action

You might remember (or not) that I had a way of differentiating the parked, activated, and completed Next Actions (in the Next Actions section of the Project Plans & Support page) using different fonts: parked, activated, and completed. Now, all I have to do is add the Context tag to a parked Next Action to activate it and click the checkbox to mark it as completed. Easy peasy!

Bonus tip: to have my contexts also organized the way I want (i.e., grouped by areas) in the Tags Summary, I have another trick. You may be familiar with the classic use of special characters (e.g., # or @) or the letter z (e.g. z, zz, and zzz) to have your items listed first or last, respectively. I find this approach unesthetic! In OneNote, using spaces before the description of the tag is enough. All my work-related contexts have three spaces and come first on the Tags Summary tab. My CogitActive contexts have two spaces… For the tags that are not part of the checkbox contextual tags and that I want to see first when I unselect “Show only unchecked items”, I use four spaces. You’re welcome!

The icing on the cake is when you click on any tagged item on the Tags Summary, OneNote brings you directly to where this item is located (i.e., the actual Project Plans & Support page and paragraph). Like this, I can see what project it belongs to and anything I would have written around this item; which brings me to my next point…

Bye bye Next Actions section

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

On the one hand, the massive gain of time 2 was priceless, but on the other hand, I felt that I was losing some info (from the table I had on those pages; see GTD using OneNote my way). The solution was to move the table to the Next Actions section of the Project Plans & Support page. Of course, the table had to be rethought completely; no need for the Energy and Priority columns for that matter. Here is the new version:

Next Actions table
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In keeping with the above reference to “icing on the cake”, I can now take full advantage of the Supplementary information & ancillary material column because whenever I click on the Next Action in Tags Summary, it brings me to the actual location of that Next Action, i.e., the correct row in the above table. I can use this to keep track of my progress on a Next Action that requires more time (i.e., not finished within my time block, for instance), to provide background information for a broader understanding of the task at hand, and/or just to have other information (e.g., phone number for a call).

Simplified Project list

Thanks to this upgrade, I was also able to remove my Project lists entirely. Indeed, with all the Next Actions visible – and what is more, their status (parked, activated, and completed) evident on a glimpse – within each Project Plans & Support page, I didn’t need these extra tables (to ensure that the project has action-steps defined) anymore (see GTD using OneNote my way). Instead of these seven tables/pages, I have now a single page, called Active projects, in which I list the active (duh!) projects for each of my areas: Work, CogitActive, and Life.

The point of this page/list is three-fold:

  • Keep track of the many projects I am committed to, and know whether I can handle more or not.
  • Try to balance my three areas, and not have too many work-related projects at the expense of my personal life (see Time management: a balanced life).
  • Attribute some priorities (using tags) to these projects: none, urgent, important, important & urgent, and critical.

At the same time, I have also revamped my Project index table:

Projects list table
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I kept the ID of the project (linked to the corresponding Project Plans & Support page), its Name, the Date it was added to this table, the due date or Deadline (if any), and its current Status. As for the latter, notice however that it comes with more options than just Active or Completed. This table also allows me to track the relationship with other projects (if any) of each project thanks to the Sub-project(s) column. Note, that the Outcome column has been replaced with Purpose because Outcome (i.e., what “done” means) was already in the Project Plans & Support page. The last addendum for this table was the Area, just a quick way (thanks to three square color tags – you’ve guessed correctly: blue, yellow, and green) to know whether the project belongs to Work, CogitActive, or Life.

Projects as movable pages

As you may know, if you follow this blog or if you have read the official GTD OneNote Setup Guide, there is nothing useful in the latter; still, I get inspired by one of the approaches. In the guide, David Allen, or Kelly (see How to set up OneNote for GTD?), recommends using a page for each Next Action; a terrible idea in terms of wasted paper, I ironized back then, if OneNote were not to be a digital Notebook. Although I did criticize this – not understanding the rationale behind such a choice – at first, I ended up using the concept in my new setup.

Indeed, I took advantage of the convenience of moving pages within OneNote (as opposed to rows of a table for that matter). In my new setup, by using a separate Project Plans & Support page for each project – and nothing else but that page – I can easily move a project to whatever section I want; this includes the Projects section obviously, but also the Someday _ Maybe section as well. Actually, I can move a project back and forth as needed; hence the updated status (Active, Parked, Someday, Maybe, and Completed) in the Projects index table (see above). Needless to say, I have removed the three times seven equal 21 pages, as well as their enclosed tables, that I had in my Someday _ Maybe section. I just keep the three main pages – Parked, Someday, and Maybe – on which I have the same kind of list I described earlier on my Active projects page (without the priority tags, though). There, all the Project Plans & Support pages are actually sub-pages of these three main ones.

OneNote templates

In keeping with my need to increase the speed and efficiency of my workflow, I have replaced my previous approach of creating a new Project Plans & Support page (i.e., by using the “Move or Copy…” feature of OneNote) with page templates.

A template is a pre-designed layout that you can apply to a new page to provide a level of consistency and save time. OneNote comes with several built-in templates, including decorative page backgrounds and to-do lists. You can create your own template or customize an existing one.Microsoft

Simply, after setting up my Project Plans & Support page the way I wanted it – including the new table in the Next Actions section – I turned it into a template. By setting it as default template for new pages in the section, I save a lot of clicks; hence, time. When I add a new page to my Projects section, OneNote adds my Project Plans & Support page template. Here is a video from Andy Park showing you how easy it is:

By Andy Park

How to deal with due dates

As alluded to in GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts, for time-sensitive tasks, I was adding an Outlook task to my Next Action. I would have liked to have reminders within OneNotes – to eliminate the hassle of switching platforms – but except if you purchase a plug-in like the “OneNote Reminder” by OneNote Gem, it is not possible.

Instead, I create two new tags: Deadline and Reminder. Anytime I use these two – that is for time-specific info, I enter the date in yyyy/mm/dd format as pointed out earlier. Why? Because like this, everything appears in a nice chronological order in …

… you’ve guessed right; my new dynamic dashboard, namely Tags Summary.

Other improvements

This is it for the bulk of my improvements, but I have also implemented other minor modifications that boost my productivity. Here are a few…

No more separate areas in Waiting For

I used to have separate pages (and sub-pages) for professional and personal items and/or categories; eight in total. Going through each one of them was a waste of time. Now, I have a single page – with an updated table, of course:

Waiting For table
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Thanks to my three square color tags – blue, yellow, and green – added to the first column, I can know instantly whether the task belongs to Work, CogitActive, or Life.

Of course, I have also created a Waiting For tag that I apply to any Waiting For items, including the minor ones that do not require to go into the above table.

My agendas always with me

You might remember that I had my Agendas under the Next Actions section. Now that the latter is gone, what happened to the formers?

First, following the advice from the video below, I simplified my system from six lists to only four: my co-workers (place), my lab people, my other professional collaborators (i.e., beyond my workplace), and my personal agendas.

By Calm Achiever

Second, I moved them from OneNote to my phone because I realized that often I run into a person without my laptop with me (and unprepared, obviously, given the nature of these unexpected encounters). As you may already know, if you follow this blog, I do not use OneNote on my phone, but Google Keep instead. Therefore, I created four notes and added them as widgets (all four on one screen). No table here, nothing but an itemized list with the tasks as sub-items for each person (listed alphabetically). Every time I meet someone, my agendas are one swipe away…


That’s a wrap. I hope you will find this upgrade valuable. I do!


1 Of note, because I got rid of my Next Action section, I had to create a Next Actions (no project) page for those rare Next Actions not linked to any project. It comes with the same table described above; the only difference is that I fill that one upward instead of downward (i.e., by inserting rows above rather than below the last Next Action entered). ^
2 Not to mention that I do not have to check (and update) all these extra pages anymore! Wherever I add the Next Action (i.e., no matter what Project Plans & Support page I am on), it will appear in the good context – once tagged – in the Tags Summary tab. For instance, I could be working on a personal-related project (i.e., Life), but have a Next Action that requires me to be in my office at work (e.g., to scan something). There is no problem, I just have to tag it with the @ office tag. It’s a breeze! ^

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