Getting organized using OneNote note flags

I've written recently about some of the more exotic capabilities of OneNote, but I thought I would spend a little time on Note Flags. Note Flags are one of the fundamental features of OneNote that makes the power of having an electronic notebook apparent. Oddly, although we consider Note Flags one of the fundamental features of OneNote that everyone should be using, I still meet people who either never use them, or have not discovered the awesome power of Note Flags Summary. And they are still using OneNote - go figure πŸ™‚

You can apply a note flag to any text or ink or picture on the OneNote page. A flag can be anything you want - its a way to tag some information. Where note flags get powerful is when you start to use Note Flags Summary which is a query which you can run across all or part of your notebook to roll up all the flags you have made so you can follow up on them later. More on that farther down.


First, the two main buttons for Note Flags are on the Standard toolbar and they look like this (if you haven't used them yet):

The one on the left is a drop down control that shows you the default set of note flags. The one on the right is the all-powerful Note Flags Summary. Pay attention to that one.

Here's the default set of Note Flags OneNote ships with:

These are pretty limited because we expect people to customize them (using the "Customize My Note Flags..." command you see there). You can customize them for whatever you want since everyone has different needs. For example, here's what my list looks like:

As I mentioned, you can apply a note flag to any text or ink or picture on the OneNote page. So a sample note page might look like this:

All the formatting you see came as part of the note flag definition (you get to choose an optional icon, color for text, and optional highlight color). I applied these flags just by using the hotkeys Ctrl-4, (Action item) Ctrl-7 (Meeting to Set up) and the dropdown for the last one (Tel. Number). As shown above, the first 9 flags get hotkeys using Ctrl- and a number. The others you have to use the button for. You can "tear off" the list of flags and make them a toolbar for easy application (or just View/Toolbars/Note Flags) - this is great for Tablet users who can't access the hotkeys in Tablet mode.

Note Flags Summary: your life has just changed

Where this really gets powerful is when you use Note Flags Summary. Here, I have clicked the note flag summary button and have the "scope" set to the current folder. The pane shows upon the right:

You can see below in the detail shot that the summary has picked up all the flags on this page plus those on all the other pages in this section and other sections in this folder. It has pulled them here together so I can see them all in one place. On paper, this would require me to flip through several pages and sections of a notebook and recopy my "flagged items" onto a new page - a huge time sink. As it is, I see four new tel numbers, which I will add to my contacts. I see three meetings to set up, which I will set up using Outlook. I also see a lot of things to do:

If I forget the context of some of these other items, it turns out each thing in the list is actually a hyperlink to the page it came from, so it is easy to remind myself what the context was for "Clear out dead files from server" for example. I can just click through the list and the page will be shown on the left in the main OneNote window.

It gets better. What if I want to zero in on the remaining things I still have to do? Here I have checked the box to "show only unchecked items". Things that are not actions (not "checkable") and actions I have already done and checked off are filtered out. Now I have my ToDo list:

If I like, I can use the "Create Summary Page" button to create a new page for these, perhaps to print them out and stick them in my wallet.

Note that by default creating a summary page copies all the shown note flags to a new page, leaving the original flags where they are for context. This is useful when you just want to make a temporary summary page for printing or emailing which you can then delete to keep all your flags in context. In Tools/Options/Note Flags you can change this so that in effect the flags are moved to this page (they remain where they were originally but "dimmed" so as to not interfere with Summaries) if you prefer to manage these centrally and don't care where they came from.

Its worth noting that you can adjust the scope of the summary quite easily. This makes Note Flag Summary a very powerful way to gather up random thoughts and information you have flagged all over your notebook. You can mine your "information database" for interesting nuggets and make it much more valuable than simply an electronic analog to your paper notes. Adjusting the scope:

I know people who copy loads of information from the web and flag it with various flags to organize their research (e.g. topic A, topic B), then when they want to see what they have collected on topic A, they just do a note flag summary and limit the list to the note flag for topic A. That's a really fast way to sort through the information you have collected. You can even get clever and apply more than one note flag to a piece of text - that way it will show up in more than one category.

It's also worth mentioning that you can sort your note flags in various ways - if you divide your projects so that each one has its own OneNote section you can group your flags that way too:

Which gets you this view, in case you need to see how things break out by project. Of course you can also change the scope to just see the current section in case you want to narrow things down to the project (or client) you are working with at the moment. As with most things in OneNote there is more than one way to get what you want.

Happy flagging. I know from talking with many of you that there are as many ways to use note flags as there are users. Please share any novel uses you might have.

Comments (38)
  1. Thank you for the tips. I love using OneNote at home and work.

    I have two complaints:

    If I draw, say, a circle around some text and I insert some new text above it, the circle does not stick with the original text.

    It is impossible to copy and paste a table from Word.

    Thanks again. I subscribe to your blog and enjoy it very much.

  2. Gabe says:

    I fall in the catagory "OneNote user that has never used flags" πŸ™

    I was color coding things RED that needed to be finished.

    Thanks for the article.

  3. Jeff Borlik says:

    Chris – Thanks for another great article.

    I suppose that my use of flags is fairly typical. One particularly nice use showed up in some of the more quantitative finance classes in MBA school. The professor allowed a cheat-sheet of formulas for midterms and finals. While taking notes during the lectures, I had flagged equations as such (a custom flag). The cheat-sheet just became a printout from the note flag summary page.

    Question: Is there a way of importing / exporting note flag (and other OneNote) settings? I use several computers, and have to remember to keep my settings in sync.

  4. Andy says:

    Chris, will there be a fix for highlighting note flags in the future? I’d like to highlight just ONE sentence fragment in a paragraph as use that as a flag, but OneNote highlights the entire thing instead. Rather annoying.

    Also, how’s the Journal-like ink coming along? πŸ˜‰

  5. Jeff, if you copy the file "preferences.dat" from C:Documents and Settings<username>Application DataMicrosoftOneNote to the same location on your other machine the note flag settings (as well as others) will all be transferred.

    Andy, the new ink is coming along fine, thanks. I understand the desire to flag just a portion of a paragraph – it is on the enormous list of stuff we consult when picking the few things we can actually do…

  6. PJ says:

    Another great article. I am a minor flag user, I use them but in a very simple way. I’m now feeling empowered to use them more intelligently.

    Looking forward to the next article !


  7. Flaphead says:

    Excellent tip, just excellent

  8. Alex says:

    I tried the note flags — then I found that the TODO flags don’t automatically link to Outlook, and was sad.

  9. Dorothy L says:

    Flags are great! In additon to font color and highlight color customizations, it would be nice to have font selection and indent options.

    I just love OneNote and have abandoned paper notebooks and scratch pads.


  10. Serge ETIENNE - switzelrand says:

    Is it possible to use check boxes as flags and check them ?

    ANd for instance have the flagged item hidden after check optionnally ?

  11. Great article! It inspired me to finally post some of my own tactics, which also center around noteflags:

  12. Chris Kenyon says:

    One point that I think is worth stressing is that the Note Flag summary functionality is frequently best used without ‘Creating summary pages’.

    I have only just discovered that you can mark as done items in the task pane without creating a seperate page and this is a better solution as it emlimates duplication of todo items.

  13. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the review of noteflags. They’re a great concept, but it takes some work to really make the most of them.

    Your willingness to keep up this blog is greatly appreciated. I just discovered it, and going through your archives has been a great help to me in getting a great deal more out of OneNote than I initially believed possible.

    Microsoft really needs to a better job of outlining just how much OneNote can do; I was treating it as a slightly better version of Journal until I found your site. Hope you’re able to find the time and motivation to keep blogging.

  14. karjam says:

    Great article.. Great software.

    I installed OneNote couple days ago. Downloaded the Product Guide and read the section on "organize information more effectively." Created the first entry in my OneNote yesterday. I found the note-flags as potentially powerful and central to my plan to use OneNote as a personal knowledgebase. I am using note-flags extentsively to apply categories to pages/paragraphs and then find them later (as in keyword search) based on those categories. I think this is a good way to break loose from the limitation imposed by a fixed hierarchy of implied categorization (folder/subfolder/section) and be able to explicitely assign any category to any content anywhere, and most importantly to find them later based on that criteria.

    I found this article/blog when I was searching to find out if there is a maximum limit to the number of note-flags. Right now I have a short list of note-flags to start with, but I envision that the list will be growing very fast as I add more content.

    So, is there a limit to the number of note-flags you can create/customize?

    Note-flag summary page is great for now, but can become large and unmanageable when you have lot of content. Yes, you can limit the scope based on the folders and sections, but that will not be sufficient to use it more effectively. I would hope that there is/will be a way to perform search using note-flags as keywords.

    Currently I use a shareware program for organizing my notes, thoughts, and lots of research digs. I’m looking forward to using OneNote and possibly getting addicted to it.

  15. dalf says:


    Thanks for the great article on flags. Since reading it a couple of weeks ago I’ve been using the flags in new ways, especially formatting. Now, of course, I want more.

    As a programmer, I’d like to be able to paste code snippets with a special format beyond what flags supports. Something like Courier font, 10 pt, indented and blue. Paragraph styles combined with a Special Paste would work or additional options in flags.

    Another thing, since I use OneNote to draft usage and installation instructions, it would be nice if OneNote supported Search and Replace on a page or subpage.

    Thanks again for a fine product.

  16. Ethan says:

    A key combination would eliminate the need for 1001 powertoys! I currently use Info Select, and am slowly (way too slowly) converting to OneNote, and there are two things preventing me from switching instantly — a permanent hierarchical viewpane, and the ability to transport text to OneNote using only a key combination. Of the two, I think the key combination is more important. When I use Info Select, I can select any text (in any application, at any time), hit ctrl-c to copy it to the clipboard, and then ctrl-shift-t to transport the item to Info Select. Info Select catches the item, creates a new topic or note, and I can sort it later. Unfortunately, it creates the new item wherever you last left the interface — there’s no bucket to catch transported items. πŸ™ Anyway, I MUCH prefer this approach — it’s faster than navigating to the OneNote tasktray icon, opening it up, pasting it there and closing the Side Note. I love that all items captured like this go into the Side Note bucket, but it’s too ponderous — I keep resorting to the ctrl-shift-t b/c I love the key functionality. As far as the hierarchical viewpane, I know I can kinda get something similar by using the Page List, but I have to lose that window if I need to navigate to the templates, for example. I want the ability to drag and drop pages/subpages within a folder view. I know, you’re trying to break away from such a layout, but you’ve got to recognize that a lot of us out here have spent our professional lives organizing in such a manner. Please address these two issues! πŸ™‚

  17. Ethan, try Ctrl-C, Windows-N, Ctrl-V.

    Also, I am sure you know about the tree view dropdown (click on the big "My Notebook" at upper left.) I hear you about the rest of the organization requests…

  18. Ethan says:

    Thanks Chris, I didn’t know about the Windows-N combo to bring up a sidenote — great tip! That’s key combo gets me halfway there — I’d prefer if I could send something to OneNote and not have a sidenote pop up on the screen, taking focus away from the app I’m in. I like your idea from today’s post — it’d be awesome if something like ctrl-c, ctrl-v-# would copy the item to that specific section #. Meaning, I’d copy an item, and then hit ctrl-v-5 to paste it as a new item in section 5.

  19. Roland13 says:

    i was looking for a good reason to move to ONote, you just gave me plenty!Great blog!Keep it up

  20. Colin Young says:

    Great article. I’ve been using OneNote for about a year now, without knowing about the flags until yesterday (go figure — I still found it useful, but now I’m hoping it will become indispensible).

    In addition to the suggestion to allow flags to apply to partial paragraphs, it would be really helpful to be able to apply multiple flags to a single paragraph (at least it doesn’t appear to allow it now). For example I might want to define a to do but also mark it time-sensitive without having to define 3 flags (to do, time sensitive and time sensitive to do).

    Thanks for the helpful blog.

  21. Colin Young says:

    Okay. Never mind my last comment (except for the bit about liking the idea of allowing partial paragraph tagging). It seems that you can add multiple tags to a paragraph, although I’m positive it wasn’t working for me when I tried it last night, although maybe it was my eyes that weren’t working…

  22. Bastian says:

    Tasks is for Outlook. And if the OneNote-Tasks don’t synch easily with Outlook they don’t make much sense for time manageing people.

    Okay, there is this function to make a task an Outlook-Task. But do you expect me to go through each and every task to synch it? Highlighting two or more tasks and then choosing to make them Outlook-Tasks creates only one task. Really this should be optimized.

    But in general: OneNote rocks!

  23. Tero says:

    I found an annoying problem while using note flags summary; I use it as my To Do list, but when I check a checkbox and click the Refresh Results couple of times the To Do items re-appear unchecked!

    So, when I click the Refresh Results the first time, everything works nicely and the checked items dissappear from the summary page as expected. When I check some other checkboxes and click the Refresh Results, the newly checked items dissapear, but the earlier ones re-appear!

    This is the main reason I’m not really using OneNote anymore… at least on a piece of paper my To Do items remain done.

  24. JacobE says:

    I followed the online steps to add Flags and I’m able to modify the 9 default ones but have no clue how to add more flags in "Customize My Note Flags". What I’m I missing here.

  25. Anonymous, it sounds like you might be using the original version of Onenote, which supported only 9 note flag "slots". You should install Sp2 which will up this to 25 (Use help/Check for updates)

  26. Jack Crawford says:

    Chris, I’ve enjoyed reading (and re-reading) your note flags article.

    Is there an efficient way to insert date based note flags? My to-do and project templates need key dates inserted frequently.

    I don’t have Outlook on one of my machines, so would like to stay within OneNote if I can.



  27. Jack Crawford: Sort of. With any set of note flags you can sort them by date using the control at the top of the note flag summary pane. So you can at least see oldest to newest and so on.

    You can also insert the actual date and time a note flag is taken using shortcut keys like Alt-Shift-D and F and T which might help if you sort by note flag text (another sort option in the same drop down)

    OneNote 2003 doesn’t have the ability to insert note flags that change with time or have due dates. Since most of our users have Outlook for that we provide ways to send note flags to Outlook, or in OneNote 12 to simply create Outlook tasks directly in Onenote and have them sync.

  28. Steven Smart says:

    It would be great if it was possible to filter the Note Flag Summary more effectively.

    For example generating the Note Flag Summary based on the current folder only (and it’s sub-folders).

    The ultimate would be to select folders to include in the Note Flag summary using a drop down similar to the folders and section navigation drop down. Clicking a checkbox next to the folder would include it in the Note Flag summary.

    Enjoying your Blog very much, I have picked up quite a few idea on how to use OneNote to manage my information and To Do lists.

  29. Steven, at the bottom of the note flag summary pane there is a drop down to control scope. There you can set the scope to be as small as the current page all the way up to the whole notebook. I agree all this could have a lot more done to it – we have ideas aplenty!

  30. Steven Smart says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thankyou for responding to my posting.

    I had previously tried to use the dropdown to restrict the scope to "Current folder and its subfolders" and couldn’t get it to work.

    The problem was that the current folder (In my case it’s the "projects" directory) had no sections, only sub folders. Once I added a section to the  "project" directory OneNote was able to fine the note flags in all the sub-folders and their associated sections.


    Steven Smart

  31. Justin Vogt says:

    Ben and I use Microsoft OneNote&amp;nbsp;on one of our current projects all the time, and I must say, I’ve…

  32. Steven, thanks for the bug report. I can repro it so we ‘ll take a look.

    Justin, in your post you link to Raving Fans. We have a few for OneNote so maybe they can join forces with our newly mobilized OneNote Zombie Army…:-)

  33. JayJ says:

    I’m curious what custom note flags others have setup.  I am a student and I use the following note flags:  Important, question, definition, quote, idea, source for paper, inbox.  I use David Allen’s Getting things done and I need to sync my tasks with outlook and my palm so I don’t use flags for tasks.  If I have a task I will flag it as inbox then later when I go through my inbox I will change the flag to the custom date follow up which opens the outlook task to allow me to set the date and the category (i.e. @Home, @Errands, etc).

    I use the flags to mark sections of my notes taken in class.  

    My only issue with OneNote is I really need to sync some of my notes with  my palm so I can study when I’m waiting (i.e. standing in line).

  34. Andy says:

    I keep having a problem with 2003 sp2 where my customized note flags will disappear.  notes I have already flagged are labeled correctly in the note flag summary, but if they no longer show in the list of note flags to use.  Anyone else had this issue?  Great great tool otherwise, it’s relinquished me from paper for about 95% of what I do at work.  Add the outlook task synch to the wishlist and i’ll be closer to 100%!

  35. journal says:

    I have not used Microsoft OneNote much as I am not a very regular Windows user. That being said, here is an excellent tutorial on using it’s Note Flags feature to get your Org-fu on. I am a big fan…

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