Managing Your Tasks With OneNote


I’ve been on a quest for the perfect task/ time management system for years. I concluded quite some time ago that the goal will always remain elusive but the questing is valuable. Although many trials of new systems get discarded, I tend to keep the bits that work for me and incorporate them into my ongoing personal system.


I commonly hit two issues: most systems (e.g. GTD) seem overly rigid, and flat task lists, even with categories, don’t support the way my task list grows. My tasks often grow hierarchically. The task starts life as something like “Draft plan for perpetual motion machine”. But as I start working on that task it spawns sub tasks like “”Review past work in this space”, “Meet Fred re: his Project X work” and so on.


Hierarchical task management systems do exist but are rare. I have used ListPro, and I have used MS Project quite a bit. Project is a good hierarchical task manager but its features are overkill for most personal task lists. They both have their own rigidities, and don’t integrate with Outlook in the right way. Ultimately I actually want my tasks to show up in Outlook. Because I want to see them along with my calendar and be able to allocate them to slots on my calendar, get reminders etc. Outlook 2007 rocks for all this now but it still doesn’t do hierarchy…


With the combination of OneNote 2007 and Outlook 2007 I now have a system that works very well for me. Here’s how I manage my task list and workflow now.



  1. I created a ToDo page in OneNote in my general section. This always contains my current to do list and grows and evolves as my tasks change.
  2. I have a direct keyboard shortcut to this page, Ctrl-Alt-T, so that I can instantly go to this page whether OneNote is running or not. This works from anywhere. See my post on Keyboard Shortcuts for Favorite OneNote Pages for how to do this.
  3. I write each task on a line.
  4. I hit Ctrl-Shift-1 to mark that item as an Outlook task for today (or Ctrl-Shift-2 is tomorrow, 3 is this week, 4 is next week, Ctrl-Shift-K pops up the Outlook task dialog for custom date and fields). This process gets the tasks roughly distributed on my calendar correctly.
  5. That line gets flagged as an “Outlook Task” in Onenote. It gets added to the task list in Outlook, and there is two way sync between them. If it gets marked done in Outlook it shows up as done in OneNote and vice versa.
  6. There’s also cross linking. A link is created in the Outlook task that will jump you directly back to this item in OneNote. Or you can right click the flag in OneNote to open the matching task in Outlook.
  7. I add hierarchy to the task list and manage the structure and priorities of my tasks in OneNote by indenting lines. Or change order and priorities by moving things up and down. Alt-Shift + left arrow, right arrow, up arrow, or down arrow are great keyboard shortcuts for doing this easily and quickly.
  8. I manage my time on the Outlook calendar. The tasks show up in the “task well” below each day on the calendar. I can drag the task onto a slot on the calendar to schedule it. I can drag it out to a different day if I want to defer it. This is very quick time management.

Now my work flow typically looks like this:



  1. Hit Ctrl-Alt-T, I can look at my task list and get an overall view.
  2. Move things around with Alt-Shift arrows, for example to bring important stuff to the top.
  3. I can mark things done. I can add new things. I can add additional context and links to references or details I’ll need to refer to when doing the task.
  4. I also see my tasks show up in the “ToDo bar” on the right of Outlook whenever I’m in Outlook. So they’re always in front of me.
  5. And I see them distributed across date in the Outlook calendar and allocate time accordingly.
  6. I can update the status in either place.
  7. I leave “done” tasks on my OneNote page for a while (they are flagged as done), but as I work on the parent task I can quickly see which of the sub tasks are done and what’s left to do. Periodically I delete the done tasks from the ToDo page, for example when the parent task is complete. I always have a permanent record of them in Outlook. Ctrl-A once, followed by delete is a fast way to delete a task line.
  8. Also sometimes I add tasks out of context of my OneNote ToDo page. For example, if I’m taking notes in a meeting. I can use the same process to flag any item in the meeting notes as a task to do. I don’t have to switch contexts, and later when I link back to the task I’ll see all the information from that meeting that might relate to the task.

Comments (26)

  1. I am happy to see that another of my coworkers is blogging: David Rasmussen has a blog.  He has been…

  2. dougcar says:

    David, two questions

    . I don’t see the link in outlook back to one note when the task i created in onenote is open in outook.

    2. what happens in outlook if Onenote is synching between my desktop and laptop?

  3. DavidRasmussen says:

    Doug,

    The link in outlook back to OneNote should be a OneNote file icon called "Link to task in OneNote". You double click it to go back to the entry in OneNote. Having said that there is a bug in Beta 2 that causes this not show up correctly for quite a number of people. We’re working on fixing that.

  4. larz01 says:

    David,

    I like your tasks with OneNote sugestions, do you have any ideas for tasks with OneNote Mobile?  I’d like to be able to cross link the task list to OneNote mobile so I have with me on my smartphone as well.

    It should still sync to the full PC version and function as you suggested.

  5. DavidRasmussen says:

    Larz,

    Because of the way tasks are linked between OneNote and Outlook, my tasks (which end up as Outlook tasks) show up in my task list on Pocket PC and I personally manage them from there because you can check them off etc. So I use OneNote Mobile for reference information and lists etc. that sync with OneNote, but I manage my tasks using OneNote+Outlook on the desktop and the regular task list on the Pocket PC.

    And yes, there are lots of obvious things we could do to make this integration with OneNote Mobile better. It’s all just a question of resource trade offs as to when we get to that.

  6. Dan Biederman says:

    Help!!! The Task Flags are all greyed out.  How do I activate them?  Thanks.  

  7. jhofker says:

    Hey David,

    I love the idea of managing my tasks inside OneNote. However, for those of us with two computer (I have a tablet and a desktop), it’s really hard to do it. Is there a solution for people like me that want to have everything on both computers?

  8. DavidRasmussen says:

    You can share OneNote notebooks across machines.

    Try looking at the following two links for details of some options:

    http://blogs.msdn.com/chris_pratley/archive/2005/06/25/432556.aspx

    http://blogs.msdn.com/david_rasmussen/archive/2006/06/29/650705.aspx

  9. nexusstone says:

    Dave, imo, your comment about Project being ‘good’ but (GIANT) OVERKILL is, imo, (definitely) correct – but, personally, I think that the better (& more promising) approach / solution to all of this is and integration of OneNote with a ‘Project at the level you need it’ version that incorporates selected features of Project, but leaves behind (or, better yet, selectively exposes in ‘layers’) Project’s ‘overkill’ elements.

    Personally, I don’t think that Outlook can EVER be sufficiently robust to fill this role. I think that an integration of OneNote with a version (or versions) of Project – that allow you to expose the complexity / capabilities of Project in ‘layers’ – has FAR more promise. After all, Project is a PROVEN (& very good) project management / tasking system. It’s problem for everyday use is its rigidity, complexity & inflexibility. OneNote has the flexibility (in spades); but for tasking & project management, it (BADLY) needs to be integrated with structure (exposed in layers as you have need of the complexity – which theoretically can vary by project).

    I use OneNote for my ToDos – but, to date, have not incorporated (nor did I previously understand) the integration with Outlook mentioned here – especially re the Outlook  ‘Calendaring’ procedures mentioned (which is missing from OneNote). I’m going to give them a try. My impression is that this ‘step’ will be ‘better’ — but FAR from (fully) satisfactory and complete.

    james m birney

    james@stonemtn.com

  10. nexusstone says:

    Some layered variant of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) might be a good start for an accepted / proven standard approach and basis for ‘layering’ (selecting & simplifying) the a task interface with OneNote (& Outlook?). In principal, this would allow you to mix (really) simple (one-liner) ‘projects’ with multi-step / multi-stage (‘real’, &/or more-serious-to-very-serious, projects).

    james m birney

    james@stonemtn.com

  11. nexusstone says:

    Another SERIOUS issue re task lists that I’ve run into is for (typically ‘oversight’ or supervisory) projects that really ‘never end’ — meaning: you have to follow up on them REPETITIVELY for a LONG time (or even ‘forever’). The only approach that I’ve been able to develop re these ‘forever’ projects is (simply) to create as series of repetitive (single) projects (which, in aggregate comprise a long-term project. Using this approach, MSProject-style project-management projects appear to (present the epitomy of OVERKILL &) are essentially useless (& drive you CRAZY).

    I don’t quite know how OneNote might be better structures to handle this — but, I do know that OneNote is FAR more flexible,  which implies to me that there may be some (substantial) incremental value in doing something with OneNote that canNOT be done very well with other approaches (that I am aware of).

    james m birney

    james@stonemtn.com

  12. uSlackr says:

    Thanks for the tips.  I finally figured out (well, looked into) Outlook integration.

    \Greg

  13. jorgusch says:

    Thanks for this post – I just found it by accident as it is a bit ancient 😉

    After getting crazy with GTD this looks like a perfect comprimise. However, I would suggest to make use of tags such as @call, @work. Anyway, did you modify your task managment ever since, Would be nice, to hear about even better solutions.

    All the best

    jorgusch

  14. Reno says:

    Great stuff thanks for posting!  :)

  15. markw says:

    Dave, do you know if it is possible to share a On-Note "project task list" between multiple users so everyone can add/update tasks and see the ones assigned to them on their calendars?

    If so how do you do that?

    Thanks much for the posts

  16. Maria says:

    I'm also interested in creating something with recurring tasks (daily, weekly, monthly, qtly, etc.).  Can that be done?  Also, I'd like to be able to assign all the tasks to a group but have it 'complete' as soon as one person completes it.  Is that possible?

  17. DavidRasmussen says:

    Thanks Maria for the suggestions and feedback. Right now that's not possible (assigning to a group and have it complete as soon as one person completes it). But it's great to hear ideas like this so that we can consider them.

  18. Tony Kan says:

    Is it possible to bring in a feature that works like this:

    I. Write out a sentence like:" Write Monthly report on the tenth of every month" and

    2. have OneNote automatically recognize this as a repetitive task and assign it a due date?

    and

    I. Write out a sentence like:" Management meeting every mMonday at 9am and

    2. have OneNote automatically recognize this as a repetitive appointment and assign it a due date?

  19. Hanno says:

    Several very useful features were not mentioned (I'm using Onenote 2010) in this post.

    The fact that several lists can be created in the same Onenote page is very convenient specially when you use it in conjunction with the 'Find tags' button which provides a summary window that can group you tasks by date, section, title or tag name. This means that you can have both a view that shows several lists (personal, work, projects etc.) and another that combines them grouped by date or priority.When adding tags to the todo flags another dimension with new possibilities presents itself. The tags can serve as a diffrentiator between the different tasks (priorities, project name etc.).

    Another useful feature is the 'Create summary' page button which takes the results of the 'find tag' search and making them into a permenant page with links to the original i.e. you'll have two views of the same data. You can also combine several pages of tasks into one using this feature.

  20. Jaty says:

    Dave,  Thanks for much for this post.  So useful.  I like the integration between one note and outlook tasks.  However I now have all my calender on iCloud, and when you create a task using ctrl shift + it creates in the PC calender.  Is there any solution to this challenge?  Thanks

  21. James says:

    Hi David,

    How do you send email message to your todo list?

    Normally when you send an email to OneNote it will include the hole message.

  22. Isabelle says:

    Hi David,

    Your tips are amazing and still relevant in 2015!

    Congratulations!

    Best regards,

    Isabelle.

  23. Isabelle says:

    Well, this information is relevant even in 2016!

    😉