Emojis as Visual Cues in OneNote

Clearly designate types of notes when displayed in a list

Still playing with creating notes that are easier to navigate.  One tweak that has my attention at the moment is the use of emojis in note titles. 

Note Listing
Note Listing

Let’s take the example of creating a rough outline within a notebook.  A top-level note would represent a main idea for a paragraph. Developing ideas would become subpages under that note.  With OneNote Windows 16 in particular, sometimes it is hard to see the indentation level in the Notes listing.  It would be helpful to visually differentiate between main ideas and supporting points.

Main and Supporting leading text

One option would be the use of abbreviations or short phrases, such as “Main” or “Supp”, at the front of the Note title.  However, these characters at the front of the title push the other words to the right where they may no longer be visible.

Use of Tags

We could use tags on the title.  Yet, tags do not appear in the notes listing window.  Nor do they appear in search results unless we specify that we are looking for tags.

Use of Emojis

On the other hand, if we use emoji’s we get bright and easily recognized labels that appear in both the note listing and the search results.  An emoji does this while only taking up a single character in the title. I believe emojis are a better choice that inserting a symbol, since emojis include color inherently and do not need color applied.

There are a wide variety of emoji’s available.  However, I am limiting my use to simple shapes – circle, diamond, and triangle.  While I do try to keep the emoji’s use consistent within a single notebook, it can represent different concepts across different notebooks.

Zettelkasten and Academic Research

Using ZK and OneNote to synthesize new understanding

After capturing notes with an eye towards Zettelkasten concepts, the utility of my notes is definitely increasing dramatically.  One thing that has helped was Shu Omi’s video.  The video gave a good look at his research flow using ZK.  There is a lot to unpack in the video, so it required pausing and rewinding several times to catch all of the important points.

OneNote continues to serve as my ZK system of choice. ZK-dedicated applications exist, but I did not see a particular ROI on the time and, in some cases, monetary costs.  Since OneNote is a Microsoft application, it should be around for a long time.  Both versions, ON16 and ONW10 have their have advantages and disadvantages.  For ON16, the ability to CTRL+k and then quickly search for pages to link makes cross-referencing easier than ONW10.  For ONW10, the ability to search directly for a specific tag helps find related content quickly.

For actual notetaking, two templates seem to serve my needs. Riffing on Omi’s flow, here is my approach to reviewing research papers.  The process begins with a PDF version of the paper, which allows highlighting passages as they appear relevant and interesting.  After reading through the paper once, I open a custom Literature Note (LitNote) template.  Going through the highlighted passages, I capture these points – brief bullet points – within the LitNote body.  Afterwards, I fill out the LitNote header, which includes information I have found helpful for future reference (paper title, author, year, and a link to an accessible copy of the paper).  Having these in the header allows me to review these points at a glance.

If the LitNote contains any particularly interesting ideas, I open a different  template – a Permanent Note (PermNote).  The PermNote captures the idea in fully developed sentences.  The header of the PermNote template allows capturing a link to the original LitNote as well as links to other relevant pages.

That is the big picture of my research method.  The details are still in a state of continuous tweaking. What I am finding confirms the primary treatise of Zettelkasten – curating connections instead of collecting ideas makes a definite difference in my ability to synthesize my research into new understanding.

Zettel Connections in OneNote

Follow notes forward and backward to fully develop ideas

I am still conducting field tests on how to implement a practical Zettelkasten system within OneNote.  I am less interested in the nuances of Zettelkasten, and more concerned with what makes it a useful system.  What I have found most valuable has been the connections between concepts – having an idea and being able to link it to other ideas.  This process tends to help me synthesize the information I am trying to learn.  It is though I am using the overt process of identifying links to OneNote pages to help me make similar covert synapse linkages in my own memory.

It seems that a key feature of some Zettelkasten applications is the two-way link.  That is, if I link note A to note B, the application will also link note B back to note A.  To fully replicate this in OneNote, I would have to insert two links for every connection made.  In note A, I would need to create the link to note B.  Then, in note B, I would have to make a corresponding link back to note A.  This certainly adds a layer of complexity.

The scenario could be as such: While creating a note on “Things,” I want to go into detail about things that have color.  I can quickly type [[Things with Color]] and once I click this text with the brackets, OneNote automatically creates a new page titled Things with Color.  On this new note I want to describe red, blue, and green things.  So again, I use the brackets to create pages for [[Red Things]], [[Blue Things]], and [[Green Things]].  As I click on these phrases, OneNote creates the new pages.

The Zettel apps at this point would also create links back from the Red, Blue, and Green pages back to the Things page. OneNote does not do this.  Thus, I do not readily have a way to trace my way back to the Things page from the Red page, for instance.

However, what OneNote has is a pretty good search function.  Since I link from Things to Red Things using a link that specifically contains the words “Red Things,”  I can use the search to find all instances of any page’s title.  In this case, if I search for “Red Things” (including the quotes, so that it looks for the complete phrase), one of the hits will be the page Things. In effect, I can now easily move both forward and backward along my connections.  To move forward, I simply look at the links on any given page.  To move backward, I use the page’s title as my search string to see all other pages that point to the page I am on.

Zettelkasten and OneNote

Experimenting with the Zettelkasten concept with OneNote. Highlights of my OneNote adaptation:

  1. Archive – This consists of all the pages within OneNote.
  2. References – This is a separate OneNote notebook, labeled Zettel.

So far, Zettel is primarily an index of keywords used in the archive (i.e., OneNote). When a note requires the use of a keyword, using Ctrl+k allows a quick search for the Zettel page, when then embeds as a link on the note.

If this is the first time that keyword has been used within a notebook, that notebook name is added to the Zettel page.

Benefits after just a week of testing:

  1. The process generates a standardized list of keywords, making searches more productive. For example, notes always use Triple Bottom Line, at least the first time it appears on a page, rather than TBL. Thus, a search for Triple Bottom Line should find all relevant pages.
  2. Zettel pages contain a list of all notebooks that use a particular keyword. Since a closed notebook does not show up in searches (at least not reliably), looking at the Zettel pages shows what specific notebooks need to be open for a complete set of relevant search results.

This approach is not completely aligned with the purest Zettelkasten, but so far it has been a good place to start.

Save OneNote Searches

A very rough workaround

OneNote used to have a feature where you could save search results as a OneNote page. However, that feature is no longer in the production version.

I stumbled across a very rough workaround for this. This works best for ON16, since the search results are a bit more compact.

  1. Use the search function to find the pages of interest, such as History > Recent Edits > Since Yesterday…
  2. Expand the window as necessary to see the full list.
  3. Use the Snipping Tool to grab a screen shot of the search results.
  4. Paste the screen shot into a OneNote page.
  5. Optional
    • Right-click the image and select Copy Text from Picture.
    • Paste the text into the OneNote page.
    • Delete the screen shot.

The page list will not be ‘clickable’ per se, however, you now have the page titles. You can now copy the page title of interest and enter that into the search field. The page of interest will come back at the top of the results, within the “In title” group.

Automate Meeting Planning

Use workflows to create prep checklists for meetings

With the current lockdown, I am having quite a few video conferences.  Before these meetings, there are a few steps I take to help make the meeting as productive as possible.  For example:

  • Verify calendar date, time and location
  • Review meeting attendees
  • Create a Meeting Note
  • Sync relevant documents to iPad
  • Sync OneNote notebook to iPad
  • Check teleconference software operability

Typically, I use Microsoft To-Do to help me with checklist.  That means I have to create each of these tasks before the meeting with enough lead time to avoid a last-minute rush.  To make this a little easier, I can use a workflow in Microsoft Power Automate that creates these tasks for upcoming meetings.

Microsoft Power Automate (formerly Flow) lets you create automated workflows, in particular between Microsoft Office apps.  In this case, I want to create a workflow that creates items in To-Do whenever a meeting appears on my calendar in Outlook.

To create the workflow, I go to my Office 365 site and use the ‘waffle’ in the top left corner to choose Power Automate.  In the left menu, I choose Create.

In this case, as of this writing, there is no template that includes To-Do. Therefore, we will have to create the workflow from Start from blank and then choose Automated flow.

In the next screen we give the flow a name and chose the flow’s trigger.  Search for ‘event’ and scroll down to When a new event is created.  The window changes to the flow editor, with the Outlook trigger at the top.  Within this first step (the trigger), choose which calendar we want to monitor.  Now we can tell Power Automate what we want it to do when triggered.

Click +New Step, which allows us to choose the action.  We want to use the Add a to-do action from Microsoft To-Do.  In the Subject field, enter our first item Verify meeting time and location. For Due Date, we are going to use a little math so that this happens the day before the meeting. Place the cursor in the Due Date field and click on Expression.  Now scroll down to Date and time and choose addDays. In the expression editor, place the cursor between the parentheses and click Dynamic content.  Since we want to start the task the day before the meeting, we add -1 to the expression and click OK. The resulting formula:


Since we will have multiple meetings on our calendar, we will want to know which one we need to verify.  To do this, we enter the meeting subject line in the Body Content field.

We now click on Save  and then use the Flow Checker to find any obvious issues. If there are no problems, we can test the flow with a Test Event on the calendar we chose as the trigger.

That is the basics.  If you want to create items for everything on the prep list, you can add a new step to the workflow for each item.

Use “My Day” as a dashboard across O365

Track activities across multiple applications

At this point we have captured tasks in Microsoft To Do, Outlook, OneNote and Planner. Each application has its own situations that make it the most appropriate way to create a tracked action.  However, this has the potential to make daily planning quite complicated.  How do you check each one of these applications as you start your day, to ensure no tasks are overlooked?

This is where a particular feature makes Microsoft To Do actually worthwhile.  Microsoft To Do can collect all of your pending tasks across the Microsoft product suite.

Let’s start with a simple feature that really helps me psychologically – at the beginning of each day, My Day is empty.  There is no overwhelming list of actions left from yesterday, or the day before.  In many tools, the list of incomplete and overdue tasks keeps accumulating over time until they create frustration and may lead to abandoning the tool.  In contrast, the My Day view in Microsoft To Do starts clean each day.

What practical affect does this have? Primarily, the day starts off with a win.  Rather than seeing everything still outstanding from yesterday, you can start with by adding your Daily Routine to My Day.  For the Covey fans out there, this is Quadrant 2 – non-urgent, but important. For me, I can usually knock out this list in about thirty minutes. This results in actively responding to priorities, not reacting to crises.

Once you have your tasks added to My Day, simply click the check mark as each one is completed.  You can choose whether to show or hide completed tasks.  I prefer to hide completed tasks, as there is a certain satisfaction seeing the list slowly dissolve to nothing.

Once all the tasks from your first round are complete, click on the Today button (the lightbulb in the top right). A panel will open up with a list of pending tasks to add to your My Day view. The list includes items due today, items from the past that are still open, and tasks that will be due soon.  Clicking the plus sign (+) next to selected tasks will add the item to your My Day view.

This list of pending tasks comes from various sources.  For instance, if you flag an email in MS Outlook, the email shows up in MS To Do.  If you have been assigned tasks from MS Planner, those tasks will show up in MS To Do with due dates.  If you flagged items for follow-up in a OneNote Meeting Note, those items show up in MS To Do.

Since Microsoft To Do searches across the Microsoft Office 365 suite to find outstanding action items, you are free to use the most appropriate tool based on what you are doing when you become aware of the tasks.  Then, when it is time to complete those tasks, they can all be found in one place – Microsoft To Do.

 This is the final part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Track Project tasks with MS Planner

Coordinate and Collaborate on Projects

So far, we have made use of the Microsoft To Do application to provide us with a simple list of daily tasks. What about more complex scenarios, such as when you depend on others to finish their assigned tasks before you can begin yours? If you are a real heavy hitter, you might turn to Microsoft Project. However, for most of us MS Project is simply too complex. Besides, it does not come with the standard Microsoft Office 365.

Might I recommend that you take a look at Microsoft Planner, which comes with most Office 365 business subscriptions and is part of the standard applications found with Microsoft Teams. Planner allows you to generate a set of tasks, typically related to a single project or effort. You can then assign these tasks to team members and then track progress. Microsoft Planner gives you greater visibility and collaboration than MS To Do, without the significant overhead of using MS Project.

Microsoft Planner includes task boards with buckets, calendar views and a collection of progress charts. Tasks assigned to you can be quickly called up through the built-in My Tasks view.

Adding a Plan to a Team

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel to be associated with the plan.
  2. In the channel header, click on Add a tab +.
  3. In the Add a tab window, choose Planner.
  4. In the Planner window, select Create a new plan, and provide a name for the plan. (Note: The name provided will be used on the channel tab, too.)
  5. Click Save.

Opening an Existing Plan from Teams

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel associated with the plan.
  2. In the Teams header, click on the tab for the plan.

Use Teams Notebooks

Share your ideas with your team

Let’s add a new tool to our productivity toolbox – Microsoft Teams.  A OneNote notebook can be created for each MS Team.  This means that any idea or action item you captured within OneNote can easily be shared out to your team.  However, from a usability standpoint, the Teams interface with OneNote is a bit more limited than the desktop version of OneNote. (In fact, as of this writing, the Teams version of OneNote has been limited to ‘read only’ due to all of the users working from home because of the coronavirus outbreak.)

This lack of functionality is not a problem though, because the very same notebook can be accessed using the OneNote desktop application. So, create the notebook from MS Teams, but maintain and add to the notebook from the desktop version.  This provides the full functionality while still collaborating with other team members.

Side note: In the past, I have recommended keeping to a single notebook for all of your notes.  I have abandoned this approach due to the strains on performance.  I will share my new, evolved philosophy in a later post.

Creating Team Notebooks

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the relevant Team.
  2. Within the Team, choose one of the Channels, such as General.
  3. In the Teams ribbon, click the plus sign (+) to add a tab.
  4. In the Add a tab dialog window, choose the OneNote application.
  5. Expand the default team notebook by clicking on the triangle next to the notebook name.
  6. Click the plus sign (+) for Create New Section.
  7. Provide a name for the new section (recommendation: use the name of the channel).
  8. If desired, leave the check in ‘Post to the channel about this tab’ to notify team members that the notebook now exists.
  9. Click Save.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Use Quick Notes

Don’t let random ideas interrupt your productivity

Good ideas can happen at any time – which is good and bad.  While creativity is key to competitive advantage, you still have to maintain productivity if you want to get anything done.  David Allen goes into great detail describing how the mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

So, how to clear your head without losing these great ideas?  I recommend the use of Quick Notes.  Windows is able to call up Quick Notes from any application.  You just have to use the keyboard shortcut ÿ+n (Windows key and the letter n). This will pop up a stickie-note window.  Now, simply jot down the thought or idea on this note, with just enough information that you can make sense of it later – do NOT try to capture and clarify.  Just capture the idea.

After capturing the idea, go back to whatever you were working on, giving it your full attention.

Later, such as your next break or at the end of the day, review your Quick Notes. At this time you can make an initial attempt at clarifying the idea, expanding and filling in details such you can identify any actions that you need to take.

Creating Quick Notes

  1. From whatever application you are using, use ÿ+n.
  2. Type your thought, idea or reminder on the new note.
  3. Return to whatever you were doing.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.