How I Use Microsoft OneNote

Posted on December 10, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Office 365, Mobile, iOS, Android, Office with 30 Comments

How I Use Microsoft OneNote

Following up on last week’s OneNote posts, I thought I’d open up my own notebooks and explain how I use this product every day.

If you haven’t, please do check out A Few Tips for Integrating OneNote Into Your Life. There are some interesting tips in the comments too, plus the usual assortment of noise. (Sorry.) I also wrote a post called A Personal History of Microsoft OneNote that documents my early experiences with the first versions of the application.

Looking back on the past decade or so, there are two major changes that have really impacted my OneNote usage.

First, OneNote moved from local, PC-based storage to the cloud, first as an option and then as a requirement for most. This is the correct way to store this kind of information, because it means you can access it from any device, leading to point number two.

Which is that OneNote is now available everywhere, and for free. So I can access OneNote on my Windows-based PCs, of course, but also on the web (and thus on Chromebooks), Macs, Android handsets and tablets, Windows phones and tablets, iPhone and iPad. It is literally everywhere and, more to the point, everywhere I am out in the world.

These changes have transformed OneNote from useful to ubiquitous.

From an organizational perspective, things have likewise changed over the years. Today, I maintain four separate notebooks, all in (consumer) OneDrive. They are:

Paul’s Notebook. This is my person notebook, and I have sections for our annual home swap, unusual foods and drink I want to remember (sushi, Indian food, sake), and more. At one point, I was using it sort of like Pocket before there was a Pocket, and was saving articles there, but I’ve moved on to Pocket for that. But my Quick Notes and phone scans go here too. So now this is the notebook I access most often from mobile, and the least on my PCs.


Meeting Notes. This notebook contains five sections representing the five most recent years of meeting notes (2012-2016) plus more sections for internal meetings and notes from sources. My original content roadmap for is here, for example.

Windows Weekly. This one has about six years of show notes (2011-present), with a unique section (e.g. 2016) for each year. It’s shared with Mary Jo, so we can collaborate on the notes, and with various people at TWiT so they can access the notes during the show.


First Ring Daily. This is the most recent and simple of the notebooks, which I started so Brad and I could collaborate on the podcast. There is only one section, with five pages, each of which is for a specific day and is overwritten each week as we go (Mobile Monday, Tech Tuesday, We Help Wednesday, Throwback Thursday, and Future Friday).

Day to day, I do all of my note-taking by typing, rather than handwriting. But my usage varies by device. For example, I access Meeting Notes, Windows Weekly, and First Ring Daily almost exclusively on the PC. But Paul’s Notebook is mostly mobile because I use often use it to remember things I see out in the world.

Because I use the iPhone most frequently, I have added the OneNote widget to the iOS Search screen, which I can access quickly by swiping to the right on the Home or Lock screen. From this widget, I can create a new note, a new photo or scan, or a new list.


In short, OneNote is always there, whenever and wherever I need it. And as a free and full-featured tool, it’s easy to recommend to one and all, especially now that Evernote has succumbed to a less attractive pricing model.


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Comments (30)

30 responses to “How I Use Microsoft OneNote”

  1. 603

    All information I obtained from this post was instantly replaced by an overwhelming desire for seared salmon with spicy miso sauce. 

  2. 289

    Microsoft needs to enhance the Android and iOS apps with the features from their Clip to OneNote Chrome extension.  The ability to save web pages as Full Page, Region, Article or Bookmark would be hugely helpful on mobile.  
    If I'm looking at something in Chrome on my Nexus 5X I don't want to be limited to saving a link to OneNote.

  3. 2742

    Long time OneNote user so was bummed when the recently released Cortana enhancements for voice notes was added to Wunderlist, and not OneNote.  Any idea if this was primarily a technical issue/limitation or a mktg driven decission?


  4. 8758

    I like using OneNote, but it feels unfinished in lots of ways.

    I've mentioned previously about its inability to share anything other than at the notebook level, which seems like a very basic omission. But here's another good example.

    I've been using OneNote as a news clippings file (among other uses). Because this notes database started life in Evernote, I've made liberal use of tags, and I'm using the OneNote add-in, OneNote Tagging Kit, to continue to use my tagging system in OneNote. 

    With all the talk of "fake news" recently, I want to do a project on this. I have conveniently tagged relevant news items in the past as "Media Malpractice." Now, I would like to drill down into these tagged stories and further categorize them by type of malpractice, such as "selective editing," "error of fact," "bias," etc.

    Now, I can search for Media Malpractice in OneNote, and it returns 1254 items meeting that criteria (Evernote shows 1250 tagged items, so not much lost in migration).

    But once I have those search results on the OneNote screen, the ONLY thing I can do with the results of my search is select articles for reading, one by one. No multi-select, no select all -- and therefore, no way to copy or move the search hits to a separate notebook for further analysis and slicing/dicing. Having a quick easy search tool is great, but what's the point if that's the end of the story?

    For what it's worth, Evernote allows lots of useful options for action on search results, including the ability to move or copy a search set to another notebook.

    I looked around for a ON add-in that might cover me, but no luck.

    Anyone have any suggestions? Maybe I'm missing something obvious?



    • 6074

      In reply to videosavant:

      Actually there's a heap of addons here for OneNote. I haven't had a good look but there may be one for a more comprehensive search.

      • 8758

        In reply to Skipper: 
        Thanks for the suggestion, Skipper, but I use OneNotetastic and there don't seem to be any macros for enhanced search.
        Based on how the interactivity with search hits is limited, I'm thinking it might be difficult to fix without a change to the native interface...


    • 6074

      In reply to videosavant:

      Sounds like a good suggestion for the Feedback hub

  5. 157

    Paul, you and Mary Jo amaze me with your ability remember who said/announced what, what you wrote about and when, links to stuff, etc. that you share during Windows Weekly. Do you have any recommendations for managing that type of information? I was surprised to see all you do in OneNote without seeing a reference to that.

    BTW, I started using OneNote on a tablet with a pen when I started work at MSFT in 2006 to replace spiral-bound lab notebooks that didn't work well for a series of short-cycle projects. I stopped using the pen quickly as OCR wasn't as good as I wanted and typing was/is faster. Still using OneNote constantly for cyclic work projects and personal lists a lot like yours, though not still a blue badge. Thanks for this article.

    I wrestle with OneNote being available "independently", in Project Online, in Microsoft Teams, others(?) and keeping "one source of truth" without getting islands of OneNote. Any thoughts on how to manage OneNote creep?

    • 2

      In reply to ken_loewen:

      I know Mary Jo just searches her own site when she needs to catch up on stuff like that, and I do as well. I've sometimes thought about maintaining a date-based database with important dates/milestones/etc. but it would be a lot of work.

  6. 3216

    Paul, I have to take issue with your statement that the cloud is "...the correct way to store this kind of information...".  Partly because it's based on your assumption that your way of using it is the correct way to use it.  But mainly because of the way MS has more or less tricked people into upgrading to the free 2016 version (which is arguably crippleware) which is tied to OneDrive while at the same time making older versions of OneNote virtually useless on any device other than a PC.

    Not that long ago, I could save my OneNote files to a Dropbox folder and access them using OneNote on my iPad.  Thanks to Microsoft that no longer works - the IOS version of OneNote only works with OneDrive and only with files stored in the cloud.  That's not really a big bother for me because the way I use OneNote does not lend itself to accessing files via anything other than a PC.  And I can still access a common cloud based personal file, as long as I am willing to also use OneDrive.

    Basically, I'm just getting really sick and tired of MS taking things that worked just fine the way they were and reworking them then tricking or forcing people into adopting them.  I didn't like being force fed when I was a child and I damn sure don't like it as a senior citizen.  And the worst of it is, I used to like OneNote, but now I distrust using it because I'm not sure how long I can count on being able to use it the way I currently use it.


    • 165

      In reply to gsmith-plm:

      Can't you sync the default notebook location folder to Dropbox?

      I have not tried it myself....

      • 1571

        In reply to RonH:No. He's correct and his entire post is accurate. I have used and relied on OneNote since 2003 and found the change to requiring OneDrive more than annoying, but for me, a necessary evil. The majority of people I interact with have moved to Google Drive/Docs or iCloud. Fewer and fewer use OneDrive, now that I'm retired and not in a full time work environment.


  7. 9215

    OK - someone needs to show me how to get the OneNote Widget onto the Search screen. I can get it to the Notifications area (swipe down from top). I am on iOS 9.3.3 with a 5s.

    Or is this a iPhone 6 or 7 type deal?




  8. 6014

    My only complaint about OneNote is that the interfaces on the various platforms don't have exactly the same features.  For instance, I'm pretty sure it's impossible to work with Sections on the Android and Web clients.  Other than that, I have been very pleased with it.

    My wife and I share a notebook for things we collaborate on (lists, recipes, vehicle maintenance notes, etc), I have one for reloading notes, and then my own notebook is for my thoughts, prose, poetry, scraps I want to remember, etc.  Between OneNote and the traditional file structure of pdfs and other documents we maintain in OneDrive, we can pretty much do anything from anywhere.

    I do have a question: how can I backup my OneNote notebooks?  Say, for a time when something gets accidentally deleted or something happens that corrupts the file?

  9. 2175

    Thanks for sharing, Paul

    I could never understand how to use Onenote. It's useful to see how somebody else uses it.

  10. 5510

    It looks like I use my OneNote the same exact way as Paul, but for work only. However, OneNote's WebClipper for Chrome is not as good as Evernote's.  Evernote can clip multi-part articles (Click Next) and save them as one much more cleaner than OneNote. 

    Because OneNote lacks this, I just decided to use both. Anyway, I kinda like the separation of my work files (MSFT)  from my personal. So if I had to take notes on "sushi" it would go in Evernote. 

    From what I have learned, Evernote's  pricing policy has been misunderstood, particularly by me. For people who primarily need Evernote on a phone or a tablet, where information needs to be synced, those can be your 2 authorized devices. Access to Evernote via the web is completely free. That's the category that I fall in, so after months of exclusively on OneNote, I went back to Evernote.

    If Microsoft can copy that one bit of functionality that I just mentioned, than I have no problem of going back to it. WHo knows? Microsoft copies everything, so hopefully they'll do it again.

  11. 6074

    One thing that would maybe encourage more people to start using OneNote, would be the availability of templates to download, like you can with Word, Excel...ect. For example 'Holiday planning', 'Shopping lists', 'Home inventory'. I've suggested this in the feedback hub.

  12. 1995

    Well, let's compare notes Paul. I don't have 4K to display all my notebooks. At least there's one aspect of computing I can say I'm ahead of Paul. LoL. Oops, it will not let me embed a pic (why?) so here's the Link to my notebooks.

  13. 8622

    I need to use way more notebooks than that because it always seems to be one branch/level short in terms of subsections. For example, I can't effectively organise all of my computing related notes in one notebook and I have to have separate ones for BIOS notes, Windows notes, hardware notes, etc.

    Also, since it won't let you share individual notes, I have to have several shared notebooks. 

  14. 2481

    Wow Paul I expected more LOL...  

    I am a diabetic and love OneNote for keeping my medical records and Lab results.  Just last week I proved my Doc wrong in the office when over my past blood results thank you OneNote. I wipped out OneNote and said nope my numbers were better last month save the lecture and here the test to prove it!  

    I also use it as my main go to for a paperless office & paperless home.

    I really want more improvements on Classic OneNote. I hate the UWP version.

  15. 1493

    Paul and fellow members, I really appreciate this post. HOW we get stuff done makes a big difference in personal productivity and organization. I had been a long time Evernote user, and am still getting my workflow down to an art. These comments are helpful. Thank you. 

  16. 5589

    Paul, In the past versions of the OneNote client when you screen clipped a web page the clip would display the URL. In 2016 this no longer happens. Any idea how to turn this feature back on? Thanks

  17. 6750

    I do use and like OneNote, but I'm critical of its search functionality. Search is ok for content stored/cached locally, but I think the search functionality from within the apps/programs needs to include OneDrive-stored notebooks that may not be cached locally. Also, when accessing notebooks via, you only seem to be able to search within sections (i.e. not even across sections in a single notebook). This is ridiculous. Evernote is better for search.


  18. 1775

    >...assortment of noise [(Sorry).]...
    > [personal] notebook...