Organizing your notes with OneNote

Background

I stream development on Twitch, which means people see almost everything I do on a computer for about 8 hours a day. I’ve gotten so many comments/questions about how I keep my notes organized that I wanted to share the tips that I’ve learned over the years.

As for why you should care about any of this: my philosophy is that taking notes allows you to apply your mental resources to more important areas. By writing notes, you will also solidify the concept in your brain (sometimes you’ll even clarify misunderstandings while writing them!). By organizing notes well, you’ll have this knowledge accessible to you and anyone you share them with for years to come.

This post does not focus on picking which note-taking software to use. I chose OneNote because it’s free, it syncs via the cloud, and it’s available on every platform I use. Those requirements may not be important for you; if you’ve already got another piece of software in mind, then skip the Specific tips section.

General tips

These tips apply to any software, not just OneNote.

Do as much or as little as you can

You likely don’t have a need to take notes for everything. I used to track my workouts in my notes (how far I ran, how long it would take, how much I lifted, etc.), but I never ended up using those notes for anything. I’ve since stopped taking them and I haven’t looked back.

In my opinion, the two properties that make for the best note-writing candidates are:

  • Knowledge that will probably never change (e.g. recipes, how to conjugate French verbs)
  • Knowledge that you may take you a while to re-learn (e.g. how to set up a virtual machine)

Specific categories or notes

Some people ask me for how I organize categories of notes (presumably so that they can get some ideas for starting out). OneNote has notebookscategories, and notes, but the concept of hierarchies isn’t specific to OneNote, which is why this is in the General section of this post. Here is a list of highlights from my hierarchy:

  • [Notebook] Personal – these are things that will likely never be shared with anyone
    • [Category] TODO
      • [Note] TODO: things I have to do in my life
      • [Note] ToBuy: products that I may be interested in buying at some point
  • [Notebook] Knowledge – these are sets of notes that I may eventually share with other people
    • [Category] Coding – notes about a specific programming language
      • [Note] Python
      • [Note] JavaScript
    • [Category] Programs – notes about specific programs that are downloaded
      • [Note] Sublime
      • [Note] FLStudio
    • [Category] Websites – notes about specific software/sites which aren’t downloaded
      • [Note] GitHub
      • [Note] CodeSandbox
    • [Cateogry] French
  • [Notebook] Work – work-specific notes, e.g. TODO, long-term TODO, meeting notes, etc. I suggest making one for each job that you have.
  • [Notebook] Private – this is password-protected and contains only sensitive information.
    • [Note] Health – I keep track of my health history. When you’re changing doctors or you’re at urgent care and have to remember when you had a certain surgery or what a particular doctor recommended, this is really useful.
    • [Note] Employment history – I track dates of employment, bosses’ names, company addresses, etc. This massively saves time when applying somewhere or filling out government forms.
    • [Note] Residential history – just like above, sometimes you’ll fill out a government form that asks where you’ve lived for the last 7 years, so I recommend tracking addresses, dates of move-in and move-out, and contact information.
    • [Note] Life – We gain so much wisdom throughout our lives that we end up forgetting. I keep track of things I’ve learned here like solving interpersonal problems, handling feedback (both giving and taking), dealing with anger, preventing myself from getting back pain, etc.

My biggest suggestions from the large list above: make at least a Knowledge notebook, and try to make the same four private notes that I did when you find yourself needing them.

Organizing a new note

Originally, I used to just produce a gigantic bulleted list of notes. I found that this was not consumable, which means I essentially wasted time organizing my thoughts that way. I’ve since switched to using headers, sub-headers, etc. If I’m ever writing about something technical like coding or using a program, I’ll almost always end up with a header at the bottom called “Troubleshooting” where I put all of the errors I’ve ever encountered and how I fixed them.

Next to the headers, I’ll try to include links to references where I originally found the information. Here’s an example:

By doing this, if I’m confused later when I go to read the note, I’ll have more material that I can look through.

Searching

Once you have a lot of notes, searching is going to be important. Always put something where you expect it to be. That tip comes from real-life cleaning; if you’re looking for your Bluetooth speaker and you don’t find it in the first drawer that you search, then once you do find it, you should put it back in that drawer since that’s where you’re going to search for it next time.

Applying this to digital searching means that you should add keywords when you can’t find something at first. For example, I have a note about which filters we have to order for our fridge. I may search for “fridge” in my notes and not find it because it’s listed under “refrigerator parts”. When I finally find that note, I should just put “(keywords: fridge)” next to it.

One last thing: suppose you didn’t find the note because you never wrote it – you should add it! If you looked for it once, then you’re probably going to look for it again.

Specific tips

These tips apply specifically to OneNote. All of them are built-in (at least on Windows) and require no extra configuration.

Version history

By right-clicking a note and choosing “Show Page Versions”, you can see the history of a particular note:

This lets you recover what a note used to say, e.g. if you want to see what was on your grocery list 4 weeks ago or you accidentally deleted part of a note from your phone.

Linking between notes

I write a lot of technical notes, and I find myself wanting to refer between them. For example, I have a note about the website GitHub and a note on the technology Git, so of course there’s some overlap. To form a link to a particular section of a note, right-click a line and choose Copy Link to Paragraph:

After that, just paste the link in another note. The only thing to be careful of is that these links won’t work when you export to a PDF, so if you share these notes with someone else, then you may need to send them multiple PDFs.

Find time/date of a particular line in your notes

You can right-click any line in your notes to see when it is you wrote that note. For example, I’ve apparently wanted to write this blog post for the last two months:

This is most helpful when I reread a note and say “wait, that’s not right…” Sometimes I learn new information that invalidates a note, but I wouldn’t know if I’d had that information at the time of writing without this feature.

Fuzzy searching

Searching for a word without quotation marks will actually search for multiple forms/tenses of that word. E.g. a search for making will find hits like “make”, “makes”, and “made”. If you don’t want this functionality, you can wrap your search terms in quotation marks.

Conclusion

I’ve been “serious” about writing digital notes for about 7 years now, so I hope you can cut out the first few years of ramp-up time after reading this post. Again, I highly suggest OneNote for getting started, but find whatever software/methods work for you.

2 thoughts on “Organizing your notes with OneNote”

  1. I love you, you’ll make an excellent father if you ever become one 😛 You’re literally the one who’s finally getting me to writing notes diligently and organising my time/scheduling 🙂

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