Microsoft OneNote 2010: Office's best-kept productivity secret

Microsoft OneNote lives in the shadows of other Office programs, but it can be one of the most useful. OneNote 2010 helps organize data, emails, notes and more all in one place.

Even as a core component of Microsoft Office, OneNote is often overshadowed by its Office siblings. But Microsoft OneNote is an underrated tool for IT administrators and can make a huge difference in personal productivity.

Admins must install Microsoft OneNote separately from Office 2007, but it is included with Office 2010. You can also purchase OneNote separately, and you can experiment with a free evaluation version, but be careful -- it's addictive!

OneNote 2010 offers significant enhancements over the 2007 version, but if you have to stay with Office 2007, you can install OneNote 2010 in an Office 2007 environment and get those features.

The tab layout of OneNote 2010 is similar to that of other Office 2010 products, so it differs somewhat from OneNote 2007. The examples and "how-to" descriptions in this article are specific to OneNote 2010.

Part 1 of this two-part tip will discuss the basics of getting started with Microsoft OneNote 2010 and how to take advantage of OneNote templates for everyday use. Part 2 will follow up on more advanced examples of using OneNote 2010 to increase productivity.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 planning

I started using Microsoft OneNote about a year ago, and it was love at first click. Like any IT professional, I have projects, deadlines, routine duties and a mile-long "to do" list that never quits. I get 200 emails on a slow day and scribble so many notes that I can barely read them later. I have documents in various formats about technical procedures, company policies and new products. I keep screenshots, webpages and photos somewhere on my disk in an ever-changing directory structure. In short, organization is not my strong suit.

Enter Microsoft OneNote to keep track of all of this. OneNote allows the creation of "Notebooks" stored in My Documents\OneNote Notebooks. Each Notebook contains "Sections," which are like index tabs in a paper notebook. Sections contain "Pages," where notes, emails, documents, etc. are organized by the user.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 Sections
Figure 1

A few templates come with Microsoft OneNote, but more can be downloaded from the Microsoft Office site. You can also create OneNote templates simply by creating a Notebook with Sections and Pages, then saving it as a template, which can then be recalled to create new notebooks. I'll go into templates more below.

Figure 1 shows a new installation of OneNote 2010. It comes with some standard Notebooks, including Personal Notebook, Work Notebook, OneNote 2010 Guide and Unfiled Notes. The OneNote 2010 guide is a great place to start with examples and tutorials.

The Personal Notebook and Work Notebook come with some standard Sections and Pages to provide ideas on how to organize your own notebooks. Unfiled Notes is a bucket that holds documents without a specified location. In OneNote 2007, when an email was saved, for example, it automatically went to Unfiled Notes and then had to be moved to the right Notebook.

Getting started with a OneNote 2010 Notebook

Microsoft OneNote 2010 new Notebook dialog
Figure 2

Let's assume you want a Notebook to capture content for a project called Desktop Deployment. In the Microsoft OneNote console, go to the File tab and click New (Figure 2). You can create Notebooks that are shareable from the Web (such as SkyDrive), on the same network or SharePoint site, or local to your computer. To save locally, select My Computer, and then enter "Desktop Deployment" for the name. I recommend leaving the default location, then selecting Create Notebook. In the OneNote console, you'll see the new Desktop Deployment Notebook with a "New Section 1."

To design the Sections, first identify the key elements of each project and create Sections for those elements. You can then make a template of the Notebook and make copies when you have a new project. In Figure 3, I have defined a number of Sections. Create them by right-clicking the Section or Notebook icon, selecting New Section, and giving it an appropriate name.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 new Page
Figure 3

In each Section, you can create as many Pages as you want in free form or by using OneNote templates. Clicking on a new Section will open up a new Page. Typing a name in the rectangle at the top of the new Page will name that Page in the list on the right. Create additional Pages by clicking on the New Page icon in the upper right corner of the Section Tab and entering a title. If this is a previously created Page from a template, it will have the creation date. Click on the calendar to set the date and time, as noted in Figure 3.

My example shows that I created a Section called Key People, identified three categories of contacts and created a free-form Page for each of the following categories.

  • Project Contacts: People specific to this project;
  • Standard Contacts: Key people I deal with regularly but whose roles I can't always remember, how I engage them, contact info, etc.;
  • Vendor Contacts: Contacts for vendors that I utilize.
Microsoft OneNote 2010 free form Page
Figure 4

For content in the Page, click in the Page and start typing (Figure 4). To create a table, hit the Tab key to create a new cell. Hit Enter to start a new row. Insert columns and rows by right-clicking in a cell and selecting Table. That menu will also allow formatting.

After creating the table, click in the white space, and type a number to start an outline (Figure 4). Outlining in Microsoft OneNote is similar to Word -- type a number, and you start a list. You can mix and match text, outlines and tables, as well as add external documents, all on the same Page.

If you'd rather use a template for a Page, select the down arrow next to the New Page icon and select Page Templates. In Figure 5, I selected the Meeting Notes 1 template. OneNote templates can be easy to use, but I usually just create my own pages so I can produce what I want.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 Page template
Figure 5

Microsoft OneNote allows admins to move Notebooks in the left pane of the console and move Sections in the Notebook listing and Pages in the Page list in each section with a simple drag and drop. Sections can likewise be copied or moved between Notebooks, and Pages can be moved or copied between other Sections or Notebooks. Just right-click and select the "Move or Copy" command.

Templates in Microsoft OneNote 2010

A template can be a Notebook, Section or Page that is a framework for future use so you don't have to create all the Pages and tables I just described -- you just have to fill in the blanks and add content.

Templates can be changed as you work with them and find new features to add. My team uses a standard template, but my version of the template is different because of my preferences, so I save a local copy of the template I have modified. I keep the template Notebook open in OneNote 2010 so that when I find a new feature, I can add it to my current Notebook and to my template and then save the template for future use.

To create a Notebook template:

1.  Create the Notebook with Pages, Sections, etc., as described previously.
2.  Go to File > Save As > Save Current.
3.  Click Notebook and select file type as OneNote Package.
4.  Click Save As icon and select a name and location for the template.        
        a.  I recommend keeping the default location to save you from a lot of headaches in the future.
        b.  Give it a name with "Template" in the name. I changed my Desktop Deployment Notebook to "Project Template."

Note: Saving a Notebook like this saves it in a compressed format (.onepkg). When it is opened, it will be expanded.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 save for template
Figure 6

To open a Notebook template:

1.  From the Microsoft OneNote console, go to File > Open > Open from Other locations > Browse.
2.  This opens the My Documents\OneNote Notebooks directory (again, save them in the default directory).
3.  On the Open Notebook dialog, select One Note Single File Package (Figure 6).
4.  From the list, select the template name. In this case, it is "Project Template.onepkg."
5.  Click Open.
6.  In the Unpack Notebook dialog (Figure 7), modify the name to your new project name and specify the color and path (again, recommended to leave path as default).
7.  Click Create.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 unpack Notebook dialog
Figure 7

Creating or opening an existing template Notebook as described here will place the Notebook at the bottom of the list in the Microsoft OneNote console. You can drag and drop Notebooks to modify the order as desired.

You can also create templates for Pages and Sections. In the online help, enter "Create Template" for details.

Additional OneNote 2010 tips

Here's a short list of other helpful tips for using Microsoft OneNote 2010 to organize files and information:

  • When finished with a Notebook, right-click on the Notebook and select "Close Notebook." This removes a Notebook from the Microsoft OneNote console, but it will still be in the directory.
  • To open an existing Notebook and bring it into OneNote 2010 console, use the File > Open option. The Notebooks appear as file folders with the Notebook name.
  • You can move Notebooks between local copies of Microsoft OneNote by copying the Notebook. For example, I worked on a project that a colleague had started. I needed his emails, notes, contacts, etc. He just sent me his project Notebook, and I had all I needed. Copy the Notebook file to the My Documents\OneNote Notebooks directory, and open it in OneNote 2010.

More on Microsoft Office 2010:

How Microsoft OneNote 2010 can improve productivity, organization

Weighing Microsoft Office 2010

Top features worth considering in Microsoft Office 2010

Top reasons your business shouldn't go to Microsoft Office 2010 -- yet

Integrate OneNote and Outlook 2010 to manage big projects

These are the basics to get started with OneNote 2010. With a few tips, it is pretty intuitive to use. Microsoft OneNote provides a way to organize data, notes, emails and much more for a project into a single easy-to-find location. No more searching through Microsoft Outlook and deep directory structures to find details of something you worked on long ago. Make notes to explain your reasoning on decisions, document the creation of data sheets and create meeting notes that can be found again. The more you use it, the more uses you'll find for it.

You can embed other documents from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, PDFs, webpages, and video and audio files. You can also print to Microsoft OneNote as a printer device. Part 2 of this series will give details on how to do all this, as well as provide some advanced examples of how you can truly use Microsoft OneNote as a productivity tool.

Gary Olsen
is a solution architect in Hewlett-Packard's Technology Services organization and lives in Roswell, Ga. He has worked in the IT industry since 1981 and holds an M.S. in computer-aided manufacturing from Brigham Young University. Olsen has authored numerous technical articles for TechTarget, and he has presented numerous times at the HP Technology Forum. He is a Microsoft MVP for Directory Services and is the founder and president of the Atlanta Active Directory Users Group.

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