OneNote has become the crown jewel of Microsoft Office, as far as I'm concerned. The core applications — Word, Excel, and PowerPoint — still form the backbone of the Office suite, but OneNote is a multi-role utility player that just makes life easier... assuming you use it. To get value from OneNote, you have to make a habit of using it first.
I've "used" OneNote for years, off and on. I've periodically switched from OneNote to Evernote, and back again — sometimes stopping off to try out some other more obscure note-taking and organizational tool. Over the past year or two, though, Microsoft has extended the reach of OneNote — making it a virtually ubiquitous cross-platform tool — and refined some of the features and capabilities to make it indispensable.
Make it a habit
Even as a OneNote user, I still find myself reaching for an old-fashioned journal to take notes. I have four different notebooks — the kind with paper where you actually record notes and thoughts using a writing implement like a pen — sitting within arm's reach in my office. When I conduct interviews, or get product briefings from vendors, I write in a journal out of habit. It's just the way I've always done it.
Recently, though, I wanted to reference some of the notes I had taken during a briefing with a vendor while getting some work done at home, but the notebook was still at my office. That was the day I made a conscious decision to abandon the traditional paper notebook and form a new habit of relying on OneNote.
Taking notes in OneNote instead of on paper just makes sense on a number of levels. First, I can generally type faster than I can write, and the resulting text is always legible — which is something I can't necessarily say of the rapidly scrawled text I write with a pen. Second, the information I record is synced to OneDrive and is instantly available on my iPhone, iPad, Android tablet, MacBook Air, or from the web on virtually any device. It serves both as a convenience (so I don't have to drive to my office to get my notes) and as an automatic backup (so that even if my Surface Pro 3 is lost or stolen, or I accidentally run over my iPad, the information is still safe in the cloud).
Expand your horizons
Once you make OneNote a habit, you should dig a little deeper to explore just how powerful OneNote really is. It's easy to just make bulleted lists or add checkboxes to create a To-Do list, but OneNote is capable of much more than that.
A recent post on Microsoft's Office Blogs site talked about how some school districts are making the most of OneNote. The post talks about one institution — Cary Academy in North Carolina — that has embraced OneNote as a way to create digital textbooks that enable the school to keep curriculum updated frequently and cut costs at the same time. "The administration adopted OneNote because it felt intuitive for students and teachers. With OneNote, the technology fades into the background so students can focus on their lessons, not on learning how to use the tool."
You can attach files, clip web pages, and insert photos, or record audio or video directly from within OneNote. One of the coolest features is that you can record audio of a presentation while taking notes in OneNote, and OneNote will automatically sync your typed notes to the exact point in the audio recording. It is awesome for double-checking what exactly your note was in reference to or for being able to just make notes that act sort of as "bookmarks" to remind you about parts of the audio you want to go back and listen to more closely.
Microsoft has given OneNote a starring role with the new Surface Pro 3. The digitizer pen has a purple button that automatically opens OneNote, even if the Surface Pro 3 is locked. You can easily record important information at the push of a button.
If you're not using OneNote, you should give it a try. If you are using OneNote but just for managing your grocery list, you should spend a little time exploring some of the other features and capabilities. If you want to be more efficient and effective, try making OneNote a habit and using it by default.
Do you use OneNote in your organization? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Unified Communications for Dummies, Essential Computer Security, and PCI Compliance.