Hacking OneNote 2013 for Getting Things Done

Over the past few years, I have occasionally tried to optimize the software I use for my “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system developed by David Allen explained in his book of the same name.  Recently, I made some changes to OneNote 2013 for just that purpose.   I loved them so much, I had to share.OneNote 2013


Three years ago, I started out using ActionComplete.  It was great at lists and synced between devices, but didn’t integrate well enough with my calendar and note taking.  Switching between applications to do all of my productive work left cracks in my work system such that things kept falling through.  Later, I found a great tutorial on how to combine Microsoft Outlook and OneNote to use GTD. Since my new university was a Microsoft shop, this meshed well with the computer’s they provided. The process worked for a while, but I started to get frustrated with the process.  After re-reading GTD, I realized this was due to the fact that it was not true to GTD.  So I tried to consolidate everything into OneNote.  It was somewhat better but with more manual processes.  Recently, I tried to use Taskorami (an app for Win 8), which allowed more automation, but didn’t integrate with my notes in OneNote.

My new configuration:

While re-reading the “OneNote Features” recently, I discovered how to edit the tags in OneNote then use the Search Tags feature.   This gave me an idea.  Couldn’t I use custom tags to automate and consolidate my next actions by context?  After a couple hours of experimenting, I figured out the optimal setup.  I won’t go over every detail below, because much of it was covered in the links above.  But I will highlight the major things.

First, I edited my sections for each of the major GTD categories.  I used to have a separate section for “Next Actions”, but that required every project action to be in two places, once on the project page and once on the “Next action” page. You can follow along with this OneNote Online sample of my configuration.

OneNote Sections


In the “Templates”, I define specific repeatable projects, with common action items.  The “Priorities and Goals” help me with my weekly and monthly reviews.  The “Deferred items” section includes all my projects as pages and one additional page for all none project related action items (below).

GTD deffered items list

On the “No project” page, I have two lists, one for repeatable tasks and non-repeatable tasks, each with a specific tag (more on that in a minute).

GTD Non-project items

On each project page, I include a list of all the action items with tags on each.

GTD project and custom tags

Custom Tag Magic

Nothing amazing yet.  But you might notice that the tags on some of the action items look different.  That is where the interesting part begins.  If you right-click on a line of text and click on the “Tag” option.

A list of tags will appear.  At the bottom of the list of tags is a “Customize Tags” link.  When you click on that link, a box like the one below appears.

Here you can modify tag names, tag icons, and tag order.  I found that tag icons that allowed check boxes worked best for the next step.  So I modified my list of tags so that now it looks like this:

OneNote Tags list

Each tag relates to a context.  Each context relates to a work environment and matches the GTD system.

And with the magic of search, these tags can be brought together from many different pages.  From the Home tab, click on “Find Tags”.

OneNote HomeTab Tag search

On the right hand side of OneNote will appear a list tags.  I select Group tags by “Tag Name”, check “Show only unchecked items” and at the bottom make sure the search is for “This Notebook”.

OneNote Tags search

Now when working within specific contexts, like on the computer or at work, I can glance at all the next action items from all my projects in one place.  Once I complete an action item, I check the box, hit refresh, and the item disappears.  I can also minimize the other contexts so they do not distract me from my current context.  Furthermore, each of the tags in the search box link back to the appropriate page.  So if I write a vague action item, I can quickly discover what it refers to.  Or when I complete an action item, I can look back at a project and see what the next action item should be.

Was this tutorial helpful for you? Send me an email if you want more johndrake@reasonforsuccess.com.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at http://professordrake.com