What is OneNote, and why on Earth do I care?

A lifetime ago, I worked in a county office as an eligibility worker (I determined if people got assistance programs). Sometime around 2011-ish, my employer upgraded our Microsoft Office to the 2010 edition, and with that, came new software called “OneNote”.

An image of several OneNote icons, pulled from a Google search.Icons for OneNote. Look Mom, I can GTS!

So, suddenly there’s this new button on my desktop. While some may find it too daring to, you know, click a button, I boldly forged ahead without trepidation. Luckily, I not only survived the encounter, but learned about one of the most useful pieces of software I’ve ever seen.

An image of Dwight Schrute from The Office, with the text "There is no fear but fear itself. False! Lions." superimposed over the top.Stop being afraid of clicking on an icon. Your desktop icons probably aren’t directly connected to an ICBM launch facility or the gate to the company lion cage.

See, OneNote is notetaking software for computers. If you’ve ever had billions and billions of Word documents full of quick little notes from every meeting you’ve ever attended, you might like this software. The notetaking works really easily, using a “notebook” metaphor to store stuff. It’s intuitive, clean, and simple.

Assuming you’ve already installed it (it comes with Windows 10, FYI), click the button. After opening the software for the first time, it might ask you to sign in to a Microsoft Account. If you have one, go ahead and do it, but otherwise skip it. (The Microsoft Account lets you sync OneNote stuff across devices, and is pretty sweet, but I’ll cover that later.) Here’s how that “notebook metaphor” works:

A screenshot of a OneNote window. The notebooks column is highlighted in red, the notebook "tabs" are highlighted in blue, the search bar is highlighted in yellow, the "pages" column in green, and the content window in purple.This is how it looks. Coloring thanks to Greenshot.

  • The “notebooks” column (which is highlighted in red). This area is where you can select from your many notebooks. It may be “closed” the first time you run it. More on that in a future post.
  • The notebook “tabs” (which are highlighted in blue). You can create new tabs with the “+” button. Just like the tabs in a Trapper Keeper generic notebook organizer, you can filter these out by subject. As you can see, OpInc has “Ideas and dreaming”, “Meeting agenda”, “EC2” (server stuff), and “Tech cheat sheets” tabs showing.
  • The search bar (which is highlighted in yellow). Search is the “money feature” for OneNote: by being able to search ALL OF THE THINGS IN THE NOTEBOOK for a phrase, word, or tag, you can easily find stuff quickly.
  • The “pages” column (which is highlighted in green). This is where you create new pages for your notebook: it’s like tearing off a piece of paper and sticking it into a tab of your generic notebook organizer. So, if I was writing the agenda for a meeting about Cake (the band, not the dessert), I’d go to the “Meeting agenda” tab, and click “Add page”, and write “Cake (the band, not the dessert) meeting 8 of 8”, in the title area, then proceed to…
  • The content window (which is highlighted in purple). This is where you actually write your notes. This part’s a lot like editing any old Word document, except you can also draw on it and do some cool stuff. More on that in another post. 🙂

Now, here’s a cool thing: it used to be that OneNote cost you money, because you needed to have a Microsoft Office license or an Office 365 subscription. But, in a rather cool move, Microsoft has made OneNote free to download. FREE. TO. DOWNLOAD. Just head on over to their website and get that going, if you don’t have it already. It even works on Mac and Chromebook, and there’re mobile apps for Android and iOS that are pretty cool.

I’m going to write additional posts later on that explain some of this stuff in greater detail, but I would like to strongly encourage you all to just try it. I have found this simple tool to be absolutely vital to my daily work life, and I use it at home for assembling my thoughts as well. If you found this useful, sharing it would be extremely helpful to my self esteem. Also, I made this for you to share:

A man ("the most interesting man in the world") sitting down with the text "I don't always use OneNote for notetaking, oh wait" superimposed.


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