Microsoft Word and I go way back. I used to do everything in that programme, from taking notes on texts at University to brainstorming the blog or writing freelance content. To a large extent, MS Word is still my go-to tool for content creation.
I started to move away from Word when everything changed, and the UK went into full Lockdown. The move happened after I caught videos by the likes of Youtubers Ali Abdaal and Matt D’Avella, both Youtubers producing content on productivity hacks. Ali made one video that really caught my attention, all those months ago:
In case you don’t want to watch, in the video, Ali and his guest, Francesco, discuss their thoughts on the most useful productivity apps for students. While they advocated for Notion and Evernote, Ali also discussed OneNote¸ his app of choice while at University. Suddenly, something twigged; I thought: ‘I’ve had this app on my computer, taking up space, for years. What’s it really all about?’
Reader: this is what it is all about.
One note everywhere
OneNote is one part of the wider Microsoft 365 package, so if your institution has granted you access (I’m looking at you, students), you’ll be able to use OneNote for free. Like the rest of the Microsoft family, OneNote can be used on all of your devices and uploads direct to OneDrive. If I choose to edit something on my laptop, I’ll be able to seamlessly switch and continue editing on my phone or tablet.
Where this comes in handy for me especially is from the nature of my work. My current desk setup means that I’ll spend most of my time working from a laptop, with a tablet to my left. This means that if I jot a few things on my main screen, I can very quickly swap to my iPad without going through the painstaking process of transferring documents manually.
Who remembers having to email themselves valuable documents to work on your family computer and on a school desktop? Or transferring to USBs and floppy disks? Let’s do society a favour and not go back to those dark times, please.
Practically speaking, I find this fluidity super beneficial for shopping. I created a list on my laptop while researching recipes on my tablet and took my phone to the supermarket, replacing the need for a separate notebook altogether. Likewise, since all of my notes are in one place, I’ve done away with separate ‘notes’ app that ship with different devices.
It helps that that OneNote is so expansive, too. Within each notebook in OneNote, users can create sections. ‘Quick Notes’ is the default and are what they say on the tin: quick notes that haven’t been organised into any particular section; the notes that you might jot down quickly on your phone when out and about. I’ve added a ‘Personal’ section, ‘ITE’ (Initial Teacher Education – everything related to my teacher training course) and ‘Blog’, where I do all my planning for this website. Each section can have an infinite number of pages and each page is vertically infinite, so you can scroll indefinitely.
It’s times like these that I realise: we are in the future, and I like it.
No one way to take notes
My note-taking methods have changed over the years. Before graduating, I’d make handwritten notes in various exercise books and on spare pieces of paper, before filing them at the end of each week. This could often be an all-day process and, as you know, I am all about saving time with productivity hacks. It was also difficult to stick to my process among the sound of MacBook keyboards firing away in Lecture Theatres, but I listened to the countless studies that advocate for the benefits that handwritten notes can have on information retention.
Fast forward five years and I’m still of the mindset that handwriting helps me to retain what I’ve learned. Thankfully, OneNote offers lined paper and stylus support, with options for assigning your favourite pen and highlighter colours/sizes to a hotbar, making it easy to swap on the spot. This is great for someone like me, who learns best when his titles are in black, his prose is in blue and any extra info is in red or green. I’ve got a full review of the stylus I’ve been using – a budget Apple Pencil competitor – next month.
I’ve been handwriting my notes on OneNote ever since. This works out well for me as a teacher, too, who’s constantly having to lend out pens and never getting them back, leaving me without one for the various meetings I attend.
No One is flawless
I’ve only discovered a couple downsides to using OneNote. Firstly, because it’s a screen I’m writing on, there isn’t the same friction that you might get from writing on paper. As a result, my handwriting feels less neat as it’s not guided by a piece of paper’s rougher surface. This is the fault of writing on screens, though, and isn’t exclusive to that of OneNote. Plus, rumour has it that this issue is mitigated by using a screen protector, but I’ve not yet tried that.
The app is also a little slow to boot up as it’s completely cloud based, so relies on pulling your saves onto your device each time you use it. You also, obviously, wouldn’t be able to add to your old notes if on a plane, but I can’t see this ruining my experience too often. In fact, I really can’t see myself returning to pen and paper unless I’m absolutely forced to.
For me, OneNote is a game changer. Are you going to start using it, or are there other productivity apps that you prefer? Let me know in the comments below.