Getting organized using OneNote note flags

I've written recently about some of the more exotic capabilities of OneNote, but I thought I would spend a little time on Note Flags. Note Flags are one of the fundamental features of OneNote that makes the power of having an electronic notebook apparent. Oddly, although we consider Note Flags one of the fundamental features of OneNote that everyone should be using, I still meet people who either never use them, or have not discovered the awesome power of Note Flags Summary. And they are still using OneNote - go figure :-)

You can apply a note flag to any text or ink or picture on the OneNote page. A flag can be anything you want - its a way to tag some information. Where note flags get powerful is when you start to use Note Flags Summary which is a query which you can run across all or part of your notebook to roll up all the flags you have made so you can follow up on them later. More on that farther down.


First, the two main buttons for Note Flags are on the Standard toolbar and they look like this (if you haven't used them yet):

The one on the left is a drop down control that shows you the default set of note flags. The one on the right is the all-powerful Note Flags Summary. Pay attention to that one.

Here's the default set of Note Flags OneNote ships with:

These are pretty limited because we expect people to customize them (using the "Customize My Note Flags..." command you see there). You can customize them for whatever you want since everyone has different needs. For example, here's what my list looks like:

As I mentioned, you can apply a note flag to any text or ink or picture on the OneNote page. So a sample note page might look like this:

All the formatting you see came as part of the note flag definition (you get to choose an optional icon, color for text, and optional highlight color). I applied these flags just by using the hotkeys Ctrl-4, (Action item) Ctrl-7 (Meeting to Set up) and the dropdown for the last one (Tel. Number). As shown above, the first 9 flags get hotkeys using Ctrl- and a number. The others you have to use the button for. You can "tear off" the list of flags and make them a toolbar for easy application (or just View/Toolbars/Note Flags) - this is great for Tablet users who can't access the hotkeys in Tablet mode.

Note Flags Summary: your life has just changed

Where this really gets powerful is when you use Note Flags Summary. Here, I have clicked the note flag summary button and have the "scope" set to the current folder. The pane shows upon the right:

You can see below in the detail shot that the summary has picked up all the flags on this page plus those on all the other pages in this section and other sections in this folder. It has pulled them here together so I can see them all in one place. On paper, this would require me to flip through several pages and sections of a notebook and recopy my "flagged items" onto a new page - a huge time sink. As it is, I see four new tel numbers, which I will add to my contacts. I see three meetings to set up, which I will set up using Outlook. I also see a lot of things to do:

If I forget the context of some of these other items, it turns out each thing in the list is actually a hyperlink to the page it came from, so it is easy to remind myself what the context was for "Clear out dead files from server" for example. I can just click through the list and the page will be shown on the left in the main OneNote window.

It gets better. What if I want to zero in on the remaining things I still have to do? Here I have checked the box to "show only unchecked items". Things that are not actions (not "checkable") and actions I have already done and checked off are filtered out. Now I have my ToDo list:

If I like, I can use the "Create Summary Page" button to create a new page for these, perhaps to print them out and stick them in my wallet.

Note that by default creating a summary page copies all the shown note flags to a new page, leaving the original flags where they are for context. This is useful when you just want to make a temporary summary page for printing or emailing which you can then delete to keep all your flags in context. In Tools/Options/Note Flags you can change this so that in effect the flags are moved to this page (they remain where they were originally but "dimmed" so as to not interfere with Summaries) if you prefer to manage these centrally and don't care where they came from.

Its worth noting that you can adjust the scope of the summary quite easily. This makes Note Flag Summary a very powerful way to gather up random thoughts and information you have flagged all over your notebook. You can mine your "information database" for interesting nuggets and make it much more valuable than simply an electronic analog to your paper notes. Adjusting the scope:

I know people who copy loads of information from the web and flag it with various flags to organize their research (e.g. topic A, topic B), then when they want to see what they have collected on topic A, they just do a note flag summary and limit the list to the note flag for topic A. That's a really fast way to sort through the information you have collected. You can even get clever and apply more than one note flag to a piece of text - that way it will show up in more than one category.

It's also worth mentioning that you can sort your note flags in various ways - if you divide your projects so that each one has its own OneNote section you can group your flags that way too:

Which gets you this view, in case you need to see how things break out by project. Of course you can also change the scope to just see the current section in case you want to narrow things down to the project (or client) you are working with at the moment. As with most things in OneNote there is more than one way to get what you want.

Happy flagging. I know from talking with many of you that there are as many ways to use note flags as there are users. Please share any novel uses you might have.