Taking notes the “right” way

Not all that long ago, I was one of those people who clung to their trusty Filofax (and later a Day-Timer) to keep their daily work life organized. It worked well enough, but the limitations of paper were pretty evident even back then. You could move pages around, but not ink. Keeping one’s work and personal life separate (but still in one place) was difficult if not outright impossible. The more notes you took, the more your binder began to resemble George Costanza’s wallet. Once you committed to a categorization system, you were pretty much stuck with it. Automatic backups? Forget it. And if you ever spilled a drink on important pages or forgot the whole binder at the coffee shop, you could probably kiss all that information goodbye.

The cool thing about OneNote, of course, is that it solves these problems. Still, even when the advantages of a paperless personal notebook are clear, some people remain skittish about trying out a program like OneNote. When you first talk to them, few offer specific reasons for their reluctance. A lot has to do with preconceived notions and assumptions. To be fair, sorting through marketing hype has become harder and harder for us ordinary consumers. Everything is supposedly “better” and “more powerful” than everything that came before. I know I’ve become tone-deaf to the same old promises and claims for every product under the sun. But why resist something so easy to use — something with such obvious benefits? After some prodding, some folks would admit that they just weren't sure how to take notes the “right” way. I'm sure we’ve all had flashbacks to our grade school days at one time or another, when our own version of Miss Thistlebottom would impress upon our young minds the dos and don’ts of the English language and the rest of our schoolwork. But language evolves over the years, as do the tools we use to get our work done.

The best thing about OneNote is that it adapts to your own style — whatever it may be. There is simply no right or wrong way to use OneNote. If you’re so inclined, you can follow every last rule you learned in school about note-taking and research. Or you can scribble thoughts and idea on the pages the same way you would on a cocktail napkin in a bar while on a business trip. Still, this flexibility has made it difficult for some folks to get started with the program. One thing that everyone agrees on is that OneNote is quite different from the other Office programs. We purposely don’t give you a flashing cursor that prompts you for input, nor do we provide a filled-in template of dummy text. We also don’t force you to learn a specific note-taking system, and we don’t constrain your ideas and thoughts within repetitive lines of text or the rectangles of a spreadsheet grid. The canvas is yours to fill however you please.

Here at Microsoft, the internal adoption of OneNote has skyrocketed since our little product’s humble beginnings. High visibility and public endorsements by some of Microsoft’s top brass have certainly helped to tell the world about the benefits of OneNote. But it’s really the word-of-mouth from friends, family members, and trusted co-workers that have propelled OneNote’s success. While the computer industry is still looking around for that elusive, next-generation “killer app,” some of us have already found it.

It’s easy and safe to stick with what you know. A lot of people don’t like change, even when they can clearly see that a new way of doing things would save them time. I’ve been an early adopter of many products and technologies over the years, but even I have my limits. I don’t purchase things just because they're new, unless they offer some benefit or improvement over the status quo. If you’ve heard about OneNote and you have a hunch that it might make your life easier, try it out for yourself. You can do this for free by downloading a fully-functioning trial version. If you’re not quite sure how to get started, browse through some of the older posts in this blog or use the links to the free OneNote video demos and templates that I’ve provided in the left margin. If you get stuck, drop me a line and I’ll do my best to point you to guides that will help you get up to speed.