The Dreaded Notes, Part 2: How to Structure my Notes?

Last week, in Part 1 of this series, I decided to select Microsoft OneNote as my digital notebook, replacing my gorgeous but analog Moleskin notebook.

Over the past week I explored five key questions about using OneNote:

  1. How to structure my notes
  2. How to get it onto the cloud
  3. How to get it across my devices
  4. How to achieve my desire for freeform sketching
  5. How to capture data on the fly

Some of these were easy to solve, some downright difficult. The difficult ones are an ongoing experiment, so my recommendations may change with some further use of the tool. However as this journey is continuing to unfold and evolve, I thought we would start with the first question. Seems pretty logical.

So how do I structure my notes?

I could devote an entire novel to this topic alone. However, I will keep it short as this is my first cut at organizing my new digital notes.

OneNote has five levels of organization that I could use to structure my notes. This is the key feature of the product, allowing me to create structural categories. The five levels:

  1. Pages. This is the foundation level of OneNote. Pages contain my notes. Pages are the digital equivalent of the physical pages in my Moleskin notebook.
  2. Sub-Pages. This is a sub-level of organization, and is just a page attached to another master page. In OneNote’s list of pages, you can roll up sub pages so that they disappear from the list, hiding under the master page.
  3. Sections. This is the third level of organization. Sections resemble tabs at the top of the screen, and a section (or tab) can hold numerous pages. In fact, Microsoft says the number of pages and tabs is only limited by the physical storage space on your computer.
  4. Section Groups. This is the fourth level. Section Groups bundle together sections….into groups. Again, you can have as many section groups as you like.
  5. Notebooks. This is the fifth and highest level. Notebooks can contain many sections groups, many sections, and many pages. I can create as many notebooks as I desire.

In summary:


notes-2-sectionsSECTION GROUPS

notes-2-sectionnotesSECTIONS (TABS)




The hard part this week was to decide how to best organize and structure my notes into these five levels. As I have been so used to just flipping to a clean page in my Moleskin, I had to change my thinking here.

I started by making a notebook, as you obviously need to have at least one to get going. I created a first notebook called Test Notebook. Not bad eh? When you create a new notebook, you automatically get a Section (or tab) called New Section and a Page within that Section called Untitled Page.


Thinking that it is always easy to group things but hard to break them apart, I started thinking about my notes at the Page level.

Pages for me will contain one of five things: meeting notes, project notes, sketches and ideas, stuff I need to remember, or stuff I have clipped from the Internet. For meetings, I decided that I would create a page for each meeting and then group those meetings into a Section that I would name after the project.

For example, I have a Section (or tab) called “Office365 Conversion” (which refers to the project name), and then all of my meeting note pages, project idea pages, sketching pages, and clipped pages all under that section.


However, it became very clear very fast that I was going to run out of real-estate using the Sections and Section Groups alone to categorize my notes.

The solution was to create multiple notebooks, sort of like carrying around a different Moleskin notebook for every part of my life.

By the end of the week, I had created nine notebooks, one for each major area:

  1. Inbox – a general clearing house for incoming notes – through clipping, emailing, etc.
  2. Lindsay’s Notes – my personal stuff – house, family, etc.
  3. CompuVision – my internal corporate projects
  4. CompuVision Cloud – my projects related to our expanding cloud services business
  5. Clients – projects and notes related to our CompuVision clients
  6. Stollery – my notes related to my work with the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation
  7. Street Performers Festival – my notes related to my work with the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival Society
  8. Juventus – my notes regarding the programs I run for the Juventus Cycling Club
  9. Fixii – my projects within our research & development company, Fixii Inc.

This seemed to work well, as I now had enough real-estate to create notes until the end of time. Once I got over wanting to have everything within one notebook, life got much easier.


Within the CompuVision Notebook, I created a number of sections: leadership, finance, office, technical services, acquisitions, recruiting, and HR. I also created a number of Section Groups for those topics with a ton of sub-sections such as marketing, staff, and active projects.

So the CompuVision Notebook looks something like this:

notes-1-notebookCompuVision Notebook

notes-2-sectionsActive Projects

notes-2-pagesOffice365 Conversion

Azure Cloud Active Directory

Azure Cloud Backup and Recovery


notes-2-pages7-Day Action Items

Leadership Retreat 2016

notes-2-sectionsTechnical Services



notes-2-sectionsBrand Promise

notes-2-pagesValue Chart

Marketing Session Feb 5

notes-2-sectionsService Experience

notes-2-pagesService Model Meeting Feb 2

Service research – best in breed

notes-2-sectionsetc. etc. etc. etc.


You get the picture. Now I am creating notes by the dozens and effortlessly filing them into my notebooks.

I generally create a new note for each meeting, idea, concept, or clipping. I group pages into projects at the Section (tab) level. I group Sections into Section Groups for those areas with lots of action. I then keep everything organized within my 9 notebooks.

The beauty of OneNote is that it can be very structured and very flexible. A perfect combination, especially for me. For example, our cloud services work got so big that I eventually broke it off into its own notebook. I simply moved the relevant notes into new Sections in the new notebook.

So as I create notes and use them, I am learning more and more about how to structure my thinking. It continues to evolve.

Next week I will tackle the next three questions:

  • Question 2: How to get it into the cloud
  • Question 3: How to get it across my devices
  • Question 4: How to achieve my desire for freeform sketching

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

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