Saturday, April 17, 2010

How I Came Back to OneNote

Around the time I was in high school I started paying more attention to the ways I try to organize information and "present" it to myself. Since then, I've been constantly experimenting and revising the way I take notes and keep myself organized. I just went through a flurry of activity in the last few months and wanted to share about it.

I have found my way to OneNote a few times since its release, and I have always ended up letting it go. I spend a month or two sorting my thoughts into neat hierarchies of notebooks, tabs and pages, diligently typing in meeting notes and other thoughts, and at first the organization seems to make so much sense. Unlike some people, though, my problem isn't that my will to organize everything falls apart. My problem has always been that my notebooks become big black holes of information: I put lots of great things there and then never look at them again. I would always play along with the multiple levels of nesting and hierarchically organize everything, and the information gets buried and a lot of links between important clusters of notes would get lost. I'm not talking about hyperlinks, I'm talking about the importance of mentally associating multiple items with each other.

When my brain finally turned out the preceding sentence a month or two ago while I was trying to figure out how to organize myself, I thought, "clearly I learn and store information visually/spatially, so why aren't I taking notes that way?" I started using Post-Its, but quickly came to hate their size and unneeded stickiness. That weekend, while I was at the store, I picked up some colored notecards and erasers and put together a Hipster PDA. I loved it and my new ability to spread out and rearrange notecards, for about a month: My handwriting is decent, but the keyboard is a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age. I've gotten so used to almost being able keep up with my brain dumps by typing that handwriting feels glacial by comparison. Plus, by moving back to pencil and paper, I was losing out on so many useful tools that are so obvious on a computer.

My next stop was Win7's sticky notes. They're simple but they're not reliable, they're limited to your desktop and they offer very little useful functionality. This lasted about three days, but it got me wondering what kind of spatial organization tools were available in OneNote. I did a little searching and bumped into OneNote Canvas, which immediately looked familiar because I've seen demonstrations done with pptPlex before. I got as far as installing it and getting to the screen where it recommended not using it if you share your notebooks via fileshares (sorry Canvas, but you lost me there). Going back to look at the features, I realized it probably wasn't that great of a fit anyways - the focus was still on pages, as if one was writing in a Word doc and just wanted to clump some pages together. I wanted to get away from that - I wanted to clump ideas together and make things easy to see. I looked at the remainder of the digital sticky notes on my desktop and thought, "why can't I just use OneNote this way? What if I just shut off the obsessive-compulsive instinct to separate everything into notebooks, tabs, pages, paragraphs and bullet lists and just started with a single blank page?"

I fired up OneNote, and I don't think I've closed it since. I think my "note cloud" (this blog post serves as dated proof of prior art of that term and concept if I ever get to patent it!) is here to stay.

The main attraction is my note cloud, a single page that has note containers and a few other types of information scattered all over it. All notes "start" here - if I go to a meeting, have an idea, or someone comes in my office and I need to write something down, it goes in the note cloud. Over time, if I end up having a few scattered blocks that are related, I can just drag them together to associate them. If a block starts to take on content and structure, I'll move it to a new page and replace it in the note cloud with a hyperlink to that page (in OneNote, you can right-click any notebook, tab, page or even individual paragraph and generate a link to it that gets sent to the clipboard). I frequently zoom with Ctrl+MouseWheel to get a better view, so I'll change the font size, weight, highlight color or text color of important things or tag them with a start or something else appropriate. This is actually where I thought of the "note cloud" name - the different font sizes and weights interspersed look a lot like a tag cloud. I don't have a tablet PC, but I can use the drawing tools with the mouse to scribble a broad highlight or circle a few things. The familiar Ctrl-F is "find on this page" in OneNote and I make use of it frequently.

I look at my note cloud constantly and I'm always writing stuff there - it's almost like a desk blotter that I can scribble notes on. I don't have to worry about losing or forgetting about important notes because I'm looking at them all the time, and in the case of a big cluster of notes that I don't need all upfront, I instead have a single link to another page that will take me straight to the content. I've also got another page right next to the cloud, "note cloud trash", where I'll paste old notes cut from the cloud that I might want to have around for a bit to remind me if I did or didn't do something. As this page grows, I'll probably burn the old brush out every once in a while.

So far, I've only mentioned the most basic features in OneNote. I doubt there's anyone that uses them all of OneNote's features (there are zillions of really important features that aren't ribbon buttons or context menu items, but things that "just work," a lot of them having to do with Office suite integration and drag/paste support), but there are a few I've come to really love that have basically turned OneNote into a "smart desktop" for me.

The first is that OneNote is starting to replace my web favorites/bookmarks for research-related tasks. Bookmark titles and folder organization just don't cut it for me for anything except general favorites. With OneNote, I can paste in URLs or drag favicons in from the browser and clump a bunch of links together with other text to associate all of them. Never again will I put a web bookmark on my desktop, lose a bookmark for a specific topic, or wonder if I bookmarked something or not - I have developed a new reflex that automatically pastes URLs of interesting pages into OneNote. This is the new school of research and gathering sources: I remember thinking that gathering and citing sources was such a chore in school, but with OneNote I've got a list of seven or eight interesting links just for this blog post (and let's be honest, this post isn't even that interesting). Amassing links for later perusal and comprehension (or printing for take-home reading, which I've become a big fan of) is incredibly easy.

Another organizational trouble spot I've had since I embarked on my career and was responsible for "action items" is how to keep track of requests sent to me via email, and how to remember to stay on top of people that haven't yet completed requests I have made of them. For the latter, I used to have a set of "waiting on" pages in OneNote, but like everything else they got subdivided into oblivion and buried. I learned firsthand that mail folders are meant for archive organization when I tried to work with a "Later" folder for stuff I didn't want in my Inbox. I summarily renamed that folder "Never" right before trashing it. I never used it because I knew I'd never look in it. Why did I have so many places (mail folders, notes pages, bookmark lists) to look for stuff I wanted right in front of me all the time?

My favorite new trick is to drag emails from Outlook into OneNote and select "insert a copy of the file onto the page". This gives you a bite-sized email icon with the subject line right on the page, and you can double-click it to open it. This has allowed me to do something I have wanted to do for ages, which is to stop using my Outlook folders, including my (now empty!) inbox, for information that I want to have in front of me. I can drag multiple emails into a little group with some text notes to associate them all. If I have an email associated with a task and I complete that task, I can just double-click the email and Reply to it. If I am waiting on someone else to complete something, I can put my request email next to the note and double click it if I want to send a reminder. If a lot of emails come through for a given task I'll replace the one in my OneNote with the newest, so I can see the full thread. The object in OneNote is a copy of the email, so I can sort the original however I like, and if I really need to find it in my mail folder I can use information from the copy to search for it. I've also started using this feature to keep a little collection of emails that might benefit me during the next performance review - I hate keeping copies of emails in my mail folders but I want to sort emails appropriately based on project or task, so I keep the copies in OneNote, along with any other notes or information I can use at review time.

If I ever get around to figuring out how to file feature requests for Office products, I'd love to see first-class support for spatial note taking like this. Even if that doesn't happen, though, I have a few ideas that would help out my workflow and make it even more effective:
• Make zooming and panning a little easier. Zooming is really flaky around the edges of a page and doesn't like to stay centered on the cursor, and zoom settings are used application-wide, not per page. Panning by holding middle-click seems to amplify the mouse sensitivity. Mine is already very high and when I try to pan this way the viewport jumps all over.
• Provide a per-note-container option to make an outline around the note cluster. This would help to automatically visually separate notes that are close together but aren't really associated.
• Some way to link to (as opposed to copy) a whole conversation-threaded Outlook 2010 email thread
• OneNote has a bug where if you drag a favicon from a page with a long URL into it, the text of the entire URL will get pasted, but only about 100 characters of it will become an active link, and the link target will only include those characters (i.e. you have a broken link and you need to recopy the URL to fix it). The workaround is to copy the URL from the address bar and paste it instead of dragging the favicon. Edit: This is incorrect; copying and pasting the URL runs into the same problem, and it's very annoying. I'm using OneNote 2010 Beta but I'll have to see if it's fix in RTM.

We'll see how long this strategy lives for, but I think it's going to stick around for quite a while. The nice thing about it is that you can scale it: if you have tons of discrete things to keep track of, you can still make pages or sections or whole notebooks for them and use your cloud as an index/table of contents with links to stuff so it's still visually in front of you at all times.

My favorite part out of all of this is that I've used the verb "associate" a couple times in this post, but I'm not referring to a feature of OneNote or another piece of software - I'm referring to a feature of the human brain. With my note cloud, everything is right in front of me. By using the simple features of the tool to organize information spatially, I can rely on my brain's cognitive map to make connections and remember things. I finally feel comfortable doing a bunch of work and then dropping it for a while because I know I'm going to be able to pick it up again later. I think this is about as close to a mind/machine merge as I'm going to get until someone releases some new hardware.

No comments: