How to get more out of OneNote

Tips and Tricks

OneNote is one of those underappreciated apps within Office 365. To be honest, I’ve only used it for the last two years despite my wife having praised it for her work as a teacher for a long time. But it really has grown on me and I enjoy taking notes, working on outlines and reviewing documents with OneNote. Its integration with Teams makes it a no-brainer to share notes among a project team.

I recently saw an unanswered tweet asking for help about OneNote and thought this might be an opportunity to share some of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate about OneNote over the last two years.

Two caveats up front:

  1. I use the Windows app. Therefore all shortcuts and features are Windows. But I’m pretty sure most is supported on the Mac/ web version. Happy to update if there is interest.
  2. I use the OneNote for Windows 10 app, not OneNote 2016 that most people seem to be familiar with. I greatly prefer the former given how snappy it is and how the interface feels more modern.

With that out of the way, let’s begin exploring some of the aspects in which OneNote can make your life easier:

Using keyboard shortcuts

As with every app it pays off to invest time to learn keyboard shortcuts. OneNote is no exception and reciprocates with great keyboard support. Below are a few of shortcuts that are non-obvious that I find most helpful:

  • CTRL+1: Create a little checkbox next to the paragraph to mark as a todo. Pressing CTRL+1 again will check that box.
  • CTRL+2: Mark a paragraph with a star for future reference. Helpful to highlight important statements when taking notes to go back to later.
  • Ctrl + G: Switch Notebook – Once you start using OneNote with multiple teams you will work with lots of notebooks. This shortcut will help you keep your flow even if you have to switch notebooks.
  • Ctrl+Shift+G: Switch sections within a notebook. The little sister of Ctrl+G.
  • Ctrl+E: Search. Always great when you are lost to just use search to find what you’ve been looking for.
  • Ctrl+M: Create new window. Especially when you work with lots of display real estate, it helps to be able to have multiple notes open simultaneously.
  • Alt+Shift+Up/Down: Move a paragraph up or down within a text. Might sound obscure but I use it quite frequently when jotting down ideas and playing with the right structure.
  • Alt+Shift+Left/Right: Indent/ un-indent a paragraph. OneNote is a great outliner and those last two shortcuts are the centerpieces.
  • Ctrl+ . and Ctrl+/: Create a bullet or numbered list.

Microsoft has an overview of all shortcuts. If you have five minutes, I recommend browsing through them and see what catches your fancy.

Structuring your documents

OneNote has great features to structure your documents. Bullet list are rock solid and I’ve never had a problem with them breaking (I’m looking at you, Word or Outlook). Using Alt+Shift+Left/Right makes it easy to in- and decrease indentation.

Bonus feature: Once you have a good structure with indentation, you can use Alt+Shift+ +/- to expand and collapse structures. When you are working with larger notes this feature can help to hide some of the complexity (speak “messiness”). Keeps the brain sane.

Last but not least, OneNote also has something that it calls “tags”. You can add little checkboxes, stars and whatever else you want next to a paragraph. This is a great feature if you want to highlight action items or key statements when taking notes. You can easily assign them on the fly using Ctrl+1 or Ctrl+2 or … you get it. You can even define your own custom tags for OneNote.

Removing distractions

Pressing F11 will get you into full screen mode. No more distractions, just a large canvas to write/ paint on. You will lose all icons for text formatting, but since you know your keyboard shortcuts, that won’t matter to you.

In case it does, just press the “Show/ Hide Navigation” button on the left and you will just get some more horizontal space.

Creating hyperlinks

OneNote allow to link notebooks, sections and single notes. Just right click on any of them and select “Copy link to section/ page/ …”. Inserting that link in your documents works like in most editors that support hyperlinks: Ctrl+K is your friend.

Unfortunately, OneNote lost the ability to create a table of contents that allows you to link within a note. But most notes are short enough anyway and using the expand/ collapse paragraphs feature should help compensate for it.

Finding your stuff

Yes, at times it gets confusing between notebooks, sections and notes. Search is your friend. While I haven’t seen that OneNote supports proper hashtags with linking, it typically works quite well to just insert hastags and use them in the search (Ctrl+E).

The other tip to find your notes is to use “Show recent notes”. Across all your most recently used notebooks it will show you a chronological list of most recent notes (duh). This feature has saved by bottom quite a few times when I created notes that I couldn’t find anymore.

That’s it. There are a lot more great features such as inserting meeting details and attendants from your calendar, using the pen to scribble things or if you’re really into it I recommend following the OneNote twitter account for more tips, but let’s keep it short. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully will help somebody get their work done in a more delightful way.

The Author

Raging introvert, estimated to be 120% German. Passionate about photography. If Sheldon knocked on my door three times, I'd let him in.