How you can develop a second brain using Microsoft OneNote

A good friend of mine recommended Microsoft OneNote to me as a way to organise myself and at a similar time another friend recommended I read the book Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott . These two things together helped me to develop a system that I now use to manage my entire life and enable me to be much more productive than I was previously.

In order to try and understand OneNote in more detail I watched a few instructional videos on YouTube, got the basic idea and then got to work setting it up for myself and now I truly LOVE IT! I am not sure how I managed without it before! It’s one of those things were I really changed the way I operated after learning about it.

After reading the Productivity Ninja, I was really inspired by some of the concepts and I made some significant changes to how I approach things that have had an incredibly positive impact. In the Productivity Ninja, Allcott talks about not relying on your brain to remember everything you have to do but creating a second brain that does all that for you. I love this concept and OneNote for me has become my second brain. Let me explain how:

The productivity ninja explores the CORD method:

  • Capture and collect
  • Organise
  • Review
  • Do

Allcott explores the concept of setting up systems that allow you to follow this model and organize your life and your work. To give you a quick high level summary:

Capture and collect: The process of gathering up all inputs that you receive, be it e-mails, ideas, text messages, letters, notes from meeting, anything that comes in that you need to deal with

Organise: The process of deciding what to do with each input and it’s priority

Review: The use of daily and weekly checklists that help you focus your attention where it is needed and ensure you are clear about everything you need to do

Do: The process of carrying out all the actions

To get the full detail of how this works I fully recommend How to be a Productivity Ninja. It was a real game changer for me and goes into much more detail on exactly how this system works which will allow you to implement it to be way more productive.

You can set up Microsoft One Note in a way that allows you to follow this method in both your personal and work life.

OneNote is designed for you to set up different notebooks. I recommend 3 notebooks:

1) Lists: This details all the lists that you use that stay static, rarely changing

2) Personal: This manages everything in your personal life

3) Work: This manages everything to do with your job

Having only 3 notebooks, makes it very easy to manage and you set up all the detail behind these notebooks.

OneNote has a very nice and easy to use tab system and within each tab you can create different pages, so it makes things very easy to organize and find.

How you can use OneNote to become your second brain:

1) Capture and collect

Everything goes into OneNote. It is a place to store all your inputs. It has a great functionality of taking screen clippings so you can copy documents and pictures from anywhere. You can put all your meeting notes, thoughts, ideas, actions etc in the notebooks you create. If there is anything you need to remember to do, you can add it to OneNote and its all captured in one place. It also syncs with Microsoft Outlook, so if you use both, it can be really effective.

You then create a tab system within each notebook, where you create all the critical tabs. These are mine to give you an idea:

WORK: Project list, master to do list, team meetings, meetings, direct reports, projects, 1:2:1’s

PERSONAL: Project list, master to do list, coaching, blog, social, inspiring quotes, reading list, year planner

LISTS: Daily list, weekly list, morning routine, vision board

Some of those tabs are taken directly from The Productivity Ninja, so this explains each one in more detail. All of the information that you would need under these headings are added onto new pages as you go. The beauty of OneNote is it is really easy to find things and if you can’t remember where you filed things you can search on them.

 2) Organise

As soon as you have gathered the information you would need to organise it onto a various list or filing system. This is my favourite chapter from the Productivity Ninja. It’s all about having a Ninja Mindset on what to do with something. I realised I spent so long faffing around not knowing what to do about something rather than just making a decision. Now I take an immediate decision on how to manage a piece of work or input. I either action it immediately, add it to a to do list to complete at another time, file it somewhere, delete it, forward it to someone else to do, or put it in a Waiting folder. There are only so many options of how to manage the information that comes into you. Ultimately you have to make a decision of what to do with it, so, inspired by the learnings from the Productivity Ninja, I now make an immediate decision, rather than coming back to everything later. All my organization goes into OneNote, so everything I need to do it on there or linked from there.

3) Review

This is an extremely important part of using a second brain as if you don’t review, you may forget to do things. This is about going through the systems you have set up to action any elements of activity that need completing. You can achieve inbox zero very easily, but if you don’t go and action all the outstanding work, it will not be very effective. If you have an effective system in place, it will mean you know exactly what is outstanding for you and needs actioning and the priorities of each piece of work. What can be really great about this is that you don’t waste lots of time and energy constantly reanalyzing the same inputs over and over again, but instead make an immediate decision about what to do with them.

4) Do

This is about just doing it! Once you have a system in place you need to make time to do your work. You will get a system in place on when you answer e-mails, when you check your ‘waiting’ folder, when you read up on stuff you have placed somewhere to read later, when you do project work etc. You can make some changes here to do your work that takes the most brain power when you have the most energy and leave work that takes less brain power for times when you are not as alert of energized.


I used to be someone who had a handwritten notebook full of lists. I still have lists, they are just transferred to OneNote instead as it is much more effective than constantly rewriting paper lists. There are loads of other cool features such as search, screen clippings, e-mail functionality and many more. You can very easily learn how to use it by watching a few You Tube Videos. It’s very intuitive and self-explanatory.

I’d love to hear your comments about your experience with Microsoft One Note or any similar tools and whether you use any systems that form a second brain for you.


  1. Laura October 6, 2015 at 7:52 am #

    Downloading one note now, I have to try this…….comments to follow


    • Mel Johnson October 6, 2015 at 11:35 am #

      Great, looking forward to hearing about how you get on! 🙂


  2. Mark January 24, 2017 at 10:39 am #

    Hi, how do you find OneNote for managing lists on the go? I use a combination of Wunderlist for lists and OneNote for support notes. Wunderlist is great for quickly adding to and resorting the master/Project and and daily to do lists


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