How to Use OneNote Like a World Famous Scientist

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Charles Darwin’s love of note-taking would no doubt have made him a true lover of Microsoft OneNote. Here’s how he would have used the app to organize his work and move his research forward. We’ll even show you how you can use the app, too.

How Darwin Took Notes

Between 1831 and 1836 Charles Darwin filled 15 notebooks while onboard HMS Beagle, voyages that brought him to South America, the Galápagos Islands, and Australia. Throughout the rest of his life, he filled innumerable more.

This meticulous, obsessive habit of taking notes was not limited to merely his studies and discoveries. Scrawled throughout notebooks are far more mundane aspects of life, from expense tracking to shopping lists.

Yet it’s this incessant need to take notes and record a journal that helped solidify Darwin’s reputation in the Science Hall of Fame. In his own words:

I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once.

If Darwin Were Alive Today

If Darwin were alive today, the deluge of information available at his fingertips would undoubtedly have filled him with excitement. But also anguish. For such a voracious consumer of information of all forms, he would likely have needed something more powerful to record his thoughts and findings than a pad and paper. Something a little more like Microsoft OneNote, perhaps.

Charles Darwin Library

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In this article, you’ll be introduced to OneNote, and shown how Darwin may have used this tool to store, sort, and use all of his research and thoughts. Perhaps by the end, you’ll even convert to using OneNote as your own universal note-taking app.

What Is Microsoft OneNote?

OneNote is a digital note-taking app that works on all your devices. It offers a powerful way to record, organize, and sort all forms of information, and arrange them in a way that turns your notes into productivity aides.

Before you write-off OneNote for being a member of Microsoft’s notoriously badly designed family of tools, give it a try. The user interface is simple and intuitive. And the user experience design is far better than Evernote (a similar app that I’ve been devoted to for years).

Once you begin storing your notes on OneNote, you can access these from all of your devices, including desktop and web apps (unfortunately, Mac users have less OneNote features than Windows users). You can easily search notes and organize them. You can even collaborate in real-time on your notes.

But these are mostly features that can be accessed in tools such as Evernote, too. Rather, it’s the way in which you can structure and arrange each of your notes within OneNote that would have made it a great choice for Darwin. Or, for that matter, anyone with a diverse range of interests, and a healthy appetite for consuming content in all its forms.

How Darwin Might Have Used OneNote

Our speculations on how Charles Darwin might have employed OneNote to organize his observations, will hopefully give you an insight into OneNote’s potential and spark ideas for managing your own work.

1. Organizing Notebooks

One of Darwin’s most famous notebooks — the “Red Notebook” — was filled with notes on a huge range of subjects. Ensuing notebooks, however, were more meticulously ordered. Notebook “A” was devoted to geology, notebook “N” to the mutability of species. The alphabetic list went on.

OneNote is particularly suited to this kind of subject-based organization.

As you can see from the below image, within the app you can start multiple notebooks. Within your notebook, you can add different tabs (or “sections”). Your notes are then stored as separate pages within these sections.

OneNote organization

If Darwin started an OneNote notebook called “Red Notebook”, he would have opened a new section for each topic, such as species identification, or Geology. With the former section, he could have had a single note dedicated to each species (see above). Each of those notes act as an expandable notebook page, where all sorts of information can be inserted, annotated, and dragged-and-dropped to wherever you want it to sit.

As you can imagine, being able to visually arrange content exactly as you want it is far more useful than simply having tons of individual notes.

2. Capturing Thoughts and Ideas

The range of thoughts and ideas that Darwin scribbled down was astounding, from beautiful sketches to cryptic, abstract sentences that only he could understand. But no matter how Darwin would choose to capture his thoughts, it’s likely OneNote could handle it.

Microsoft OneNote

Each note can contain a wide range of content types, from easily formatted text, images and tables, to voice and video notes, maps, checklists, and even handwritten scribbles.

Once a piece of content is added to a note, this can be dragged and dropped to wherever it will be most useful.

3. Recording Research

Whether research is conducted through highlighting articles and books, watching videos, taking photos, or via email exchanges, all of this can be captured with OneNote.

If Darwin had recorded the sounds of birds, or videos of the Galápagos, this would have sat perfectly next to detailed annotations within a single note.

OneNote Screenshot

If he had been out in the field, his handwritten notes could have been uploaded. If he needed to work out basic math, this could be done without leaving the note.

This capability to use just a single program to keep track of such a wide range of data-types is one reason why OneNote is becoming so popular.

4. Collecting Relevant Knowledge

As Darwin was an avid reader in a wide range of subjects (probably like you and me), the need to keep track of what he had read, and what he had found interesting in that content was pressing.

Luckily, if any of that content was in the form of a chart or Visio diagram, it could have been inserted into his notes. If he needed to save a printed document, OneNote’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) feature would make a scanned version searchable.

OneNote Clipper

Alternatively, by installing the OneNote browser extension, content could easily be clipped from websites while removing distracting elements such as adverts.

And if he enjoyed reading articles on Instapaper, Pocket, or Readability, integrating his accounts with IFTTT or Zapier would mean he could save entire articles, or just his highlights direct to his OneNote account.

5. Collaborating With Others

OneNote’s real-time collaboration features allow you to invite others to view and edit your notes. As they work on your note(s), you can see those changes in real-time. For students working on coursework, or colleagues working on a project, this can be a godsend.

For Darwin, being able to invite some of his mentors to leave annotations, questions, and points of consideration to his notes is a feature he would have loved (though for this to work notes must be shared on OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, or SharePoint).OneNote Collaboration

No more would he have had to write lengthy letters, and wait impatiently for a reply. Instead, he could be advancing his theory of evolution through real-time collaboration with his closest friends.

And if his colleagues didn’t use OneNote themselves, emailing the full note is as simple as a single click.

6. Actually Making Use of Notes

What use are notes if you cannot find what you’re looking for? Darwin’s answer to this was to have one notebook for each topic. Mimicking this organizational structure in OneNote is easy enough, but when you start to have hundreds of notes, things can get a little messy.

In these cases, different parts of different notes can easily be “tagged” so you can find what you need by categorization (see these tags below). For example, if you have a bunch of to-do items or questions scattered around several notes, you can easily pull all of these up (this search feature is not available on the Mac version).

OneNote Tags

If you want to search multiple notes, CTRL+E searches for words of phrases in all open notebooks. CTRL+F searches only the note you’re currently reviewing.

For Darwin, this would have meant he could instantly pull up every relevant piece of information he had on, say Woodpecker Finches within any of his notebooks. Similarly, if he had tagged any questions he still had to answer before his theory was sound, all of these could have been displayed so he could work through them one-by-one.

How Will You Use OneNote?

I personally love using OneNote to gather research for, and organize articles I’m working on. Quotes, images, links, and highlights can all be moved around the page, meaning I can far more easily plan an article before beginning to write.

But there are many more uses for OneNote, whether you’re taking notes at school or simply organizing your to-do lists. Using Darwin’s note-taking habit was a vehicle for showing you the main features on offer. How you choose use those features is up to you.

What would you use OneNote for? And if you already use the software, what tricks could you share?

Image Credits: Charles Darwin by Mr. Gray (Flickr)

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