How to Use OneNote Like a World Famous Scientist

Rob Nightingale 07-03-2016

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 Start this Simple Habit to Rocket Your Productivity: Journaling Journaling is an underrated career tool and a core habit of many successful people. From increasing productivity, to maintaining accountability, we explore why you should consider introducing journaling as a productivity tool into your workday. Read More 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 6 Simple Reasons Why Paper Can Still Be Your Killer Productivity App Paper can be a more potent tool for productivity than a computer or a touch device, and shouldn't immediately be dismissed. Not convinced? Here are six reasons why paper is still relevant. Read More . Something a little more like Microsoft OneNote, perhaps.

Charles Darwin Library


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 How to Migrate from Evernote to OneNote, and Why You Should Do you think that Microsoft OneNote is better than Evernote? Or maybe, it just suits your project management style. Either way, here's how you can migrate all your notes from Evernote to OneNote easily. Read More 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 The Essential OneNote for Mac Guide Microsoft OneNote is a free note-taking app for Mac, iPad, and iPhone. Here's everything you need to become more productive. Read More 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 4 Free Online OCR Tools Put to the Ultimate Test With advances in OCR technology, converting text and Images from your scanned PDF document into the editable text formats is easier. We tested a few free online OCR tools so you won't have to. Read More (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 10 Unique Ways to Use Microsoft OneNote OneNote is one of Microsoft's most underrated apps. It's available on almost every platform and can do many tricks you wouldn't expect from a note keeping app. Read More , whether you’re taking notes at school How to Use OneNote for School: 10 Tips for Students and Teachers Microsoft OneNote can transform the classroom. Find out why the note-taking app is designed for both students and teachers. Read More or simply organizing your to-do lists 6 Tips for Using OneNote as Your To-Do List Are you making the most of your OneNote to-do list? Apply our tips for better OneNote checklists. Read More . Using Darwin’s note-taking habit was a vehicle for showing you the main features on offer OneNote Is Now Truly Free With More Features Than Before Evernote no longer rules the roost of note taking apps. Microsoft recently announced OneNote would be more free than ever before. Let us show you what this means in terms of features and functionality. Read More . 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)

Related topics: Geeky Science, Microsoft Office Tips, Microsoft OneNote, Note-Taking Apps, Organization Software.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Robin
    July 31, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Cool article Rob! Sometimes I just like to compare things, now it's actually which note app to stick with. My intuition says OneNote because of it's look and usefulness. I switched back to Android, that's why Google Keep also might have been an alternative. Also used EverNote for a long time. But the Windows (Win32) client was very slow and not great considering usability. Also didn't like the 'Pro' selling all the time. Biggest problem with my EverNote is that I have liked thousands of notes for to read later, but I never actually read them. ;) (same happens now you can save posts and links in Facebook ;-))

    Oh well let's just say the stuff that is important will come back to you.

    • Robin
      July 31, 2016 at 6:30 am

      Oh and by the way, I think indeed categorizing, like Darwin so it seems, is key for being efficient. Have quite a lot of notebooks. Might consider to stick to one notebook with more categories. (nah)

  2. Nigel McTeer
    May 6, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Both photos are of Darwin by the way.

    Great article

    Nigel McTeer

  3. Mike
    March 22, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    I've been a fan of O.N. for years and currently use it to help run a business. Very easy to clip web orders and receipts to the same vendor page for transactional history lookups. I no longer have to search email and the bookkeeping program for a record of events. It is an enormous productivity booster - and aggravation avoider.

    I also have a grocery notebook where my wife and I post things we need as we think of them. When I mention I'm headed by store 'x' on my way home, she'll focus on that tab and add anything else she wants me to pick up while i'm there.

    OneNote is the most useful single piece of software I've ever used.

    • Rob Nightingale
      March 23, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      Glad to hear O.N. is working out well for you, Mike!

  4. ElaineMDG
    March 14, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    First-just FYI-that second photo is Charles DICKENS, NOT DARWIN!!
    Second: yea, this may be an "advertisement", but I, myself, LOVE OneNote!! I'm learning a completely new "trade", as a way to make a passive income -after being forced to leave my profession due to my health. OneNote has enabled me to collect everything from notes taken in classes, to additional research done, and I can even embed spreadsheets and photos. All of this information is easily organized AND more importantly, re-organized! Also VERY important to me is being able to use it 1. FREE and 2. Synced between my iPad, laptop and desktop!

    I wish something like this had been available even just 25years ago, when I'd returned to school to get my MS and was first introduced to computers! We've come a LONG way since Apple 2 & the local FreeNet (and CompuServe!)!

    • Rob Nightingale
      March 17, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Elaine, I'm afraid I didn't pick that image, but I guess it could pass as both guys ;)

      And I agree, I love OneNote too, and am glad I've finally discovered it!

  5. Ian
    March 14, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    Excellent article. Grounding it in an example really helps explain the potential of OneNote, which I love.

    • Rob Nightingale
      March 15, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks Ian :)

  6. Dave
    March 13, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Commercial, not an article. Useless

    • Tina Sieber
      March 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

      What makes you think this is commercial? OneNote is a free tool by the way.

    • Rob Nightingale
      March 15, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      Well, there were a couple of negatives mentioned, too (like the Mac version having less features). Overall, though, this was meant as an introduction to what OneNote is capable of, and I do really like to software, so the article is written from a positive reference point. If you think this will serve to convince people to try out OneNote, that's fine by me :)