How to use OneNote as a Kanban Board

2 Jan 2012 7-minute read Al Eardley
Office Apps

I have only started properly using Kanban over the last couple of months. I have used it at work on a large project, a smaller project and I use it to my manage my own tasks. It is this last use that has been most useful to me personally.

I have access to a window that I use as a Kanban board with sticky notes of different colours representing different task types. It is a simple board with four columns:

  • To Do
  • Today
  • In Progress
  • Done

Over time this has worked very well but I often have more in the ‘To Do’ column than I can fit on to my Kanban board. I want to be able to track these tasks, and also refer back to the tasks in the future.

The tool I use most commonly is OneNote, stored in SharePoint. This means that I do not need to be online or connected to SharePoint to be able to access everything I store in OneNote.


If you are not familiar with OneNote then you are missing out on what I consider one of the best products in the Microsoft Office Suite. I use OneNote 2010 to take notes, take meeting minutes, track important information and to keep technical notes. In fact, I use it to take all of the screen shots in all of my blog posts (Windows+S to take a screen shot).

Kanban Board Structure

OneNote structures content based on the following hierarchy:

  • Notebook
    • Section Group
      • Section
        • Page
          • Sub-Page

A Notebook is a must as it holds everything else. Within my Notebook I am going to use a Section Group to contain a Section for each column.

To create the section group, right click on the Notebook and select ‘New Section Group’

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Give the new Section Group a name – I have imaginatively chosen ‘Kanban’.

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Clicking on the new Section Group takes us into the Section Group so that new Sections can be added.

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By clicking on the tab with the star in it, a new section is created.

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For this Kanban Board, I am creating one section for each column. I am also creating an initial Section called Overview which I will use later to summarise the status of the Kanban board.

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Kanban Task Priorities

OneNote has some pretty convenient ways of flagging text for different purposes. It can then build summaries of the flagged text. It is this feature that will give me a summary of the tasks that are in each Section by priority. It will also allow me to filter the tasks that have been completed.

Customise Tags

To make this work for me I am using four priorities:

  • Critical – Drop everything and get this done
  • High – Should do this as soon as a work slot is available
  • Medium – Should do this when a slot is available
  • Low – Would like to get this done

To achieve these priorities I am using four check boxes, one with an exclamation mark and the others with the numbers 1, 2 and 3. These are custom tags. To manage the custom tags expand the custom tag area on the ribbon.

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Then select ‘Customise Tags …’

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We then have the ability to add the tags we need.

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When you click on ‘New Tag…’ a dialogue opens to allow the entry of a description, the association of a symbol and limited formatting of the text.

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There is a decent, if not extensive collection of symbols to choose from.

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I have chose to use the blue checkboxes for my tags. I have then used the up and down arrows on the right to move the priorities close to the top of the list. If they are high enough up the list then keyboard shortcuts are applied to them. the association of keyboard shortcuts is a benefit that I find saves me a lot of time.

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Kanban Task Types

I track tasks by the following types so that I can identify how many interruptions and unscheduled tasks I have to do. To visually identify these tasks I use the colour of sticky notes, or in the case of OneNote tasks – The colour of the description text and the page:

  • Scheduled Internal Meeting
  • Unscheduled Task
  • Client Meeting
  • Client Work
  • Other

To achieve this I have created a page for each of these task types and I have set the background colours of the description and the page to give me a visual indication, and I have added some information that is useful for capturing information about the task.

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One important point to note is the selection of the description and application of the default priority. In this case I have assigned a priority of ‘Medium’. You apply the tag by placing the cursor in the text and selecting the tag from the ribbon:

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This will then apply the tag. Alternatively the keyboard shortcut can be used.

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Now to be able to create a new instance of each of these tasks, I save each as a template by clicking the down arrow to the right of ‘New Page’ and selecting ‘Page Templates …’.

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I can then select ‘Save current page as a template’ from the bottom of the panel that will appear on the right of the screen.

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For each task template, give it a name and save it.

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It is possible to select default templates for each section. I am only going to set a default on the Today section as this is where the Unscheduled tasks are most likely (but not always) to be created.

Adding New Tasks

To add a new task, open the Templates pane and expand ‘My Templates’.

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Click on the desired template and it will be added. When you first set this up it is best to add one of each type of task and then remove it. This will add the template types to the menu when you click the down arrow to the right of ‘New Page’

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Changing Task Status

Once you can add tasks to the ‘To Do’ section, you can start moving them into ‘Today’ or ‘In Progress’. You do this by selecting the page and dragging it to the section. You can either drag it to the section at the top of the screen, or the section on the left of the screen.

Once a task is complete, you move it to complete and click the checkbox to the left of the description on the page.

Tracking Tasks

Kanban is about visibility so how do you make all of the tasks visible?

Click on the ‘Overiew’ section. Now click on ‘Find Tags’ in the ribbon.

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This will open a new pane on the right of the screen.

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This pane will allow me to do the following:

  • Group tags by section – letting me know the status of the tasks
  • Show only unchecked items – Don’t display completed items
  • Search in this section group – Only looking in the Kanban section group rather than the whole notebook, or even all notebooks

I can refresh the search results and if I want to create a summary page.

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The summary page does not update but it does have links to the tasks themselves if you click the OneNote icon that appears to the left of the item when you hover over it.


This is the way I use OneNote to support a Kanban board. It covers most of what I want it to do. There are always new features that I would like to try but for the time being this suffices.

With a bit of experimentation it is possible to unlock the power of OneNote.

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