Rejoice! I've Created the Ultimate Daily Tracking System with @MSOneNote

For many long, bitter years I’ve lamented the utter lack of harmony among my various personal-organizational systems. I’ve tried paper. I’ve tried smartphones. I’ve tried an Outlook-only solution. I even tried to put everything into a giant Access database with a Web front-end, only to be stymied by a back-end discontinuity. Never could get any solution to work, though — the stuff I wanted to record, in the way I wanted to record it, in all the different form factors I might want to access it, never seemed to align in satisfactory manner.
Until now, that is.log2

The solution I’ve developed squares the circle that connects data tracking, idea-gathering and journaling into a single front-end solution that synchronizes natively across three screens. I use Microsoft OneNote (although presumably Evernote would work too) with a separate notebook called “Chron” containing a tab called “Daily.” I’ve saved the template shown to the left as the default template for this tab, and my Windows Phone 8 links to the template page (I’ve pinned it, so I can open it up to today’s notes with just a single tap.)

The section contains the things I care about recording, but with only as much detail as I’m interested in gathering. The form includes a “focus” bar, which is simply a phrase or sentence that summarizes something I need to keep top-of-mind; it might be task-oriented or it might just be a song quote to provide inspiration.

The “Today’s Deliverables” list marks all the deadlines I have to get done — I refresh it every morning by scanning my task list in Outlook and picking the that that I need to keep in front of my face.  By design, this list doesn’t sync directly to Outlook; I sometimes include quick tasks or short-term lists here that really don’t warrant the time/effort of adding it to Outlook. I also sometimes schedule myself to do things before their Outlook due date if I know I have the flex to get it done.

The “Schedule” list provides a skeleton of my appointments — both on-calendar and in-the-moment — and beneath each item I can then add my meeting notes and (as needed) create Outlook tasks for anything I need to do as a result of that meeting.

If I did something special worth preserving, it’s listed as a “Significant Accomplishment” — helpful if I wanted to look back over the last few months to see progress on life goals. Many days, this line will be blank, just to preserve its value of highlighting the things that matter.

Then I record data about myself — how many calories I’ve consumed, how much exercising I’ve done and how much money I’ve transacted. Weekly, I record “body metrics,” including regular weigh-ins and blood pressure checks with an “other” category for other health milestones worth documenting. Like my sketchy Vitamin D levels. At the bottom of the list, a section for “Ideas/Reflections” permits free-form recording of ideas or longer journal entries. Consider it a form of diary integration.

One of my biggest peeves with existing third-party life-organization tools is that (a) data often aren’t portable, and (b) you’re at the mercy of the vendor. With my solution, I own my data and don’t need to give private information to a company that may or may not be in operation six months from now.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a “tag” line beneath several of the sections. This little sentence identifies a specific data-recording paradigm. Under “Calorie Counts,” for example, I’ve reminded myself to record today’s date, the meal — breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack — and the meal’s net calories. If I need to add a comment, I can do so. Each piece of information is comma-separated. Then, I can highlight the row of data and use one of OneNote’s tags (I have CTRL+4 hot-keyed as a “calorie count” tag). For example: “1/1/13,breakfast,120,Greek yogurt and coffee with creamer.” Quick and easy to type — something I could do on my phone at the Starbucks counter, even. If it’s easy to record, it’s more likely that it’ll be recorded. Notes are optional. If you’re in line at Panera, how hard is it to tap your log button on the phone and type “1/1/13,lunch,350,Panera” if you’re enjoying a 350-calorie meal? If you can’t log something that succinct ….

But why do it this way, instead of using a third-party service or a spreadsheet or something? Because a uniform method of recording, coupled with OneNote’s heavily customizable internal tags, lets me do a tag search and dump all instances of a specific tab to a summary page. The upshot is that I can just copy/paste the “calorie count” data and dump it into Excel if I want to track/trend/graph my data over time; the uniform mechanism of tracking individual records, separated by commas, permits painless sorting into columns. For example, if I wanted to measure my average daily gross calorie count for all of January, and subtract from it my gross calorie burn from exercise, to arrive at net calories by day, I can just search for the “calorie count” and “exercise record” tags, do a quick copy/paste into Excel, and arrive at the results in less than a minute. No need to try fiddling with MyFitnessPal or Livescape, or a separate mobile version of a spreadsheet; the data’s your own and you can manipulate it how you wish.

So. I now have an electronic solution that allows for daily metrics tracking in one tool, synced over three screens, with a data-collection and tagging infrastructure to permit fairly simple longitudinal analysis of performance. Not bad, eh?

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