When To Do worlds collide (with OneNote)

For many years in the OneNote desktop client (i.e. 2013, 2016, not “OneNote for Windows 10”) we have a “To Do” tag that appeared in the ribbon:

But what does it do? Not much, just a nice little checkbox:

That checkbox is literally nothing more than a tag that can be used for searching, and a visual queue. The most excitement this little feature gets is when you check the box:

And for many years that’s been just fine, as savvy users of OneNote would use these tags (and others) to filter and find notes across pages, sections, and even notebooks.

Wait, this isn’t the same as Microsoft To Do?

No, it’s not. This is Microsoft To Do:

It’s a task management app, available both free for consumer users of Outlook.com as well as organisational Office 365 users.

To Do differs between the free vs. business/education Office 365 versions. In the latter it can connect to Planner, Microsoft Teams, Outlook email, calendar and tasks.

However, Microsoft To Do has absolutely nothing to do with the “To Do” tag in OneNote despite using the same capitalisation. This is important to note because for many people they would only be discovering OneNote now (despite the fact it’s over 15 years old) as well as Microsoft To Do, and potentially getting confused by this feature that appears not to work properly.

Is there a connection at all?

Yes, like a bizarre love triangle there is a connection between OneNote, Outlook, and To Do.

In the world of Office 365, Microsoft To Do relies on Outlook as its underlying storage service. In fact, tasks in To Do are actually tasks in Outlook. Go on, dust off the tasks button in Outlook and have a look – you’ll see all your tasks from To Do.

When using Outlook on the web, the tasks button has been replaced with both the To Do icon and functionality. The integration is strong, in that flagged emails in Outlook show up in a dedicated folder in To Do. As well as this, users can drag emails into To Do to turn them into tasks and drag tasks into their Outlook calendar to turn them into appointments. Very cool stuff. You can read more about the functionality here.

The connection between Outlook and OneNote has been strong for quite some time (but not the “OneNote for Windows 10” version – that can’t connect to Outlook). In OneNote we can link to Outlook calendar appointments, and from appointments we can link to either our own area of OneNote or a shared location for a meeting. You can read more about this functionality here, and here respectively.

However, there’s another linkage of OneNote that only power users have taken advantage of – and that’s the ability to create Outlook tasks from OneNote. Let’s look back at the ribbon in OneNote and we can see our friend Wally hiding in plain sight:

If we use this button on a line in a OneNote page, we should see a flag show up at the start of that line, as can be seen in the second line of this image:

So where does this task go? If we have a look at the tasks area in Outlook, I can now see this:

The linkage isn’t one way though, if I mark the task as complete in Outlook it will update in OneNote too:

You can read more about this functionality here.

But wait, there’s more!!! The triquetra between OneNote and To Do with Outlook in the middle gives us this:

If we mark this task complete in To Do, it will update in Outlook tasks (because that’s where it’s stored) and therefore update in OneNote!

It’s not all happy endings

If you’re a savvy To Do user, then you probably have multiple task lists – not just the main Tasks folder. So, it seems quite reasonable that you’d want to move the task from this folder into one of your other task lists.

Let’s create a new task in OneNote:

Let’s verify that it’s there in Outlook:

And in To Do:

I’ve moved it into a different task list:

The change is reflected in the “In Folder” column in Outlook tasks:

But something happens in OneNote:

Hey… the colour is different.

It looks a bit pale.

Is it unwell?

Yes, yes it is. Hovering over the pale flag, a message shows up:

Wait what!? This is a little confusing because we confirmed that the task is still visible in Outlook, so why is OneNote saying it can’t see it?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. All I’ve been able to demonstrate in this blog post is that we can connect between the three apps, and while the changes we make in the To Do and Outlook worlds don’t seem to make much difference, the connection to the origin in OneNote is broken.

Giving Microsoft To-Do another try

Initially when To-Do was launched I was underwhelmed. It was touted as the replacement to Wunderlist (bought some time ago by Microsoft for a lot of money), yet was missing a considerable number of features.

What was good about To-Do was that it provided a nicer front-end to Outlook tasks than Outlook itself, as well as a mobile-friendly interface. Unfortunately for me that wasn’t enough, and so I set it aside.

My daily role is that of an individual contributor – I work for myself and consult to a number of Office 365 clients, partners, and vendors; so managing tasks is paramount.

Without going into detail about how I manage my tasks for my projects, I want to focus on why I’ve decided to start using To-Do again as my daily task management tool.

Generally as individuals we have two sides of us in the workplace: the individual contributor, and the team member. This is where choice in Office 365 is a good thing; we have Planner for group tasks and To-Do for individual tasks. I recently wrote a short post positioning the difference between them which may help mentally visualise it.

Changing my habits

One of the ways I would historically remind myself after-hours to do things the next day was to send myself an email. This way it would sit in my inbox until it was done. Simple task management really!

When looking at To-Do again, I thought I’d be smart and create a Flow to take those emails and put them into the relevant task list based on a prefix in the subject. As I started to create the Flow I was hit with an idea: what if I put the To-Do app on the front app page on my phone? That way I can create the task in the right place, assign it to the next day, and add any notes.

I’ve also pinned the To-Do app to the traybar on my Windows devices for quick and easy access as well. Now I simply keep the To-Do app open most of the day, and when I have moments of ‘focus time’ I simply look at the list and what I’ve prioritised for the day. Not ground-breaking I know, but a simple change in behaviour that has yielded considerable improvements in productivity.

What brought me back

The two main things that brought me back to To-Do were the recent addition of “steps” and task list sharing, the former being more important to me because not every task is a single action.

Personally I would prefer if steps was just called “sub-tasks” or “checklist” (like it is in Planner) as “steps” to me indicates an order of events. While the steps feature does allow you to order them, the naming just doesn’t sit right with me.

The list sharing is a very handy feature, because from time to time I work with other people on a project. Sometimes the use of Office 365 Groups or Microsoft Teams is overkill, and similarly so is Planner; we just want a simple list of tasks to work through, and task list sharing fits this purpose nicely.

What stops me from fully embracing it

Alexa integration

Previously my wife and I used Wunderlist for shared task lists such as groceries, chores, school holiday activities, trip planning/packing, etc. We switched over to Todoist when I introduced Alexa into the house, as Wunderlist does not offer any integration; and we wanted the ability to add items to the shopping list without having to use our phone (when you’re making breakfast and talking to your kids, this distraction of looking at your phone is actually not a good thing for either of you).

Account selection

To-Do only allows you to sign in with either work or personal accounts; not both at the same time. This means for me to use the app on the phone I have to make the decision which is more important to me, because switching accounts (signing out and back in manually) is not practical. So I continue to use Todoist for personal tasks and To-Do for work tasks.

I’d love to see Microsoft give the ability for you to be signed in simultaneous to both accounts at the same time, so when adding a task I can choose which persona & list it needs to go under. The reality is the border between our personal and working lives is blurred. We do work at home, and personal things at work. I think for To-Do to really succeed it needs to support this way of working.