Two plain text tools

Although my time to serendipitously (or rather randomly) browse the web is very limited the other day I stumbled upon two very interesting applications which make capturing and managing data in plain text much easier.

First is Scratchpad – the name says it all. A very simple tool to quickly capture thoughts, ideas and other information while at your computer and then get it saved in plain text file. I already see it could nicely fit into my workflow.

Second tool is something to help you organise your plain text files. Text Haven is simple plain text editor and file organiser which supports Markdown and wiki linking and lets you keep tabs on your notes. What sounds most interesting about this application is that it allows for managing folders of text files and the neat preview mode.

Thanks to Taking Note blog for sharing these tools in the first place.

Shawn Blanc’s plain text workflow

A while ago I relied on plain text to serve me as the database of everything. Simple reference notes, blog post ideas, project notes, research and reading notes etc. I was a good setup but it was lacking for me a little in terms of functionality. In the end I’ve settled on Evernote as the center of my reference information because it allows me to store any type and format of information. 

Now if your choice is plain text then I definitely recommend reading Shawn Blanc’s overview of his setup and the corresponding workflow. The post goes into a great depth explaining the role of Simplenote, NVAlt, use of individual files and the sync issues that may occur. Shawn also looks at the various alternatives to Simplenote based workflow and putting reliance on Dropbox to handle all the files.   

It’s definitely very good read with quite a few possible takeaways for yourself.

A Foray Into Simplenote Alternatives

Organising notes using plain text. Yet another example.

As I’m diving deeper into managing stuff in plain text files I constantly find interesting examples of other people workflows. This time I wanted to share a setup by Gabe Weatherhead. It’s fairly in-depth overview of plain text organisation and tools used to support it.
Two things that grabbed my attention is the use of MultiMarkdown for structuring notes and TextDrop app with appears to be online equivalent of Notational Velocity.

How I organize everything with plain-text notes

How I use ResophNotes – structure, keywords, naming

This turned out to be a part of a series of posts about moving to plain text based workflow. If you want to read more parts one, two, are here. Last week I covered ResophNotes and it’s features and functionality. Today I wanted to share how I use it myself. You may have gotten some ideas from earlier post but I wanted to add few more details on how I use the app.

Storage and Access

Every note that I create is saved as a plain text file in a specific Dropbox folder, this way I can edit them using other programs like WriteMonkey or Notepad++. When I’m in the writing mode, I usually open WriteMonkey, which is my favourite distraction free writing tool and then begin working on one of the draft files. Once I’m done the updated file will be visible to ResopNotes for later use. Word of caution – don’t use two apps at the same time as this will result in duplicate files on your list.

In addition to Dropbox which in my case works as a sync and backup tool, I also use Simplenote to keep the notes backed up to another source. Through Simplenote I have access to my notes on my phone. The app I’m using there is called AndroNoter[1] and it simply lets me access my notes offline and make updates, write blog posts and jot ideas. Each update will be synced with the cloud and then synced to my laptop.

Creating File Names

I have developed a naming convention that allows me to keep my notes in check and offer a certain structure which I will describe in the next section. What I wanted to share first is, how do I create file names?

If I’m at my computer I’m using program called PhraseExpress which is an excellent text expansion tool. Rather than type the full keyword and date I let the program to generate that. Here is and example. If I come across something that I want to capture as a blog post idea i simply type “pid”. This will be expanded to following:

PostIdea – [text] – 20121009

All I have to do is type the title of note in between the dashes and then start jotting down the ideas. I have set these three to four letter shortcuts for most of keywords that I use. This saves me a ton of typing and helps me keep my notes nicely grouped and consistent.

On my smartphone I’m starting a note with “!Inbox” this way note will be on top of note list reminding me there is something for me to process.

Structure of Notes

As I mentioned before each note is stored as a plain text file. The only way to sort these files is either by name or by date. One could think this is limited but it’s absolutely sufficient. On top of the sorting, you can use search to find the information you need. I rely on a combination of sorting by name and searching for the relevant keyword. I have created naming convention based on specific keyword each related to an area of my life. Here are some examples:

Homex- for notes related to home stuff Blogx – for blog notes Refx – reference file Runx- running list PostIdea – ideas for blog posts draft[tip] – blog post I work on.

All these and few more define what the note is about and what’s its status.

As you can see, I include “x” at the end of each keyword. I picked this up from Merlin Man and it basically makes notes much easier to find. If I search for homex I will see all notes related to my home stuff but not notes that include word home. Brilliantly simple.

Creating lots of keywords but will lead to clutter and chaos. To counter that I have created a reference file (a taxonomy file) where I keep details of all my keywords and their purpose. This will help me maintain consistency and make sure I know what I’m using. I’m hoping that this will help me with managing notes once I get to 800 or 900 level. I don’t think scrolling through a list that long will be possible so I will need to rely on search to find the note.

I will be reporting my observations in due course.

References

This setup would not be possible without other bloggers who shared their text-based workflows. Big thanks especially to Michael Schechter.

A Plain Text Primer Plain Text Primer: nvALT 101 My Text File Naming Taxonomy — Technology Notes Using nvALT, Elements and Taskpaper together My txt setup | 43 Folders

[1] no longer under development but does the job very well.

ResophNotes app

This turned out to be a part of a series of posts about moving to plaint text based workflow. If you want to read more parts onethree are here. I’ve made few attempts at using ResophNotes as the center of my workflow but none of them was successful until recently. Only after reading upon other peoples’ plain text setups I was able to remodel my own approach and use the application successfully. If you want to radically simplify your tool set and rely on plain text files ResophNotes will be excellent for that and will require no learning. Since ResophNotes has become such a essential application I decided write its overview.

What is it?

ResophNotes is a free, note taking application that provides simple and efficient way for managing information. The application is very small and can be either installed or used straight from a zip folder. This makes it an excellent tool for using it form a USB drive.

Storing notes

Notes that you will collect can be stored in one of two ways. You can either use a single database file which means all notes are stored in a one file that can be accessed and edited by ResophNotes only. The second option and one that I recommend is to store your notes as individual plain text files. If you’re storing your notes as individual files you can save them in Dropbox folder which makes your notes accessible from any computer and device that can use Dropbox. In addition to that you can setup Resoph to sync with Simplenoteapp.com which provides additional layer of cloud backup and access from iPhone or Android mobile apps. One of the reason I’m using this type of sync is that AndroNoter app that I use on my phone provides me with offline access to all of my notes.

resophnotes2
resophnotes2

Layout and Navigation

The application provides simple and clear layout with three panes to use. One dedicated to your list of notes which can be sorted by date or by name. Second pane is dedicated to search and third will show the content of the selected note.

resophnotes1
resophnotes1

Input

Although on the basic level Resoph it stores only plain text, it provides support for Markdown formatting. Markdown is a great way for adding a very light structure and formatting to a note while maintaining its plain text simplicity. If you are not familiar with Markdown please visit John Gruber’s site for further details. All of my post are written in Markdown and once finished I can simply preview the html and then paste into WordPress. My post is fully formatted including headings, links etc. It will most likely change the way you write.

Search and Organisation

As you gather more and more information the ability to easily find it and access it will become crucial. Any drag or friction in search is most likely to cause for the application to be abandoned. Thankfully ResophNotes provides super quick and efficient search which makes finding previous notes breeze. The search looks up notes as you type so just with one or two words you can get to the right note. In addition to search, you can apply tags to your notes with keywords and phrases for easy categorisation and sorting. I personally don’t use them and prefer to rely on keywords that I include in the note. This way I don’t rely on Resoph tagging and should I move to another app my notes will retain the keywords. Sometimes certain notes need to be kept at hand and always visible. If you have such notes you can pin them and they will stay on top of the notes’ list.

resophnotes3
resophnotes3

Keyboard

Since we talk about speed and efficiency, the program is keyboard friendly which means that you can operate it fully without a need for a mouse. Keyboard shortcuts are well planned and give you access to all functions which becomes super useful if you work on a laptop or small netbook where using the touch pad may not be comfortable.

Small surprises

Two very nice features that I discovered recently is full screen mode which makes writing and note taking much more focused and effective. The second feature is note linking which lets you create links between notes and create a form of relationships and web of related items. Something resembling a wiki. I must say that this feature looks very interesting but I don’t think it would be transferable to other applications.

Final thoughts

ResophNotes is an excellent application that provides fantastic way for managing notes, snippets of text, lists and all the items that can be stored in text. It provides bare bones note taking functionality but does it in a simple and effectivy way. Few nice options like Markdown support and Simplenote sync make a very compelling choice. Personally I’m getting to conclusion that plain text files are sufficient for 90% of my needs and I can see myself using the application in the long run. If you’re looking for a simple and fast way for storing your information I can definitely recommend ResophNotes as an application worth considering.

Managing life with text files

This turned out to be a part of a series of posts about moving to plaint text based workflow. If you want to read more parts two, three are here.
I’m really going deep into using plain text files as the center of my workflow. Their usefulness goes far beyond writing and note-taking. To put it simply you can use plain text for almost anything.

Below I’m sharing two links to posts from couple years ago which provide few excellent ideas for using text files for managing life.

Managing Your Life with a Simple Text File

Managing Your Life with a Simple Text File -Part 2

Plain text wins

Micheal Schechter from Bettermess.com is one of my favourite bloggers. He writes a lot about productivity and some geeky, tech things.
He recently published two excellent posts about benefits of using plain text files and nvALT (a Mac appliation) as the center of text file based workflow.

So, why it’s worth considering text? Three reasons why it’s worth considering plain text:

  • it’s portable
  • it’s flexible
  • it’s ubiquitous

A Plain Text Primer

Plain Text Primer: nvALT 101

Personally I’m in the process of gradually moving into text based workflow and I hope to share my approach using a Windows PC in next few weeks.

From Inspiration to Emulation

Over the last few months I’ve been examining my writing and note taking workflow in an effort to be more consistent and better blogger. After all I want this site to succeed and be useful to my readers. It somehow happened that I came across a bunch of different bloggers, that have embraced, plain text as the centre of their workflows. People like Michael Schechter, David Sparks, Shawn Blanc, Merlin Mann rely on simple text files to publish the web, capture ideas, write books, run projects etc.
This is not to say to you should dumb your life down and abandon great apps like Evernote or Sprigpad or any task management or map mapping software. These programs have their purpose and strong sides but if you can you should work with as simple tools as possible for as long as there is no negative impact on your work.

Inspired by what I was reading and how well their systems worked, I began to look at different options of adjusting my existing workflow and implementing their ideas and lessons. The tasks wasn’t easy, as they all are Mac users so I needed to find the equivalent applications with similar functionality on Windows platform. Fortunately enough, I was able to find the right software.

The whole setup is based on text files saved in a single Dropbox directory with ResophNotes working as a simple interface allowing me easily create, search and update any file. The speed of this app and simplicity is remarkable. I’m also leveraging Simplenote to deliver the files into my Androind phone. I’m going to leave a more detailed description of my setup for a later post.

Over the recent weeks I’ve been building up my repository of text files, setting up lists, capturing new ideas, transferring some of the reference material. So far, it has been very good. I’m finding that the system works well and I have more trust in it. This means I use it constantly and it’s my first point of call. At this stage there is definitely less clutter and more simplicity with in the whole setup. This really helps to keep the focus and maintain consistency of files names. Although I do come across an odd instance where I need to figure out where a given file goes or how to call it.

I’m really interested in seeing how this system will hold up in the long run. With hundreds of files sitting in one directory will there be any drop in speed or syncing issues? Also will I stick with the file taxonomy or will I end up with massive repository of files that I can’t make any sense of?