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.

My computer rules

Over the last few weeks I’ve been quite busy with evaluating my computer rules. I decided it was about time to define the ways I store information that’s valuable to me and whom do I trust on the web. Sounds serious and I suppose it is after all it’s my data and should take a good care of it so that it’s not lost or corrupted.
What really sparked my interest in this area is the most recent scandal with privacy issues and spying by some governments and in general worry that someone else has control over my information.

It’s very contentious topic and possibly not easy to solve, perhaps even impossible to solve.

Ben Brooks put things into nice perspective for me in a post from couple weeks ago.

As consequence of that I put together a list of couple basic rules that I’ve been implementing to make sure I’m controlling my information as much as possible. This means that certain tasks have become a bit more cumbersome but I’m pretty sure I will be able to navigate around them and find some good solutions. Over time I will try to share them here too.

Use native formats

Keep critical data in formats that been here very long like: txt, html, pdf, jpg. This will ensure that no matter what I can still access my information. These formats are not impacted by applications that gone stale, databases that got corrupted etc. All I need is a program that can read these format.

Export to native format

If using proprietary applications make sure there is easy and clean export into native formats. This not only ensure that I have a good backup of data but I can also move it somewhere else. New programs are coming up everyday so getting stuck isn’t an option anymore.

Proprietary files

If there is a need to use proprietary files make sure it’s for non-critical information and on temporary basis. Certain projects will require some very specific tools that keep data in custom type files. That’s inevitable but the key is that once the project is finished make sure data can be exported into native format.

One exception I’m willing to make is passwords, I need a good password manager and that need to be stored in an encrypted container.

Encrypted backups

Making backup is a first step in ensuring data is safe, the second one is to make sure it’s safe. They contain as much precious and private information as our laptops so making sure they are encrypted and well secured. Perhaps consider having two or three copies stored with family or friends you can trust. Yes, sacrifice convenience for that purpose.

Access to backup

My rule is that I don’t let other application to store my backups in their custom file formats. If I ever lose access the that application (lose registration code etc) I’m stuck but if backup is in the native format I can still access my data. Linux combined with TrueCrypt are easy way to get access to encrypted backups.

Keep an clean image.

Drives do die, systems can’t boot. Having a clean image of hard disk will let easily revert to previous or at least basic configuration and setup. It’s much better to reinstate the image than fully reinstall operating system.
Best to do it as soon as you’ve put a fresh install on your machine as down the road things can get a bit more messy.

Know your software

Make a list of all you primary tools so you know what needs to be installed as priority.

Trusty Providers

Find providers that you can trust whether it’s Google, Apple, Dropbox or your hosting company. Unless you are willing to spend time and energy on building your own stuff you need to trust some one and be happy with it.

Elephant Task app

Browsing through Google+ GTD Community my attention was caught by this very interesting task manager which looks to help you with managing your GTD flow. The application is call Elephant Task.

At the moment the application is in development but so far a really like what I’ve seen. The interface is very clean and nicely laid out. Everything is based on text input making it super efficient and to add new items and navigating between the lists. The app looks to leverage from things like contexts, projects, topics and contacts the further categorize next actions. 

Once it’s fully developed it will be very interesting to see how it performs, for now you can see a short demo which was posted by the app developer on you tube.

Managing areas of focus with Remember the Milk

Lets kick off with explaining what areas of responsibility are? In the GTD methodology your primary focus is on next actions and projects. These two elements reflect the tactical level of the productivity system i.e. the things you do now or as soon as possible.
A one level above that sits areas of responsibility which define different aspects of life. Rather than show a specific outcome, they point to an ongoing activity or quality that you want to achieve like job responsibilities, family, health, finances etc. Their main purpose is to act a reminders for all the different strands of life that you’re engaged in. Because they rarely reflect finished state they help with spurring ideas about things so each may spur new project or action ideas. Regular review of areas of responsibility can assist in bringing some balance or surface a need to look at an area that was neglected for a while.

Depending on your choice you can either track your areas of focus more intuitively and keep them on a list in your notetaking application or you can embed them right into your system. I happen to go for a mixed solution where I have list of areas of responsibility created in Evernote but I also like keep an eye on where my attention goes and for that purpose I’ve leveraged Remember the Milk. This approach allows me to analyze my tasks and really see what has my attention and where my time goes.

For the tactical element of my task management I rely on tags and smart lists to create context based next action lists as well as keep track of project and waiting fors. For monitoring of the areas of focus I’ve decided to use static lists.

If you haven’t defined your areas of focus now might be a good time.

Simply pick up a pen and piece of paper or open new document in your program of choice and start thinking about different areas of your life. Think in broad and generic terms, what are you responsible, how depends on you etc.

Jot these down and refine further, look for emerging common themes. Most likely you will have between 8-12 items but less is ok too. A higher number might be too big and you may need to refine things further or seriously reassess your commitments and obligations.

Static Lists

Static lists are the foundation of RTM application. They allow for creation of all the different lists that you may need. You can create unlimited number of lists, any task can only belong to a single static list i.e. if you add task to your HOME list than it will not show up in the WORK list.

This is significantly different from smart list which can show you any task that meets the search criteria regardless of the static list it belongs to.

Once task is assigned to a static list it’s in a separate silo which makes it excellent tool for analysis of how many task are created/completed in list. If you name list your lists based on your areas of focus you gain immediate access to understanding what has your attention. Simply the more tasks you have in any given list the more important the area it represents.

Managing static lists happens through the Settings panel and the Lists tab where you can create, archive, merge or delete lists. Because of the additional steps required to manage them they are less likely to be useful at the tactical level where a more rapid list creation occurs. Yet this makes them good tools for managing areas of responsibility as these don’t tend to change very often.

A small note on deleting lists, even if you delete a list your tasks will remain intact and they will simply be added to your default list. This is useful if you are still in the process of redefining your areas of focus and things are yet to settle.

How it works for me

My system relies on three primary static lists of which two reflect the focus of my personal system (Note I have a separate system for work tasks).

INBOX – this is my default list which mean any new task added which is not assigned to a static list will be in my inbox. When I’m in the processing mode each task in this section will be looked at assigned to one my other two lists.

ME – this list reflects all the actions and project related to my personal life and will include pretty much anything that is not related to my BLOG list.

BLOG – this is my third list that I heavily rely on and it reflects all of my endeavours related to this very blog, anything that is related to work that I put here will be assigned to this list.

I always make sure that tasks are processed every couple of days. At that stage I apply relevant tags, due date etc which define which smart list will pick it up. I also assign the static list name to indicate where a given task belong to.

This setup allows my to keep an eye the primary areas of my life. Every time I’m completing a more in-depth review of my stuff I look at the number of tasks and projects completed under each list. Since I use A bit better RTM extension I can see this number right next to the list name.

You may ask, so where are the other areas of focus? As I mentioned a more detailed list is included in Evernote which I review on regular basis. However in my personal experience these two are enough.

You circumstance may be different and you may prefer a bit more granularity. It that’s the case simply set up additional lists which reflect your areas of life in greater detail.

Windows PC toolkit

Over the last few months I’ve been looking at different tools and applications to make my workflow better, to help me create the things that I wanted. I’ve used a myriad of different applications and programs that have similar feature sets. There was a little to and fro between a one tool for everything approach and find a good tool for a specific purpose. In the end I settled somewhere in the middle finding few applications that serve multiple purposes as wells as added few more that I use for specific tasks. There is a considerable amount of writers that are big fans of Mac platform showing off its capabilities, interesting apps etc. Although I would agree that there are some neat solutions moving to Mac platform comes at a considerable premium that has both advantages and disadvantages both financial and other. In effect what I’m hoping to achieve with this post is to show to any Windows user that may envy those tool that Windows platform also has a good selection of programs. They really can help you be more productive, organised and achieve the things you want.

NOTES REFERENCE AND WRITING

Some will frown upon the number of tools in this category after all if you need to write a Notepad app or something similar should be sufficient. Perhaps this is true and it’s some form of flaw however I find that these tools really help me with the things I want to do.

  • Evernote – this is an example of an application that serves multiple purposes. I use it to take notes, keep lists, capture ideas, store web clips, purchase receipts, pdf documents etc. Almost anything that I want to keep for later I store it Evernote. I’ve experimented with plain text as a main tool earlier this year. In the end I decided that having a tool that allows me to keep all my information in a single place is much better choice.
  • WriteMonkey – is an excellent, distraction free writing tool. The reason I use it is that I separate process of capturing ideas (Evernote) from actual writing, also since I write in plain text and use markdown WriteMonkey is perfect for that. There are many more features that I haven’t really touched here making it fantastic writing tool for short pieces like blog posts.
  • ResophNote – as I mentioned I keep my posts in plain text files using markdown. In order to maintain them and keep them searchable I use ResophNotes. It provides a nice front end to all the files that I store in my notes folder, plus it allows me to quickly find some older content, rename files or start a new blog post and finish it off using WriteMonkey.
  • Scrivener – I use this application for more complicated and longer writing projects. In short Scrivener is described as an application for writers, journalist, screen writers etc. It’s a tool that allows you to capture all the ideas, expand on them and organise and publish a finished product. I’ve seen many people swear by it. As I finish my current project you should see the result of it soon

TASK AND TIME MANAGEMENT

Finding a proper task manager i.e. one the I like to use and use it consistently took some time. As many of you I’ve went through a lengthy discovery process. Once I settled on an app I kept at despite few attempts to change it. In the end I realised that the power of task manager came primarily from the information it contained not necessarily the amount of bells and whistles.

  • Remember the Milk – is my task manager of choice. It contains all of my lists of actions, projects and waiting fors. Every item that I want to to-do ends up there. This is the best application I’ve found to manage my GTD implementation that work both on my Windows PC and Android phone and tablet. It’s very powerful and flexible app that will cater to many needs. I wrote about some of it’s features here before.
  • Google Calendar – my tool of choice for managing so called hard landscape i.e. any appointments, day and time specific events end up there. It’s possibly the most powerful calendar application out there that lets you manage your life plus it works on every platform.
  • GMinder – is a neat system tray tool which alerts you of upcoming meetings and events. It connects to Google Calendar and displays all your calendars in one place. It does work when you’re offline unfortunately you won’t be able to add new items in that mode . Great little app that does reminders well.

IDEA MANAGEMENT

Mind mapping is regular activity of mine. I use it to organise thoughts, concepts and ideas. Very often when I’m starting a new project I create a new mind map to essentially dump everything that comes to my mind in relation to the project. There are three applications that I use depending on what I’m trying to achieve or what will I do with output.

  • Freeplane– is my primary mind-mapping application. It’s open source and platform independent tool based on Java that started as an offshoot of Freemind which is a very popular tool. As result of its heritage, Freeplane is very powerful and feature rich but its interface is little bit clunky. I use it primarily because of the number of available features and the fact that it’s using the .mm format which is bit of a standard making files readable by other mind mapping applications. One more compelling reason to stick with this app is the upcoming support for .mm files in Scrivener which means I will be able to draft ideas in Freeplane and then drop them into Scrivener to write the full piece.
  • MindMaple – This app is bit of a sidekick to FreePlane. Two elements that I particularly like and use this app as text import and export. I heavily rely on text files for creating my content so ability to export mind maps into text is very important. MindMaple lets me organise my thoughts and then export them into text for further processing. On top of that mind maps created with it are very nice visually which makes it good presentation tool. What usually happens is that I open up Freemind and start working on the map once I’m happy with it I open MindMaple (as it reads .mm files) and use it to export the content to plain text.
  • UV Outliner – this is an fantastic outlining app that lets me create nice looking hierarchical structures for my projects and ideas. Again I mainly use it at the initial stages of planning or organisation of a project or idea. Once I’m clear on the outcome I usually export it to Evernote which serves as primary project support material repository.

MISCELLANY

This category contains a mix of applications that primarily help me make a more effective use of my Windows laptop, remove unnecessary steps, provide security and piece of mind or allow me to work while away from a computer.

  • PhraseExpress – a tool that completely changed the way I write text. Almost anything that gets typed on regular basis is transformed into a template and stored in the app. The next time I need to type my signature, open a website, type my email or respond to someone I simply type relevant key combination and the text I’ve saved appears on the screen. The functionality goes way beyond text expansion, you can use macros, create forms, etc. I’ve personally scratched surface on it and planning to spend this year exploring it in more depth. There are limitless possibilities bar the size of memory allowing me to remember all the combinations.
  • LibreOffice – this is a free office productivity suite that I mainly use for creating presentations and spreadsheets like my training log. It’s a solid alternative to Microsoft’s product although it is not as polished. Beyond the two mentioned above it provides writing, database, sketching tools too.
  • Dropbox – this is almost a default app for any one using more that one device. For me it works as place to store current projects and items I want to share with other people or make available on phone or tablet. It’s key app where I store drafts of may blog post so that I can work on them using my laptop or smartphone. Also any picture I take as saved to it as well which makes it super easy to pick it up at my laptop and process it. No need to connect using cables and all the hassle. I think this app although fairly widely known definitely deserved a bit more detailed look in a future blog post.
  • Crashplan – primary offsite backup solution for all my files. I find it reliable and very flexible. For those conscious of privacy, you can encrypt all your data using your own key before it’s sent to Crashplan servers. On top of the online backup you can use the application to send files to external hard drive of a family or friend if they also use Crashplan.
  • Orzeszek Timer – from time to time I need to apply Pomodoro technique to kick things off. For that purpose I use Orzeszek Timer which is very small app that lets me set a timer for any time I want using human language. I simply type 25min and the time counts down 25 minutes. Great aid for helping we keep the focus on task at hand.
  • CutePDF – is very little app that lets me print anything into pdf file. So anytime I need to save a copy of an online purchase or bill I simply use CutePDF which is set as my default printer and save pdf file to a folder or Evernote. It definitely helps with maintaining a paperless workflow.

 

Photo Flickr: Florianric

 

Adding tasks to Remember the Milk. The smart way.

Smart add is this neat feature that lets you add tasks to your master lists and include all the relevant meta information like list name, tag, location etc. As opposed to normal task manager where you need to input task name in one line and then navigate to different fields to select other meta data smart add let you do all that in single line. Simply start adding new task and then use one of the below special characters to define due date, location or tag as necessary then press enter. RTM will add a new task and populate other fields as you defined them. Here is an example: new task #Project1 #Computer @Home ^monday. Once this is added to RTM it will be displayed as new task added to list ‘Project1’ with tag ‘Computer’, location set to ‘Home’ and due date set for Monday.
Smart add works on web, your smartphone app, Gmail add-on and emails that you send to RTM

list of characters and their meaning:

  • ^ – adds due date
  • ! – adds priority 1,2,3
  • # – adds tag or a list name
  • @ – adds location
  • * – adds repeat cycle
  • = – adds duration

There is also a good smart add guide on the Remember the Milk website which will help you understand how it works.

If I’m capturing something and I’m not sure about it I will type the idea/tasks and let it land in my inbox. If however I now where particular task should go or when should I be reminded of it I will always use smart add to include relevant meta data. Some people shrug their shoulders on this and will consider too much overhead but I personally find it very useful.

Evernote for almost everything and workflow update

Note: This is a very long post outlining in detail decision to move to Evernote as primary note taking tool of choice. Plain text still has it’s place as it’s best writing environment that I encoded. Hope it will be useful in your own journey of perfecting workflow.
I went through a little-big internal debate about keeping my notes, capture, reference material etc. I looked at plain text and rich text solutions for storing my data and more specifically whether to continue using ResophNotes or move back to Evernote as primary tool.

The key take away from this post is that the more you use a tool the more you rely on it the more beneficial it is to you. At the same time it becomes more difficult to switch. Read on if you want to know more details and how I approached different things.

Bit of a background

Over the course of last three months I’ve embarked on a plain text journey. It actually started few months ago when I began reading bettermess.com and all the stuff Michael had to say. Many of his posts where about plain text and it’s power. The neat and powerful system that he created was really appealing. At the same time came across other people who heavily relied on plain text David Sparks, Merlin Mann, Shawn Blanc, Patrick Rhone to name just few.

So three months ago I started to look for tools which would help me construct plain text based setup. To my surprise there aren’t that many options available and the end I’ve settled with ResophNotes and WriteMonkey. Why those two? ResophNotes allows me to create, search and browse through all my text files providing fast and convenient way of managing them. WriteMonkey is excellent and powerful plain text editor which I use to write all my stuff. It provides better writing environment than ResophNotes plus it has a lot writing related features that make it super useful. Writing on my Android phone was handled by Epistle app and Dropbox was the gel that bound everything together.

Then two things have happened. I needed to take a screen shot of something I saw on the web, I came across couple interesting tweets that I wanted to save and I was a little bit stuck. The easiest and the most effective way of capturing those things was into Evernote. Few moments after that I realised that I already have a ton of information in Evernote.

What I realised was that I was missing a lot of the information that I’ve accumulated before and that I was not using. It was not just the web clips and other snippets of information that I pick up but also my older notes, book and race notes etc. All this was sitting in Evernote and remained unused. Sure I could always search for it but it would require some additional conscious effort to search two place as opposed to one.

Feature comparison

I took some time to look at Evernote and ResophNote and list all of the available features and functions that each app offered. From the start it was clear that Evernote would win as it’s just more powerful tool. Aside from the sheer number, some features are clearly more valuable that other. Here is the list that I came up with.

Benefits of using Evernote:

  • ubiquitous capture available on each platforms (Windows, Web, Android)
  • ease of getting the data into the application from various sources
  • can be a single place for storing almost all of you data – notes, web clippings, pdfs etc.
  • global hotkeys for capture and search of notes
  • powerful search in notes and uploaded documents like PDF or images (OCR)
  • rich text editing and formating
  • easily captures the source of the information from the websites
  • note links and sharing of notes.
  • easy checklist and table creation
  • Skitch integration

Benefits of using ResophNotes and plain text:

  • no installation required,
  • data synced via Dropbox or can simply be moved to a USB drive
  • fast and easy to create and search notes
  • Markdown support
  • data stored in plain text
  • global hotkeys for note creation and application
  • excellent for focused writing and note creation
  • 99% chances that in post apocalyptic world event the simplest and basic computer will read plain text.

Data worries

When I was reading about benefits of plain text one of the many arguments was that it’s future proof meaning there will be always tools to read and display plain text files. If you use other applications you need to rely on a proprietary file format which makes you depended on the company that created it. In the long run, will you be able to access and review your notes?

I’ve spend some time thinking about this and came to conclusion that being locked into Evernote format is not really a concern for me provided I’m able to do couple things to liberate my data and take it away in a fairly basic format.

As Evernote want us to store more data, they brand themselves as a 100 year company, highlighting the fact that they are there for the long run and that they don’t think about the next quarter. This is refreshing and reassuring approach considering the company is just few years old. Yet they don’t stop just there, you can always export you data and documents and take them away.

Data Export

Data nerds will object but being able to export data from Evernote to HTML would be sufficient enough for most people. Most people would not event think of exporting data or making sure you can access it ten years from now. HTML export is definitely enough for me. At this moment I can see two scenarios where I would move somewhere else – a new better app is build or Evernote goes bust and no longer provides it’s services. Evernote is immensely popular solution with millions of users so should anyone design a better application and want to compete with them will create an import tool to move your notes. If the company would go bankrupt all you lose is the cloud backup the rest stays where it was (i.e. your laptop) and you can decide what to do next. I’m also pretty sure some hackers would come up with clever ways of extracting the data and putting it into a different format.

Back to exporting your notes. I’ve played around with the different options available which includes Evenote’s own xml file or creation of single or multiple HTML files with attachments stored separately. From what I’ve learned individual HTML export it the most effective. Then, should I really need to move elsewhere I can export all my notes and rely on system search to find relevant information. Windows Search or Finder are more than capable of indexing the information in side those files. Because of the way I name my notes and structure them in Evernote I can easily identify those that are particularly important like various reference notes or list and then I can put some effort in creating scripts or batch files which will convert notes into plain text files. Since attachments like pdfs or images get exported too I can resort to picture manager like Picasa and easily scan and this information.

Storing data with other company

One more aspect worth mentioning is that when you use Evernote you store your data with another company and rely on them to keep it secure and intact. Although it’s a valid concern if you keep your files in plain text, in a Dropbox folder you’re really in the same situation. First of all if you want to keep things secure and private don’t put them onto internet or computer at all. This approach is not very practical and even governments store and transmit data using internet. It would seem that there aren’t that many secrets that would be worth the hassle. Obviously everything is a matter of personal choice and perception so it’s good to develop habit of assessing how critical and private the information is and apply appropriate measures. Read EFFs self defense guide if you want to know more.

Back to Evernote and storing your data. When you use the service you have a copy in the cloud and on your computer or tablet if you use paid account, so even if Evernote goes offline you still have the data on your computer to review and decide what to do with it.

Extra layer

As a precaution I make a backup of my database folder on daily basis so should anything happen I have a copy to recover from and I can always export it into different formats. I also keep a recent version of the installer on my laptop so I have double security. All this is backed up to external drive and encrypted storage online.

Lessons Learned

As with any experiment I’ve learned couple interesting lessons that I would like to share hopefully to everyone’s benefit.

The more information you put into a given application the more chances it has to provide you with better results or information that you may have forgotten about. If you keep your notes, snippets of data scattered around it’s first of all inconvenience to search couple locations and secondly you introduce a complexity and choice of where do I put this info. Sticking with one tool that covers all bases removes some of it.

A good naming convention goes a long way

When I was using plain text setup all of my files were in one folder which meant that to keep them organised in some sort of fashion I had to come up with good names. The way I approached it was to put a keyword in front of the name of the note and then add its title. Although this approach is not necessary in Evernote as I can set up notebooks to divide the notes it’s nonetheless very useful way of naming notes. This way I can keep a smaller amount of folders/notebooks and I can easily browse the notes and clearly see what they relate to.

As I mentioned above Evernote can export data into HTML format which is easily searchable by built-in search on Windows making it relatively easy to move away from the application and transfer somewhere else. The export process is very easy and my suggestion would be to export into individual text files.

file duplication and sync issues

When creating new notes with ResophNotes quite often I ended up with duplicated notes or notes with incomplete names. This seemed to be caused by the speed at which a note was synced with Dropbox effectively creating a different notes as I typed the title. This wasn’t a major issue but it was quite annoying when the wrong name was saved. It’s also possible to duplicate note within ResophNotes which would mean that when the duplicate was deleted also the original file would be removed from Dropbox folder. Although it can always be recovered from Drobpox it’s inconvenient and odd annoyance. I haven’t had any issues like that with Evernote.

Final version for now

Evernote now serves me as a single place for notes, ideas, web clippings, images, screeshots etc. Because of it’s unparalled search, capture and ubiquity it serves me as primary tool for archiving of stuff. The fact that I can store so much and so varied content in Evernote makes it even more compelling as it allows me to find not only a specific note that I might remember but also other that contain the same keywords. The more information I will gather in Evernote the more useful it will become in serving me the data I may need. Lastly if I was to recommend anyone a note taking tool I would go for Evernote simply because of the ease of use and capture of different types of information.

So where is plain text you may ask. Writing content. Evernote is excellent archiving/reference tool but for me it’s not good for writing. It has all the bells and whistles but it’s precisely what I don’t want for writing. This where plain text hits the nail the on the head. It provides focused and unobtrusive writing environment. As consequence plain text will be the place where I write everything from blog posts to other material. For this purpose I will continue to use ResophNotes for keeping tabs on all my files, WriteMonkey to do majority of my writing and text editing and Markdown to make it easy to publish on the web.

I realise that nailing down a good workflow and interaction of tools is a process that takes time and evolution where you move from one tool to another or supplement the existing ones with some thing new and the figure out how they work.

Lastly since I’ve effectively moved to Evernote I will be actively exploring how can I make better use of it and I intend to share links and my own thoughts in upcoming posts.

Hope you enjoyed this post and found some useful elements in it. I would be grateful if you could share your own thoughts and thinking process behind your tool and workflow selection.

Simplicitybliss Evernote GTD and reference files

Sven from Simplicityblis has a very insightful post about the intersection of Evernote GTD and reference files. His main point is that Evernote isn’t best at being your task manager although some seems to have done made it work like one (see Daniel Gold’s ebook or The Secret Weapon site. Where Evernote excels is storage of support and reference materials. Search, tags, notebooks, ability to index PDFs, audio and photo storing make it very powerful archive.
I would agree with Sven and this is how I now use Evernote. I Initially used it for content creation, storing ideas, research etc however since I moved to plain text for most content creation needs and list keeping using Evernote became much simpler. Before I blended various types of work and content now I have a nice and clear division between creation tools and storage/archiving.

Sven’s post: On Evernote, GTD, Reference and Support Material

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 to Mind Map

Mind mapping is tremendously useful technique for getting thoughts out of your head.
If you struggle with gaining clarity on big project that you need to run, trying to make a big decision, writing a book mind map will help you out. Mind mapping lets you capture all the ideas about a topic and then find a structure based on the common themes, connections etc.

Lifehack.org share extensive guide on how to use this tool which is worth checking out if you are not familiar with it.

How to mind-map is three easy steps

A Much better Remeber the Milk

It’s always strange to discover something super useful that’s available for few years yet not being aware of it.
I’ve been using Remember the Milk to-do manager for almost 3 years, interacting with the app either through web interface or mobile client and only recently came across browser extension called A bit better RTM.

If you’re a long time RTM user you will agree that the web client is due a refresh as it hasn’t changed been changed in several years. Thanks to the developers of A bit better RTM we can enjoy some improvements in the functionality of the website.

Remember the Milk is extremely keyboard friendly web application however this is mainly limited to the input stage of task management. When it comes to moving tasks between lists, rearranging etc, you need to use mouse and navigate through couple of steps. Not the most efficient way.

Enter the A bit better RTM.

The extension which is available for Firefox and Chrome browsers provides few extra features that make Remember the Milk a much better tool. Here as a short list improved functionality:

  • Drag and drop items – to move tasks between the lists simply grab them with a mouse and move onto a new list. This is handy if you rely on a number of static list to organise your tasks.
  • List are on the left in a single column – visually I find this approach much more intuitive and user-friendly. The default view with list on the top can be overwhelming and confusing especially if you have a large number of lists.
  • Task count – simple, yet super useful, gives you a glimpse on how many tasks are included in each list.
  • One click list creation – normally to create a new static list you need to go to Settings –> List menus. Again not very friendly. With this extension you can quickly create a list on the fly.

There are two or three additional functions like keyboard shortcuts for list navigation or list specific URLs that look very promising unfortunately somehow I couldn’t manage to make it work, yet.

If Remember the Milk is your primary to-do list manager and you’re tired of the dated web interface A bit better RTM is definitely worth checking out. Should you be more into geeky stuff, Greasemonkey scripts and customisations let you take the interface changes even further.

Emergent Task Planner in action

Another example of how can you manage your day with paper.This time I’m sharing a link to David Seah’s workflow post, where he describes how he uses Emergent Task Planner which he created.

ETP – is a fantastic tool that allows you to plan your day both from the meeting perspective as well as from the and capture new things as they appear.

How I use the ETP

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.