SimpleText, TaskPaper, WriteRoom, Notational Velocity – Going minimalist with my notes

Going minimalist with my note taking tools has been a fantastic boon to my work flow. Using applications and tools that let me access my data set of files, without taking them over and making my work flow conform to the needs of those applications, has removed a whole set of steps, perhaps most importantly the one between capturing ideas and processing them to finished work.

Here’s what I’m doing now:

My basic item for note and thought collection is a scrap of text file.

  • I had been using rtf’s, and before that rtfd’s, but the value of rich text, now that I have learned a bit of markdown, is gone. When I need to gussie up some text for presentation, I can do it at the time of printing or publication.
  • All my text files, along with my pdfs, and any stray image files I may use for recording events, are named based on my file system infobase.
  • So far I am not using the title and tag metadata functions of multimarkdown, but it’s nice to know there there if I ever need it.

I’m using a single data folder in Documents, my SimpleText folder, for current notes – Current is the key concept.

  • It’s so easy to drop a text clip, link or file into Notational Velocity and then come back to it later to expand, update, revise (or drop) it.
  • I let Notational Velocity save its data as separate text files, targeting the SimpleText folder. This is where all my WriteRoom iPhone notes reside. as well.
  • When I’m working on a piece of writing I’ll dump it in this folder so it’s available no mater what device I pick up. When it’s done or ready for printing it comes out and is filed.
  • For the time being the bulk of my other notes are in other separate folders, along with pdfs and some image files. Why? I don’t want to overtax the free service Jesse is providing, and it gets hard to find current items in WriteRoom iPhone without more sorting options — ascending vs descending — but slowly, as I feel more confident, files are collecting in Simpletext.
  • I have a folder called Topics, with a few dozen sub-folders, holding article pdfs, txt files, remnant Office documents, and the old rtf/d’s I’m too lazy to convert to text. These sub-folders act as a single topic tags leting me find like material over and beyond the file name tagging I do in the infobase system.
  • I also have a folder for Writing, Commerce, Administration, and Organization. All items in these document-root folders are coded in the infosystem pattern. That lets me do cross folder searches either chronologically (What was I doing holistically in January of 2009?) or by type (List all unfinished writing, or all submitted work) Almost all my larger writing works are in Scrivener files.
  • SimpleText and Notational Velocity are becoming a working repository of my unfinished ideas and notes. The best metaphor I can come up with is a pile of papers on a desk, vs the ones in a filing cabinet. I rummage through them, add to them, edit, combine, synthesize, and then commit them to one of the other folders when they are either finished or I become bored with them.
  • Notational Velocity was designed to act as a comprehensive repository of note data. I don’t know if that will ever work for me just that way. My data set is very large and diverse, and composed of items other than text. I also find value in wandering through my folders. They remind me of categories and topics. But we’ll see. I dream about targeting my whole document folder with NV one day and having access to all my text files in that cool easy to sort and edit way. (Don’t worry Jesse, I’m not going to throw all that stuff at SimpleText any time soon. I could almost hear him crying up there in Maine.)

I search and edit the SimpleText folder with Notational Velocity, and pop the items up into WriteRoom with QuickCursor for more extensive edits.

  • I have QuickCursor hooked up to a keystroke shortcut so I can edit everything in WriteRoom full screen mode.
  • Bean lets me do more complicated edits or post processing to make things pretty.
  • Even though every app now has a full screen mode, there is still something elegant and well defined in WriteRoom that makes it my drafting tool of choice. With QuickCursor, WR becomes a utility editor for (almost) every thing I do on the Mac.

To organize stuff I use TaskPaper files saved in SimpleText.

  • I have TaskPaper files for my 2010 Life Plan, Current Agenda, and a list of ideas for things to do and places to eat around the city. I love TaskPaper, and I’m sure I’ll add more files over time.
  • I can reference or edit them in any WriteRoom/Text editor, and in February now I can edit them in TaskPaper for iPhone.
  • TaskPaper feels deceptively simple, but it also feels like it will be extensively powerful as a foldering and organizing tool. Even though it does not fold, as many outliner apps do, it hoists, and acts as a very elegant idea organizer. I’m sure we will all use it as a todo list manager first but eventually those powers of text manipulation will find other uses.
  • Here’s a great review of TaskPaper for iPhone

Getting all this data into SimpleText makes me extremely mobile.

  • SimpleText syncs my data to and from all my machines. I can access it from any of my Macbooks, iMacs, the web, or my iPhone, and I don’t have to think about it.
  • I don’t have to do any processing to go from idea collection to idea synthesis, it’s all in the same system. Before, there was always the PITA process of transiting from flaneur to writer, now they are one and the same act; in other words the technology is doing what it is supposed to do.

More on file systems, archiving and note taking from Dougist…

WriteRoom and Notational Velocity

Dating DEVONThink

Writing Tools – Journler

The Low Fi Manifesto – Data Architecture, and Journler

Shifting Mediums

File System Infobase Manager

Notational Velocity Show In Finder

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  1. Posted February 15, 10 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    This is a terrific system and is almost exactly what I’ve been doing. I’m struggling with vs SimpleNote now that Notational Velocity has pretty robust built-in synching with SimpleNote. Has SimpleText synching fixed the disappearing text issue with new notes? Would also be nice to edit TaskPaper files with TaskPaper iPhone.

  2. Posted February 15, 10 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got a very similiar note/text system.

    I have started to lean more on Notational Velocity than on the Finder/filesystem structures. I love NV’s service which makes it as simple as selecting text, right click, and select the service to immediately have that text popped into NV.

    Also, instead of using SimpleText to sync notes to WriteRoom for iPhone, I use SimpleNote on the iPhone, which NV can now sync directly to. I also use Dropbox, which is where I keep my NV “Notations” for an extra level of back up, and because Dropbox has a history of your backups, so versioning is built in.

  3. Posted February 15, 10 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jack,

    It looks like Jesse has some tinkering to do when he gets back from camping. There are a few sync adjustments that are still necessary. The text always seems to be up on the simpletext web site, but sometimes “goes missing” on my local copy. I’d also love for NV to go WideMail with a landscape view, but I’m willing to wait for both, since the system works just fine now.

  4. Posted February 16, 10 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this is ‘going minimal’..

  5. Posted February 16, 10 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I consider it minimalist for two reasons:

    1. The architecture for whole shebang is based on a pile of text files, which is as simple as a dead mouse. The other obvious benefits of this, future proofing, flexibility, application agnosticism, are touched on above, but at its core we are talking about an architecture that has been around since we all have been computing, which for an old guy like me means decades.
    2. Although complicated to describe, the system is, from the user’s perspective (that would be me again) crisp and clean, devoid of learning curve, bereft of unnecessary features and functions. All of the missing steps are what makes it minimalist; no fidigiling with file transfers, no wondering it DEVONThink can or will do such and such, no hunting for lost or corrupt data, no interface between applications. The ideas are captured, they are ready for editing, they can be expanded or synthesized. I could go on comparing it to the Benedictine like scrivenering skills necessary to manage a paper based systems, but my sense is you are speaking to the multiple technology components, so I’ll stick to them.

    I don’t think it’s ever fair to confuse the engineering necessary to get to a minimalist experience with the experience itself. I’m having trouble thinking of a minimalist environment, that has any technological component to it, that does not rely on some pretty sophisticated back room magic. So long as the front end is religious about focusing the user on the core task and not on managing the system, it gets the minimalist check off from me.

    My last note on this is the wonderful discussion that we could have, but that really belongs elsewhere, of minimalism as defined relative to the point of observation. Having caught up on my Buddhist teachings recently, I understand the argument that a more perfect minimalism could be achieved from the absence of all; no notes, no system, no use of symbolic language to communicate emotionals and ideas at all. I don’t want to go that far and I’ve decided to take refuge a little higher up the slippery slope. We are talking here about a note taking system in 2010, and the technology that surrounds it. So the POV is crucial to the tag, and given the state of info managers and application design today, I still stand by my minimalist label.

    (Tor, I also think this system actually addresses your Design Commandments # 3, 5, 7, 8 and 10. – It’s a very good list, by the way)

  6. asotir
    Posted February 16, 10 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Doug, there’s one additional twist I recommend to you, and that’s using as a master index to all your files.

    You can set up a *.odt file and then save it regularly as an html file for portability (keep everything on a thumbdrive or portable HD and use any box with a browser to work through and reference everything).

    The master file has hyperlinks to all your text files. Unlike your filing system, these links can have any text whatsoever, though once you learn a system like yours, it’s best to keep those filenames as the link text. But gives you two additional benefits:

    1. each link can include a brief paragraph describing what is in the ‘index card’ text file. This paragraph can include all the metadata you want, and it’s all in text form, not breakable like any particular OS-based metadata system.

    2. you can include many different links to the one document, so you can cross-reference and file multiply to your heart’s content. You can also link internally from one reference to the other — so to your ‘brief descriptive paragraph’ you can add a list of all the different locations and references.

    Using a full-on word processor gives you all the tools you want in Scrivener or Bean such as auto-correct, auto-capitalization, and dead-easy insertion of links. It would also give you the ability to go back to styling your note-card files; keep them all as html files with the simplest use of basic html 1.0 entities so the files are small, but have formatting.

    Setting to reference links all ‘relative to file system’ should make the links portable across operating systems, but I haven’t tried this extensively — it has worked for me so far going back and forth between MS-Windows and Ubuntu Linux, but my Mac is an old iBook G4, and can’t keep up with NeoOffice anymore.


  7. Posted February 22, 10 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Hi Doug –

    I’m inspired by your system and am currently tweaking my own as a result.

    Questions for you:

    1) Are you titling your notes in NV with the same naming convention you mentioned in your “File System Infobase Manager” post? (e.g. 090608-W2-File System Philosophy)

    2) What tool are you using to convert your MarkDown to HTML? Do you find the need to do the same for PDF/DOC/etc? If so, do you have any issues having not used MultiMarkDown or does it gracefully upgrade?

    3) If you had unlimited space in SimpleText, would you keep all of your notes in NV or would you still reserve it for only current writing and file them away at some point?

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Beck

  8. Posted February 22, 10 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Hey Beck,

    “I’m inspired by your system and am currently tweaking my own as a result.”

    Ut, oh, now I feel a sense of responsibility :-)

    “Are you titling your notes in NV with the same naming convention you mentioned in your “File System Infobase Manager” post? (e.g. 090608-W2-File System Philosophy)”

    Remember the crucial aspect (right now) is that I’ve only got current notes in NV and WR.IP, meaning a hundred or so – Not the 18,000+ notes all told I’ve accumulated.

    I started naming them: date, code, name – I even set up TextExpander shortcuts (ddr = current date -R1-) but in WR.IP, in horizontal mode, I can’t see the file names. So now in NV or WR.IP I just add the R1-, N2-, T1- codes to the front of the file name, and some Markdown like @tags in the fist line of text for sorts.

    This way I can see all the T1’s (which are my fiction thoughts files, the vast bulk of my flaneuring files) and if I need my notes for say. PostModernism class I can search on @TNSPMd, or just my New School notes: @TNS…Drafts of posts under development are T2- with a snip of text the file @PostDEV. That all lets me work inside the constraints of the iPhone.

    Now there is a danger. Simpletext has, for whatever reason, once, overwritten all my notes, washing away the file creation date. Which is a major reason I code my file names the way I do. For those few dozen files, I’ll be few days off. Not a big deal in the grand scheme.

    When I export notes I date them. (CMD R – then CMD E in Notational) If the pile is big, I use A Better File Renamer. It goes through the list and adds created date in yymmdd to the front of the file name.

    My concept right now is I’m using WR.IP and NV to develop these notes a bit more than just the immediate capture. I find this valuable, the second or third go around, and it reminds me of re-writng pen and paper journal notes.

    What might not be clear is that all my committed notes, that are not in the SimpleText folders are chronosynced to my iDisk, so I can, if I have to, get to an old note using the free iPhone iDisk application. As cool as that sounds, it happens like twice a month, and usually just when I’m showing off.

    When I on the iPhone, I’m out, and that means my attention is very current: capture, edit fresh, review this morning’s drafts, and the like. The iPad may challenge that, but we’ll see.

    “What tool are you using to convert your MarkDown to HTML? Do you find the need to do the same for PDF/DOC/etc? If so, do you have any issues having not used MultiMarkDown or does it gracefully upgrade?”

    I’m only converting for My WordPress install uses the Markdown Extra plug-in and works fine unless I use MORE for a post on the first page, then it breaks. I have to say I am thrilled writing in Markdown/MultiMarkdown. I used to go insane about the primitive state of technology every time I wrote out a a href= blagh, blagh, blagh and then I finally got what markdown was all about.

    I haven’t leaned LaTeX or beamer yet, haven’t had the need, yet. If I never give another presentation I’ll be very happy.

    “If you had unlimited space in SimpleText, would you keep all of your notes in NV or would you still reserve it for only current writing and file them away at some point?”

    Well now there you go. That’s a good question. I’ve seen scrod’s posts about NV’s conceptual design. But right now I use it more as a local editor, and for that it is not only perfect, it is also a unique application.

    I also have a crap load of rtfd’s, legacy of the Journler export function – .which are just fine in finder and quicklook – and more legacy Word docs, also very accessible in finder. So before I go all the way and do a conversion, I’m going to let a little time pass. I can troll through the old notes piles, pdf’s, jpeg’s and all, very nicely in finder. That gets me a subset of notes and then I start manipulating them in a current project, often in Scrivener, the output of which is very different than the input of the notes.

    Right now I like the step in my work flow that has me fidigle with notes before committing them.

    But ask me in month or so.

    (Love your art work, by the way…and your site. It’s a great design!)

  9. Posted October 13, 10 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m still tweaking my own workflow when it comes to taking notes digitally from the beginning. I use NV to navigate through my not-so-big pile of roughly 1000 notes but missed Markdown preview. Converting notes from paper to .md is easy, and and adding timestamps on paper is a no-brainer. Creation on my iPod Touch is not quite as easy since I have to add a timestamp in the file name to ensure my automated scripts don’t use possibly wrong metadata. I had problems similar to yours.

    Not only did I mark up my notes with the classic Markdown, I used MultiMarkdown, of which you probably heard as well. There was a Markdown-preview-enabled version of NV available for quite some time now, I just happen to have changed the interface even further. As long as I’m working on my own system, I could need every possible suggestion from folks who have a system set up and running successfully for some time already. If you find my MultiMarkdown version useful—and especially if you don’t!—, I’d love to hear your suggestions: contains pictures and links to the download

  10. Martin
    Posted October 16, 10 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Hmm…I’m using NV. When I need formated documents, I write my text in Latex-code and output it with TeXShop. I have my NV-folder inside my Dropbox-folder so that I can access my documents from other computers if I want.

    That’s about it. To me, that’s minimalism.

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