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My productivity app for the past 12 years has been a single .txt file (jeffhuang.com)
1545 points by lazyjeff on Feb 8, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 402 comments

I use a single text file, have done this for decades. I dump everything into it and don't worry too much about structure, it's an incredible resource for "remembering" minutia, things like "what was that server that i thought might have had some issues last August?" Just a quick control-S and I'm there. My current 7+ year old notes file has about 100K lines in it right now. I can tell you what I was doing last year, or the year before, on this day, in seconds.

I just type

    note (maybe some text here)
and it cracks open Emacs on the notes file, adds a timestamp, appends the optional text, and then I can just type or paste something in. Nearly frictionless, that's key. Great for writing those miserable annual reviews, too (easy answers to "what have I worked on in the past year?")

I use plain old notebooks (simple blank sketchpads, or something bound like a Moleskin/Lecchturm) for meetings, interviews, walking around datacenters and so forth where a keyboard is awkward and anyway, drawings.

I've tried the EverNote/OneNote/etc. apps and none of them were as convenient or as easy to use, or as portable.

I'll toss in my setup too, which I started semi-recently and has been working well:

In my .bash_profile I essentially just `open --background -e "...$(date +%F).txt" &`.

Since I'm in the CLI daily for work, I get day-stamped files passively opened without having to think about it. It's a nice quiet reminder to keep notes throughout the day, and it all just goes into a folder in dropbox that I can trivially `grep` or add with other tools or add side-files (typically "date - stuff.ext" so they appear next to the day's notes).

I REALLY like this bash idea! Thanks!

Was inspired by this, threw together this hack for vim users.

  #! /usr/bin/env bash
  cd ~/share # or wherever
  echo >> notes.txt
  date >> notes.txt
  if [[ $# -ne 0 ]]; then
    echo $@ >> notes.txt
  vim "+normal Go" +startinsert notes.txt
Enough to see if this will work for me.

I also aliased this to something short so I can quickly view notes starting at the bottom: vim "+normal G" ~/share/notes.txt

I also would like to use something similar but I wish to add new text on the top of the file (so oldest notes go to the bottom). I ended with something like this:

    nvim  -c "+normal ggO# $(date)" -c ':s/$/\r/' -c 'se nohlsearch' notes.md
Would be interested in knowing if I can make this nicer/more efficient.

> it cracks open Emacs on the notes file, adds a timestamp, appends the optional text

Do you mind sharing how you have setup Emacs to do that? Thanks!

This isn't exactly what was asked for, but because I live in emacs I don't get much value being able invoke it from the command line. If that's ok, try this..

  (defvar org-journal-file "~/Dropbox/org/engjournal.org"  
    "Path to OrgMode journal file.")  
  (defvar org-journal-date-format "<%Y-%m-%d %a %I:%M %p>"  
    "Date format string for journal headings.")  

  (defun org-journal-entry ()  
    "Create a new diary entry for today or append to an existing one."  
    (switch-to-buffer (find-file org-journal-file))  
    (let ((today (format-time-string org-journal-date-format)))  
      (unless (org-goto-local-search-headings today nil t)  
 ((lambda ()   
    (insert today)  
    (insert " "))))  

  (global-set-key "\C-cj" 'org-journal-entry)
So, C-cj will open the file, create a timestamp entry at the top, and narrow to the subtree. Great for creating timestamped notes. I keep a journal this way (multiple entries per day are fine), but it could be used for any note taking.

Love this. Running it outside of the file though is truncating my file though ?

I actually work in Windows, and use an Emacs clone called Epsilon, so my tiny batch file and Eel-language customization probably won't help you. It's really just a few minutes of work in any event.

Upvoted. Trying to setup that as well

I had been following some of the set-up from "Org Mode - Organize Your Life In Plain Text!"[0].

[0] - http://doc.norang.ca/org-mode.html

Being doing this for years also, occasionally emailing to myself as a backup, mine is at nearly 60k lines.

Top tip is to add meta tags. I suffix them with a colon to help with searching. For example, the section containing my git notes begins with this line: Git notes: / Git: / Git commands: / Github: / Git bash:

And any time I search for something I didn't have a tag for, then I add a new one, even misspellings.

Funny how similar this one it is to mine: I use tags surrounded by colons so I can attach a few of them and grep them easily (distinguishing them from normal text contents)

Ex. :label1:label2:labeln:

Any particular reason not to use hashtags? (except habit)

I've been doing something similar to track what I do at work for just over a year. I tried keeping a home journal with a similar technique, but it didn't stick.

I have a git repo set up, and I run: "vim `date -I`", which opens a text file named for the current date (2020-02-08 today for example). Then I'll put in notes about what it is I'm currently working on.

I've come up with the convention of separating tasks with three equal signs (===) and separating updates to a single task with (--).

The main thing it's been helpful for to me, which is honestly probably why I've kept up with it, is that I'm bad about doing my daily timesheets. So once a month when our accounting lady gets after me, I'll go back through my notes and fill everything in.

I use vim. Doing files based on timestamps sounds smart so I might steal that.

I used just one big file right now and one thing good about it is that you can search all your notes with one command.

I also use the uuid command to tag/reference sections. Then, I can just put the cursor on the uuid and hit '*' to jump right to that spot in the file.

Had never used `*` before. Turns out it's search for the word under the cursor. Handy.

I guess that's basically what you wrote, but I had to play with it a bit to understand.

A bit of a tip: while `*` is a search for a word onward, `#` is a reverse -- a search for a word backwards. Might help sometimes

Could you explain a bit more how you tag sections?

i have this function in .vimrc that puts in an entry header with the date + time. (use it as :Entry )

  "put an entry with the date/time (for keeping plan.txt)                                                                                                                                       
  command! -nargs=* Entry call s:RunEntry()                                                                                                                                                     
  function! s:RunEntry()                                                                                                                                                                        
    let s:tm = "\n---" . strftime("%d/%m/%y %H:%M:%S") . "----------------------\n"                                                                                                             
    execute "normal! i" . s:tm                                                                                                                                                                  
    " enter insert mode because it's time  to write stuff   now.                                                                                                                                  
    call feedkeys("i")                                                                                                                                                                          

I did this too, with the date and single keyword for future reference. That's said, I have difficulty to recall the topic if I reuse the same keyword.

That was the ethos behind the app I wrote, https://screwnotes.com - I just wanted a note taking tool that syncs everywhere and I there's only one way to add items. I don't want to wait for a product to load, or to have to make any mental decisions about organisation, due dates, or relationships between items.

I like the idea but I wish your website showed me what the app looked like and a rough idea of what features were available before I create an account.

Hi, there have been some updates to it and the landing page does have a short explanation, but I agree - something a bit more interactive would probably be better.

The app itself is something tightly coupled to having an account to operate (so no data is lost), but I might try adding in an interactive demo on the landing page so you get that feel of how it works straight away.

Mine; the filename is today's date:

alias notes='nvim echo ~/notes/notes-$(date +'%Y%m%d').md'

The format being markdown gives a good syntax clue to vim.

I'm similar, but with vimwiki. <leader>-w-<leader>-w will open an entry for today's date, so for me ~/vimwiki/diary/2020-02-08.md. `<leader>-w i` will show a list of all entries. Pretty convenient stuff. I have mine start with a template as well, with a few common headers.

I do this too but this article makes me think that it may be better if everything u was one file folding avoids visual clutter anyway

Same, of course. I added some bash aliases to make it much easier to write to the file, and use markdown instead to allow tracking todos easier.

I also added a vim command to push it to github while editing. These just remove barriers to opening and syncing the file, but the concept is the same.

You can see the result here: https://github.com/jodavaho/bashlog

This is the best thing I’ve ever read. The answer has been right in front of my eyes. I’ve been searching for a good note/things to know/knowledge storage app for decades. And a single text file seems like the best option. I’ve already started transferring stuff today to a text file.

Just a thought but would't creating a new file for each year make it more maintainable? I can't imagine searching a 100k line file or scrolling through it.

I find it useful to have everything in a single buffer, it makes searching easier. Otherwise I'd have to start issuing 'grep' commands and worry about which file is which, and get clever about regular expressions when all I want is instant, friction-free access with a handful of keystrokes. Opening a file that big doesn't take long on modern hardware.

Honestly, there's not really anything to "maintain". Just a text file and some timestamps. No magic at all. Simple as dirt. That's the magic :-)

Searching visually? Yes, 100k would be impossible. But then, even one year's worth would be impossible. So you're surely using your editor's search function, and that's definitely fast enough to not care whether you've got several lifetimes' notes.

A do see a lot of people who are making date stamped files, but I can't understand why. Do you want to switch between using C-s vs dropping to command-line for grep?

Most editors allow searching all files in a directory.

It's another function though, surely harder to reach for than the normal search. What's the value in bifurcating your searching process? What do you gain?

That sounds quite elegant, but seems this is only possible if you work out of a single machine almost always. Perhaps it could be made into a service? As long as explicit effort is taken that there's absolute minimum extra effort as possible!

I handle this by aliasing `todo` to `vim scp://[my website]/~/todo.txt`.

I've found that VIM 8's SCP does not support absolute or realpaths like SCP generally does. Thus to access the remote file at foo:/home/dotan/todo.txt or foo:~/todo.txt I would have to use `vim scp://dotan@foo/todo.txt`. Just a heads-up for anybody who wishes to try this.

Wait, you can use scp as a protocol?!

Emacs' Tramp supports multiple protocols https://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/tramp/Qu...

For example, to run a remote command using an inline org-mode source block:

    src_sh[:dir /ssh:host:]{some command}
Or to run code using a remote Jupyter kernel within Org-mode in Emacs:

  #+BEGIN_SRC jupyter-julia :session /ssh:ec2:/run/user/1000/jupyter/kernel-julia-0.6.json

Oh, that remote execution is a neat trick. Thanks!

To cover the more trivial point for the non-Emacs readers: Tramp in Emacs makes it so that there's almost no difference between opening a file (C-x C-f) like this:

and like this:

and like this, if you need superuser rights:

The subsystem in Emacs called Tramp makes this almost transparent; you edit your remote files as if they were local. There are occasional kinks with path translation in corner-case situations, like local Emacs editing remote source files and trying to load them into remote REPL, but those are rare and can be configured away. Dired (directory manager in Emacs) also works transparently over Tramp, so this essentially replaces SCP and graphical SFTP tools for me. You can even run GDB remotely over Tramp, which is a nice trick.

wow, that's incredible. learn something new everyday.

I just keep a private git repo that I push the updates to after entering them.

I've gotten to the point that anything important enough to keep around I basically just put in a git repo somewhere.

Same to me. I store the note folder to a private gitlab repo, and write a bashscript function to commit and push the note.

Two options would be: 1. put that file on dropbox or another syncing service. 2. have it on a remote server and ssh there first

I do this, with the machine being a VPS on Linode, plus an IPad 4G connectivity with Blink app to connect via MOSH almost anywhere on earth.

Logitech folio keyboard and Apple Pencil. Drawings also pushed to cloud.

Local backup to my own NAS and a S3 storage.

Works as a charm

I use text files and have for years. I use Syncthing to keep the text file available on all my machines.

Also on mobile? Which editor do you use on mobile? I like syncthing

I just put my text files in version control. Push/pull, occasionally merge when I forget.

I save these text files to my desktop, call me old school.

But then you've only got it locally. The advantage to VCS is that you can trivially have it on multiple machines (desktop, laptop, android with termux). You can even do it between your own machines via ssh if you don't like "cloud" stuff.

Using syncthing you can trivially have it everywhere as well, with only a one-time setup and no continuous need to manually commit changes and manually sync them (unless you're using hooks for your VCS to automate that I guess).

I use syncthing for non-text files, but I keep getting conflict copies. I could probably fix that by having one node always online, but text+VCS means that conflict resolution is built in.

A repo on github handles TODO.txt files from multiple machines fine, and better than gDrive or Dropbox. VSCode is now my main editor which makes git integration simple. I can also edit the file directly on github, though never do.

Keeping my notes in a single file has worked great for me too, i can quickly find notes by searching with Vim. i split the file in sections starting with [tag<name>] (e.g. [tagvim]) which makes it easier to move between sections. Each section is a markdown list.

Funny that we all resort to the same things. I have an almost identical bash script that appends and timestamps each note, but I push it to my Dropbox account using their REST APIs instead of my local file system.

Can you expand on your system a little bit? Do you use it from the phone too?

The bash script I was talking about simply curls the .txt file from Dropbox, edits/appends it, then curls it back up to Dropbox (overwriting the old copy).

Dropbox iOS app allows you to create .txt files if you absolutely need to take a note from your phone. I’m never far from my computer personally.

I also wrote a Chrome extension that does essentially the same thing as my bash script (as well as save bookmarks to Dropbox). Its caching mechanism is very convenient for writing long notes that will be edited over hours or days—if the machine goes down, they’re all stored in Chrome’s local memory the next time I boot.

Be careful about making a file like that -- one where you have to write the entire contents back to disk when you update it even though you only modified the last line or so -- too large. You're definitely better off splitting to give you more chances at not losing everything in the event that it gets corrupted. But I guess proper backups would also take care of that.

The "safe save" protocols that editors usually use to write file contents are pretty good. I've never worried about this and I've never lost a file to a mis-save, not in decades.

I don't think it's a concern. And you need to make backups anyway.

Often the "single text file" organization method is used along with a source control system like git to synchronize the file between different devices. So that helps with the backup/recovery aspect too.

I'm late to the conversation here as I've been pondering it for a few days. I'm not a very good programmer or a bash user, but I can usually understand a script when I see it.

What script or bash alias are you using to do your "note (maybe some text here)"? I'd love to be able to do something similar.

How do you handle a file like that on mobile?

I separate my job journal from my personal journal. Job journal starts on a backed up work drive and I don't care to have mobile access to it. I must have access to my personal journal at work, or while I'm out and about and mobile is the only way.

not OP but I put this file on Dropbox, their mobile app has an editor that works for markdown or plain text.

I've also had success using syncthing for this if you want something self hosted.

What do you use for editing on mobile, for files synced by syncthing?

I use orgzly [1] and configure it to "sync" to Syncthing's local folder [2] (which Syncthing then syncs). This requires write access to Syncthing's data directory though, so I'm not sure it works on stock Android.

[1] http://www.orgzly.com/

[2] e.g. configure a "directory repository" with content://com.android.externalstorage.documents/tree/<device id>%3AAndroid%2Fdata%2Fcom.nutomic.syncthingandroid%2Ffiles%2FSync%2Forg

> I'm not sure it works on stock Android.

I'm running a stock Pixel 2 and I've been using syncthing to sync pictures and videos to my desktop automatically, but didn't know about Orgzly. I just hooked up Orgzly and syncthing and it worked without any issues. Thanks for commenting about orgzly!

I believe I used an app from fdroid called Markor. Mainly because it had a nice widget, so I could keep a to do list on my home screen.

Edit: Fixed a spelling error. Also, here's a link to the app:


I open drafts in Gmail with no recipient and keep notes there. Super convenient since I usually have it open anyway on the desktop, it works great on mobile too, and gmail search makes it easy to find stuff.

I've been doing the same for about 15 years, except I actually send the emails to myself and have a special tag for them. Unfortunately, Gmail search has failed to find things for me in recent years that I know are there and know are tagged with a particular key phrase, usually for things that are from the 2009-2013 time period. I've lost faith that they are actually keeping everything, or perhaps that they are keeping everything but their search algorithm may sometimes return "no results" in order to be fast instead of actually falling back to some kind of deep search.

The one downside to this is that if you accidentally delete a draft (with a mistaken mouse click on the trash icon), it is impossible to ever recover the draft.

The Dropbox web app not having that same functionality is my biggest pet peeve with the product.

this might be archaic but… i use draft mails for that. for years and all my todo lists (about six), works really well for me.

> it cracks open Emacs on the notes file, adds a timestamp, appends the optional text, and then I can just type or paste something in.

Do you do that with a shell script or an elisp function? Either way, I'd be interested in taking a look at your implementation if you don't mind sharing.

I just implemented something very similar last week! I store the note in a Raspberry Pi which I can access anywhere. Also with iOS shortcut, I can easily send note to my Pi from my iPhone's clipboard.

How can you access the Pi when you are not at home? It has a static IP?

I've been thinking about this approach .. but was unsure about how access from outside, or if I'm abroad even.

for selfhosted stuff, usually use VPN connected to home IP address using Dynamic DNS

Thanks, any special dynamic dns provider you like?

Any thoughts on how to access/modify on mobile without making it too cumbersome? I often think about todo on walk/train, but could see making it a computer only thing.

Absurdly, comically simple is the way to go. In these situations I usually just send myself an email, or write something down in the current physical notebook.

About 20 years ago I spent a while writing a server to do a bunch of automation and reminding and so forth, and found that I was spending more time on that thing than I was doing real work, so I ditched it, just like I did OneNote and all the other apps. There's no need to fix bugs in a text file, nor do you need to upgrade your version of Python or whatever.

Simple will survive decades with zero effort. Complicated pieces of code (especially ones that use networking or browser tech) will need to be maintained, patched, debugged and ported. Life is short. I'd rather actually be productive than have to spend time keeping some productivity app running, or worrying if the vendor of the online notes app I chose to use is going to be bought by Oracle or something.

You're making me think that the even absurder method is to use mail drafts as your files. Everything is synced between all your devices, you have built-in modification date, a full editor in the web version or applications for a more integrated experience, high portability and backup (transferring from IMAP account to IMAP account is easy), labels and/or folders depending on your provider, efficient search, attachments...

Actually in the past I used my email account as my RSS reader. It had integrated read/non read status, mass "mark as read" as needed, was synced on all platforms I cared about without anything to install. I didn't really changed my subscriptions a lot so configuration was not complicated.

Sometimes a webmail is just a good enough UI for text-related things.

Set up an email alias that cats (appends) your note to your org file.

Then, just send your notes (via sms) to the email.

If you version control it using Fossil, and it's in markdown, you can access it directly from the repo website.

You can with Github as well. And make changes to it via the website. Not on mobile though, unless you switch to the desktop site.

But you can't make changes to it online.

Depends. You're right if you use a conventional version control approach where you write on your local machine and then push to the server. But that's not the only way to use Fossil to store your notes.

If you're using the wiki (using one or more wiki pages) everything is entered into the browser whether online or using the built-in server running locally. Other options are to create an issue for each note or create a new forum thread for each note. The nice thing about these options is that you get the search and querying power of an sqlite database applied to your notes for free.

Disclaimer: I haven't used this approach because I don't use mobile devices for note taking. Just pointing out that it is possible.

On Android, I've been using Markor with Syncthing for years now and never had any issues.

What do you do for when you're on the go? iOS?

I’d love to implement a similar command line program for logging various on-computer activities. Thank you for sharing!

I recommend you check out https://jrnl.sh/

What about the drawings or photos -- you have any way to connect them with the relevant daily notes?

I started doing this at my first job in 1985. There is a direct lineage of the file to a few of the text files I use today. "todo.txt", "address.txt", and "dates.txt" have morphed continuously for 35 years.

Besides this reminiscence, I wanted remind vim users of a particular feature that allows easily navigating between text files like a hypertext system. The "gf" key sequence (mnemonic: go file). Typing "gf" will cause vim to extract the text under the cursor (it doesn't have to be at the head of the string) and open the file of that name. If you have ':set path=..' established, it also searches for the named file using that path order.

For example, in my main TODO I have a section like this for notes on things I want to attend to for various websites I maintain:

    ---------- websites todos -----------
    family website:   c:/path/to/this/todo.txt
    personal website: c:/path/to/that/todo.txt
    resume:           c:/path/to/other/todo.txt
    emulator:         c:/path/to/emulator/todo.txt
Just place the cursor over one I wanted to visit, hit 'gf' then I'm teleported to that document.

I've-too been evolving the text file for about 25 years. In those days, at the beginning of time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, one would evolve the data format to tailor it for its purpose. txt is just perfect for that. Some indentation, some symbols, some tabular data.

Sometimes just Monday is fine, sometimes you want Monday Week 4, sometimes the format should be 01-02-99 etc etc but after using it for long enough it kind of stabilizes into a format that fits the task. At that point it becomes easy to parse the data (read table) and [if so desired] display it in some more visually appealing format.

I for example keep a work schedule that at some point included the coworkers ill be working with and later it had their full schedule for purpose of trading shifts. (all the way to the right of the screen and beyond)

I publish this as interactive html for them with fancy unicode icons and colors. It is much more compact, convenient and with its rounded corners looks sooooo much better than the excel printout from the planning department. It reveals complex trades like if jim takes joes shift and I take joes shift jim can take mine. To the point I have to assure the coworkers they don't have to understand the complexity of the trade, just work Monday in stead of Sunday.

If a shift is understaffed I call them before they call me if I desire to fill it. Their excel print out ends up on the wall many cpu cycles after my text file is updated. If they get my payments wrong I strip all the extra information from the text file, paste it in an email and color the font in the spots where they should be looking. I could export it as a spreadsheet too I suppose.

The point being, its lovely to have the visuals but I wouldn't want to be working the data in a gui.

(Reminds me to figure out how to morph it into iCalendar files (and perhaps back))

Similar to 'gf' there's 'gx' that opens a URL in your browser. I use this every day.


Here's my config from the vimrc:

" Disable netrw's gx mapping

let g:netrw_nogx = 1

" If the current word is a URL, open it in the browser. Else, pass it to a search engine

nmap gx <Plug>(openbrowser-smart-search)

vmap gx <Plug>(openbrowser-smart-search)

let g:openbrowser_default_search="duckduckgo"

There's a plugin called VimWiki that can help you with this.

This is very close to what I do, with a few modifications. Biggest difference is that I use Emacs Org-mode (https://orgmode.org/) which automates things like date strings, building a daily agenda, adding due dates, and the monotony of getting your itemized lists properly indented. (and a whole lot more)

Everything lives in my TODO.org file that's mirrored via dropbox between all my devices and on my phone where I use the Beorg app on the iphone (https://beorgapp.com/).

I archive my finished TODO items at the end of the year. Taking the opportunity to delete (mark CANCELED) things that no longer need doing and carrying over any TODO items that still need getting done.

You sound like someone that could really use Syncthing if youre into your own DIY cloud. I absolutely love it and I don't need an account to use it either.

I've instead gone for a git repo hosted on my VPS. That way I can use all the version control features of git, as well as the various tools that make it easy to look through my history, etc.

and syncthing's version control comes in handy every now and again too

I do this and it is extremely powerful and extensible.

On top of this, I also track how much time I spend on different projects and then run a script that generates graphs to summarize my weekly and monthly usage of time.

However, I still use a physical daily agenda to take from my TODO list one or two concrete tasks I will focus on each day.

I do roughly the same thing with a Google Doc.

Of all the apps/tools I've tried, it turns out that the complexity of the tools was really just another form of procrastination.

Just a daily list I write out in the morning, and work through - bumping unfinished things up to the next day if needed.

This is what I do too, but I have it as a general list of things I want to get done like

[] Mon - task 1

[] Mon - task 2

[] Tue - task 3

[] Tue - task 4

This way I don't hard time lock the tasks and just do them until they're done

Thanks for the beorg link - I've been trying to find a way to make my org-mode files mobile-accessible.

The 21st century has burdened the human psyche with a wonderful array of problems—most of which are invisible, abstract things.

It's taken some time figuring out how to make them real. Doesn't feel like anybody created a tool to help manage these abstract monsters. We still do not know ourselves that well. Not in this strange world.

Whenever I hear someone say, "Just use paper", part of me agrees. Paper is simple. It's easy to use. Plain text too. Simple.

I wonder if that's the best we can do.

I use paper. I use plain text. I use everything. Against the enormity of everything I want to do and the unfinished thoughts that repeat, it feels like nothing.

I've discovered small tips here and there. I'm making progress. I'm learning how to work with myself. But if I'm honest, the enormity of what's before me is infuriating and immense.

It's something like the question of how we want to live our lives.

I wonder if there's a tool for that.

This comment fascinates me. I hope you don't mind a very candid reply: You already know exactly what you need to do. You need to get away from the screen that you're looking at right now. Disconnect. Get to where you can see the clouds in the sky, and see how they move - spontaneously. Try to do THAT with your life.

This is a great comment. Over the past years I've created my own system using number of tools to manage my day-to-day life on a long-term perspective. I've decided to kick off a side project and create an app aggregating all the "tools" under one systematic framework. I'm happy to share when its ready. https://forms.gle/db4LXhaPjsapg8vN9

My favourite "productivity app" is not an app at all. It's a plain old notebook. I write down any notes and actions I need to take, and strike through them once finished. It has a nice benefit that I can scribble notes, draw lines between ideas, sketch out diagrams, etc.

I'd agree with you, but the killer feature digital notes have, for me, is the quick and effortless searching.

Paper notes work better for small, in-the-moment things.

For tasks, this might be the plan for the next few days, where everything fits on the same page.

For notes, those might be scribbles to help solve the problem at hand.

Larger and more long term things start benefitting from searchability indeed.

I end up with far more useful notes on digital mediums than paper, unless it's something I need to sketch.

I’m in your camp. Apple Notes somehow fell into this gap for me. For me the ability to format, add images and screenshots and easily share gave it an edge over plain text.

I loved notes for years but switched to Bear in the last few months in order to get sane Markdown export.

I couldn’t ever find a nice way of exporting (and backing up) my Notes notes. There was an IMAP storage option but that meant losing formatting options.

You can try Exporter. I've been using it for some time now to export Apple Notes to markdown and then checking into a git repo. Caveat: it doesn't export attachments or tables.


I'm also using Bear for note taking. It is a great tool that includes a nice way to export documents with style. One thing I struggle with is taking notes for things not related to work. This might be because I have a separate set of notes for work and not work. After reading the article I've decided to try and use one diary for everything. One note per day, but all in one place.

A few things I miss for this to be really good are:

1. Folding. A single file will be long. Being able to fold the major sections (# Work, # Private # Projects) would be really helpful. It seems Bear is planning to add folding.

2. Security. One can select all notes under a given tag (for example #Diary), but if they contain an attachment - for example an image, the password based encryption can't be applied.

I have been using FSNotes for the past year, but feel ready for something more polished; so now I am trying Bear. Thanks for the tip!

Did you look at FSNotes before switching to Bear yorself?

My own note taking is too fragmented right now, being split between org mode, FSNotes, and Apple Notes. It’s a bit like having clothing with too many pockets: I am too often unsure where to look for a particular note.

Yup. I miss this too. I tried OCR for all my written notes, it just doesn't work.

You can use your own writing to create a font set for OCR to recognize off of. Will doing a better job off a data set trained off of your own writing.

I've done some minor OCR to scan my bank PDF statements. I use tesseract iirc, there are different training sets to use. You can build a training set from your own writing.

Nothing has ever beaten the Newton Messagepad for me for this (certainly the last models made, the 2100).

I really wish a modern Newton existed. Evernote started off quite Newton'y (Newton team members were on board) but I fell off quite early.

I found that using an iPad with the Pencil has been a great middle ground. The OCR in the various Notes apps (including stock) is able to recognize my horrendous writing (it’s really bad).

What notes app have you settled on? Annotating images was a key for me.

I use GoodNotes and it's astonishing how well it recognizes my hand writing.

I use GoodNotes.

I agree. I first try to keep my commitments down to a point where I can remember things. When I can't, I like the flexibility of pen and paper for jotting, scribbling, and sketching.

When I've run large meetings/reviews, I would walk around the room after things got underway to gauge how people were reacting to the discussions. The people with laptops would be working on unrelated material. Unfortunately, these would often be the senior reviewers.

I tried everything and kept coming back to pen and paper. On the right side if the open notebook is an organized todo list. On the left side are notes and diagrams that I come to during the day.

I had a stroke last May and the only long term side effect (thankfully) is that my handwriting needs to be 2x the size to be legible, making my notebook obsolete.

Will try a todo.txt soon. I love simple.

Agreed. I tried using the "pencil" on the iPad. Writing on glass doesn't feel as satisfying as writing on paper at all, despite the iPad being very very responsive. I also started using an ink pen to slow down my pen strokes so that I think more before I put things down. Oddly that's changed how structured my thoughts are.

I personally use a journal + pen, but I've heard that matte screen protectors for the iPad can make it feel a lot more like writing on paper. Just a suggestion.

I use a notebook as well but mostly for hashing out design ideas. It's a great pleasure to just sit with a coffee at a cafe with just your notebook drawing system diagrams. No distractions from online. However, I still keep track of work in a text file since it's much faster to type things as I'm working at a machine. (Obviously it's not great for drawing ideas though!)

Same. I've used a loose type of bullet journaling for most of my software development career and it's the only workflow I've been able to stick to that I feel increases my overall output.

Same for me. My note book is A4 sized (lots of space), has a hard cover (easy to write with while out "in the field") and the pages are not easily removed (so I don't loose notes).

While I do write a lot of notes in it, I also like to draw block diagrams and high level designs of systems.

While some of this could be done on a tablet, I also try to reduce the amount of screen time on my eyes. I started this habit since starting my Masters 10 years ago.

Me too. A4 sized grid notebook, and I use it in the landscape position. My notes are a mix of schemas and written text. When I'm happy with my work I take a picture of it using the Evernote app and upload it to its cloud. Curiously enough, the app applies some sort of "filter" to the picture that removes the original grid lines, making the drawings cleaner, which is convenient sometimes.

It's great, I tried replacing it a few times with apps but it just did not feel right, sometimes pen and paper is just faster

Pen and paper is great but if it's something I want to hold on to, I have to add it to my digital system. Sometimes that means taking my written notes, doing some editing, then saving digitally. Other times it just means taking a snapshot and saving that.

I still use Evernote for my long term storage (although I do worry about the long term viability of the company) and it does a pretty great job of finding and indexing text (even handwritten text) in images. The search operators are also pretty great.

Same. I love my analog tools despite working my entire career in computers/software.

do you use a full sized A4 pad ?

I tried tiny (A6, A7) notebooks and they frustrate me.

My brain prefers scribbling but I have to admit that I'd love something that connects idea to realization directly (the good old bidirectional modeling app)

I use Muji A5 notebooks paired with muji 0.7mm tip pens. I hated carrying a notebook and writing in it until I found this combo.

thanks, ill review and report asap sir

My text file just turned 21 :)

I tried various automation things, org mode, scripts, markup for time spent (so I can automate timesheets, ugh) but none of it stuck. org mode in particular is like a straitjacket with the indentation rules. So text file it is.

I do keep command lines in it occasionally but ever since I started using eternal bash history that I version control I stopped recording those separately very much.

PS I find myself using Trello for home hobby projects, by using an "active" lane with 7 bottom cards being days of the week Mon-Sun. Then, TODO cards go on the top of the lane, and when I feel 95% confident I can get any given card done I drag it below a day of the week and make very sure it gets done. That way the system means something, and as a result I am pretty conservative about what I promote. If I know in my heart I won't really get it done tomorrow, I put it the day later, break it up into smaller tasks, or just leave it.

When you say “eternal bash history” how long is that? I thought after some large number it becomes very slow. I’d like to try this if you don’t mind sharing how you did that?

Not parent poster, but I use zsh-histdb [0] to keep my history in an SQLite database.

There is also Historian [1] for bash, and a bunch of other suggestions in the discussion thread on it on HN [2]

[0]: https://github.com/larkery/zsh-histdb

[1]: https://undertitled.com/2017/04/12/historian-because-please-...

[2]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14103688

I have a script that removes duplicates and HISTIGNORE set to ignore simple commands like cp, ls, mv, mkdir etc. In the past 5 years I've only executed around 20k unique commands using up around 900kb.

> Not parent poster, but I use zsh-histdb [0] to keep my history in an SQLite database

Why? A file is easier to grep (even if you have to pass `-a` to it after the file starts to be in the MBs, right now it is 7.4MB). I love having eternal command history in my zsh, and I wonder if I miss something out by not using SQLite for this.

My bash history is currently with 12MB, not slow at all.

I use this format:

  readonly HISTSIZE
  export HISTSIZE
  # To always append, never overwrite history
  shopt -s histappend

So I get this output:

  <SEQ> [2020-02-09 07:18:30] <COMMAND>

I'm up to about 4 years of history at this point. I use a dumb bash hook that sorts and reloads the history on each command execution, and yes, it's getting a little slow. I wish I could do this through some daemon-based DB-backed system but this works for now. Maybe I'll switch to zsh when it gets too slow.

The reason I have the hook reload and sort on each command is so that I can use a dozen screen sessions at once and:

1) they don't overwrite each other's history

2) each session's history is instantly searchable to the others

3) sorting is useful because each session prepends a session ID to the commands, so that Ctrl-R backward search can always hit the current session's commands first. And I can reboot/restart screen and recover history in each session.

(edit: I looked at the zsh-db project the other poster linked, and this does pretty much the same thing just probably slower since there is no DB involved).

I push every unique command that I type into a database and bind Ctrl-R to peco querying the 10k commands. I'm amazed it did not occur to me earlier. All of my systems have access to the same shared history, which greatly simplifies multi window and multi computer operations.

I do this too, since 2005. Part of the reason I do this was because between 1995 and 2005 I experimented with a bunch of different software, and the software kept being deprecated. I forget a lot of the software that existed at the time. I used a bunch of early web apps, in the 1990s, all of which disappeared, and I used some interesting experiments with desktop productivity apps, all of which were discontinued, and I used a 5 or 6 different PDAs (this was in the era before the smart phone, when cell phones were dumb and we used PDAs to take notes) all of which were abandoned by the companies that were selling them (most of them were pushed by hardware companies that had no strategy for building important software that would survive over time).

Having been burned, many, many times, trying apps and formats that all were abandoned, I eventually realized that the only thing that would definitely last, over the long term, was a simple text file. The simpler the better. Simple is the only guarantee that something will last. Unix text files have not changed much since 1970s, it is the only thing in the tech world that has demonstrated longevity.

So I stick with a simple text file, and I will do so till the day I die.

Oof, same here. I have notes and journal entries going back at least a decade, but there are a few frustrating gaps where I used apps like Day One, or built my own rickety tool using, say, RethinkDB.

While it's possible to somehow get my data back, it would be in a weird format or just a hassle to retrieve. I now use text files for everything (and mostly keep everything in emacs/org-mode).

I jumped on this bandwagon about 6 months ago and I love it. Like many others I had some levels of success with other apps (trello, RTM, Todoist, Toodledo, etc.), but a single text file is a whole new world. I've been do

My setup is a single .md file with typora as an editor. Some things I love about it are:

- Markdown checklists that (with custom css) can be faded when checked - When I copy/paste an image in (often a screenshot of a whiteboard or sketch) it creates a local copy in ~./resources. - Outline view on the side (I used headings to separate days, weeks, quarters, and year). - I keep goals for the week/quarter/year near the top so I see them when I'm setting goals for the day/week/quarter.

The other nice things that's grown out of it is that I've started to create a knowledgebase (popular to discuss these days [0]) that is a collection of .md files (for example injection-molding.md, antennas.md, etc.). Having the same format for it and my todos makes adding to either seem more seamless. Just in the past 6 months the collection has become much more useful than the enormous pile of content I'd collected in evernote over the years.

At the end of the day I commit+push and that's it.

I don't see myself going back (although will maybe change to a FOSS .md editor once it has enough features).

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21310030

I never really used typora but been trying out marktext and notable the last while and they both look very promising. both can be found on github. notable is new enough so it still needs a bit of work though

I liked Marktext a lot, but it can't do relative paths for images so when I upload to github the relative links don't work :/

There's an issue for it already and I'm watching it so that I can switch once it's addressed.

This article gets at something that's really key. The system is so much more important than the tool. The tool may facilitate the system, but without a system even the fanciest tool won't help you feel organized.

and even if you are able to momentarily capture the complexity, ideas and requirements in your mind evolves so fast that your solution is immediately obsolete. I'm not sure what this curse is called in the software development industry, but I see no solution to it.

For work I used to use Evernote, but these days I just have a folder of markdown files named by date. (20200208.md)

Anytime I run a new command, SQL query or work on a new issue I try to write it down in the note before running it. Then I commit+push everything at the end of the day.

At least for me, knowledge degrades quickly. So having a history of that command I ran to fix X three weeks ago is a life saver.

I've found that better organization isn't really needed because find is good enough and I usually have a vague sense of where I'll find what I'm looking for anyway.

Also these day private GitHub repos are free. So it doesn't cost anything to setup.

For teams you can use runbooks as the same concept. Anytime you on work on an on-call issue record the steps you took to fix it. At Datadog we just used GitHub issues in a dedicated runbook repo, but almost anything could work. The point is to reduce friction as much as possible and eliminate decision points. You can always clean it up later but if the barrier for entry is too high developers won't bother doing it.

Remember this is a developer at their worst - it's 3am, they're fixing something they might know little to nothing about, and they're working as fast as possible under pressure. Any additional procedure needs to be as lightweight as possible.

But if you get it right, man does it make on-call and onboarding easier.

"One big text file" was a big deal a while back. Here's a post by Merlin Mann:


For notes, I keep trying all kinds of apps and approaches, but I always come back to a single big text file. It's surprisingly easy to search. The main thing is it's just so convenient.

Edit: This is a better link https://danlucraft.com/blog/2008/04/plain-text-organizer/

I use the Notes app on my phone to do non work-related stuff in my everyday life.

I have everything on there - buying groceries, washing clothes, getting stuff dry cleaned, washing the car. Whatever.

As soon as I get a spare moment, I scan the list (about 20 items) and do a little travelling salesman solution - what can I knock off this list in about 2 hours, and what’s the most efficient route to drive to get all this done?

Usually I manage to knock off a massive chunk of the list which feels great and super productive. I’ve learnt that it feels good to write things on the list so that shortly afterwards I can erase them again.

If you address the items one by one, then you waste a lot of time. The key is run everything asynchronously (put the clothes on wash now, so that I can dry them later. Buy the soap for the car now, but we’ll wash it after we drop off the dry cleaning on the way back from the shop)

Hey, I hope you figure a way to back up this stuff, since phones are prone to be lost or stolen (or is it backed up automatically by Google or Apple?)

Yes, I use iCloud so the todo list syncs across to my iPad as well.

One step up from this (if you’re a vim user) is vimwiki.

But it really doesn’t matter what you use, the real benefit comes from having a process/habit of continuous review.

Yes, I retired Evernote when I discovered Vimwiki. I keep wondering, though, am I shortchanging myself by not using org. mode? But I don't know emacs and I am not sure whether it makes sense to make such a costly transition.

Depends. For just checklists org-mode is overkill, I use a few custom shortcuts in Vim for that.

But org-mode also has a couple additional features like time tracking and a way to generate summarised tables based on that tracking, or the agenda. Either way learning Emacs just for org-mode is probably only a good idea if you really want to use the features coming with it in one package.

That's appealing. I have been tracking my time in toggl for years.

There is a danger in making things too complicated. You reduce the number of systems you can access it on, and you increase the complexity of just doing basic stuff.

Humanity made a huge number of advancements using just simple paper and ink.

I used vimwiki. Switched over to Org a couple years ago and I really like the change. If you use Spacemacs and Evil mode you should feel pretty at home.

Easiest way to get started with org is to start simple. Just use the indented headings and source (code) blocks. Once comfy there you can branch out into tables and todos. Then maybe use the agenda (I personally don’t).

I’ve never had to write elisp or anything other than normal vim commands.

Are you missing anything? Probably not. Depends on how in depth you want to get. But, I’ve done the transition and thought it was positive. :)

I tried vimwiki and it's really cool. However I couldn't get to "one step up" because it was so vim-specific and I didn't have access to that on every system I used. As a compromise I decided to lean into editor snippets for personal productivity and automation, since these are available in just about every major editor. The rest of my tools are externalized and called as such from the editor, like pandoc and various little apps and system scripts.

Curious why you don't have vim on every system?

On mobile?

I do have vim on Termux on Android, but it's a pain in the ass to use.

Seconded. This is my day to day tool to take notes, and keep track of what i do thru the diary function.

this. the precise system doesn't seem to matter as much as actually following it for so long.

I do something similar but with paper and pen. I purchase customized laboratory notebooks that have my name and a serial number embossed on the front and otherwise blank pages. I write down every meeting I attend (or call into), the date and time of their start and stop, all the attendees names, as well as regular to do lists, action items, etc. After years of doing this I have a nicely curated collection of notebooks that look great on the shelf and give me a sense of pride and history on my work. I took the inspiration from George Washington's diarys which are in the library of congress. I also use a fancy fountain pen with beautiful blue ink which my wife purchased for me that adds an extra bit of personality to the whole experience. https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0010/gwdiary.html

Why do people feel a strong need to organize their day, spend tremendous amount of time(ironically) and energy in exactly what they need to do that day and how many calories they eat?

I feel the complete opposite. I structure projects, not my time. I want a loose schedule. You could stop worry about time, try a free schedule, enjoy life a little, and get work done. This whole "productivity" bullshit is an urban concept. Back when my grand pa was a farmer, he didn't have a schedule but he worked all day. The task can take as long it has to. I am willing to bet, your average urban wizbang with TODO apps and productivity hacks will not match the output.

For me it’s laziness and forgetfulness. I don’t like thinking about all the things I have to do everyday so I outsource that to apps/documents. Also helps when coordinating with others and when new opportunities/issues arise I can confidently assume I’m not going to miss that dentist appt/event/whatever I agreed to attend a while ago. There’s so many things going on all the time I don’t know how people survive without some Sort of productivity process/tooling. Unless like you said you’re a farmer or something and you just sort of hang out around your property and tackle things as they arise.

Once your project is bigger then one person, you gotta start talking to people, and if you’re talking to people regularly then you gotta keep some amount of track of your planned time so you can schedule a time to talk. Some multi-person projects can happen in largely asynchronous communication, some can’t.

I hate doing that so I work freelance, on a loose schedule. I still track my time so I can do things like “feel confident that I’m getting enough shit done fast enough to have money for rent”.

“Get shit I gotta do out of the way as efficiently as possible so I can do the stuff I wanna do at my own pace” is also a possible reason.

To a large extent I agree with you. At work, I have projects that I know when they need to be done by. I know that other people will expect that certain stages will be done at certain points, because they need them to do their parts of the project. But within that there’s a lot of arbitrary ordering of work. It doesn’t really have to be micromanaged that closely.

I used org mode at my last job, lots of management data, deep learning research, and patent application notes. Org worked great for me.

Now except for occasional DL related consulting, I am retired and my tech world activities are centered around writing. I have four book ideas that I will get to in the next few years, and updating my older books to new editions takes time. Keeping notes and research is vital for authors:

Now I use markdown text files for local notes and for cloud based note taking I went back to using Google Keep. I was using Apple Notes until I realized that they used imap to synchronize and that was not secure enough for me. For a decade I had used Evernote, but that ended up being too much ceremony/overhead.

EDIT: Apple really needs to encrypt more types of user data in iCloud.

Seems that Apple encrypts Notes data in transit and on server https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202303

Is it IMAP that's the concern?

I read somewhere that IMAP was a concern, but I see that almost everything is encrypted (Apple has description keys) in transit and on their servers. Some data is also end to end encrypted so Apple can not decrypt it (like passwords, health data, etc.).

I don’t remember everything at least being encrypted in transit and on their servers, perhaps that is relatively new?

I wonder why they don’t go all the way and have every5ing encrypted end to end.

I currently use Google Tasks for Todos and I honestly have never been happier. To make Google Tasks work you have to be using Gmail and Google Calendar (which may be a non-starter for some people), but if you are using those already then Google Tasks is worth taking a look.

The beauty of Google Tasks is it lives alongside your email, integrates seamlessly with the calendar, and automatically synchronizes across devices. The interface is super simple and intuitive (drag/drop for prioritizing and simple completion), yet powerful enough to allow for things like setting up recurring tasks.

I especially like scheduling tasks for items I know I have coming up a week or so out. When I know I have something coming up, I just enter the date/time and a description and I'm done. (Maybe all of 10 seconds?) It's so much faster than trying to put something in a calendar and I find myself offloading all of these things I have to remember from my brain and just rely on my device.

It has been very freeing. :)

My issue with Google Tasks is that notifications don't stay on the screen until I dismiss them. That kills it for me.

I like tasks in my inbox too, so I setup a filter to label all emails to & from myself to be labeled "ToDo". Then I just send myself an Email and it's unified with the "ToDos" that other people email me.

I like how you can drag tasks directly to Google Calendar. Do you know if it is possible to drag them as events, not reminders? I prefer to block entire time slots as events in my calendar because it helps me better manage my time. For example, I would add a 3 hour long event called "refactor hello_world" or a 2 hour one "find lost socks" and dedicate these time block to these specific activities. Unfortunately, you cannot change the length of reminders.

Alternatively, is there any other software with this feature? I have been looking for one for a while but no luck :-\

Scheduling tasks as calendar events with duration is indeed critical to actually getting them done for many people (including those with ADHD)

That (and scheduling suggestions) used to be the main feature of Timeful, an app started by behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely. It actually got acquired by Google and shut down. Sadly, Google Tasks still pales in comparison.

The only todo app I’ve found which allows you to do this and has desktop/mobile versions is TickTick. I used to be a fan of Things which is nearly perfect, but the authors stubbornly refuse to implement this, so I’m gradually migrating away from it.

I also prefer to track todos this way because it shows me how much free time I can realistically commit to new things. There was a calendar app that did this very well called Timeful, which Google acquired a few years ago. Some of the features from Timeful have been rolled into GCal, but this one doesn’t seem to have made it.

That's indeed not possible. The Tasks calendar is a separate calendar and the 'events' on it have no duration.

When Danny O'Brien started researching what he called "life hacks" around 2004, the giant decades-long text file was the key practice shared by most of his interviewees. But not just for to-do lists; also for research notes, ideas, and so on.


It's too bad things didn't work out for him to get the book on it finished, but the important thing is that Danny's still with us.

> Danny's still with us.

What do you mean by this? Did he have a life-threatening condition?

Yep, text file(s). The key is flexibility and putting an effort into something you're going to stick with. A single text file works. Multiple files work. You can accomplish a lot with just the features of the OS, like the window manager, search and shell scripting.

Lots of people like Org mode. I think people who don't like Org mode are partially just overwhelmed. One key is to do as little as you need to and then use the tools available as you find a need for them. One big file works well for that. Or starting with the minimal set of Org mode works well for that. Most people will dive right into the deep and try to incorporate everything right away.

Another trick is just forcing yourself to use something. The most sticky processes I have used were those which came with a job... because I was FORCED. Maybe you should just force yourself to use the tools you have in front of you.

Personally, I like doing small incrementations of my processes and using shell scripts to push those small improvements. If I'm moving slow, then I can back off. If I'm putting everything down to build the most awesome system in like a week or more, then I'm quickly getting myself stuck in a corner.

I've used a text file with a very similar workflow for a couple years and wholeheartedly agree it's a very flexible and useful tool. The trouble I had was what to do when I'm not in front of my computer. I tried sending myself TODO emails and I'd add them to the list later. That works pretty well. Although typing more than a line on a phone is kinda painful. And it requires the discipline to add the item to the list instead of leaving it in my inbox.

Recently I switched to a physical journal that I carry everywhere. I find a zen like joy in physically writing my thoughts and the portability can't be beat. I do miss the search though. Wish there was a way to combine these two systems without creating more work for me.

Ultimately the best system is whichever one you find it easiest to keep up to date. It's almost like negotiating with my lazy side. "Ok lazy brain, if you're too lazy to keep a list in google docs, let's see if you can get excited about this journal. Look it's got a picture if space on the cover!"

I've been using notebooks for years to write things down, but only recently I found one with a table of contents area at the front that has been immensely helpful in finding things later on.

What brand?

Not OP, but these are quite popular with the bullet journal crowd. ToC, better paper than the likes of Moleskine, takes me right about a year to fill one up.


Ah, thats the exact model Leuchtturm I have.

That's the one! Found it by accident and love it.

Moleskine is a piece of ass. I love the moleskine notebooks on one hand but lot's of inks tend to smear and shit.

I don't use a single text file, but I do keep notes with text files. I created a little bash script to help me do that.

I type 'note' in the terminal and it opens up a new file at ~/notes/$year/$month/$day/note.md in vim in insert mode with a timestamp already inserted for me.


I do kind of like the idea of having a single file for searchability, but I do already have powerful search of my `notes` directory with grep.

What people don't know or forget: You can always start minimally. For personal projects, it turns out a text file works for 99% of use cases. Text editor, vi or emacs? Doesn't matter, as long as it's just text! You can have more text files for different stuff. Invent ways to use flags, prioritize, assignments, etc. It's your ad-hoc format, and easy to evolve. Heck, for personal hobby, I've had success with such TODO-lists at end of such sourcecode.

For more structure, I've found Freemind cool to use. It works like a text-file, but you put everything in a graph and can spread through different files. Can even use links, colors and text formats if you like.

What doesn't really work, is other people's tools, like so-called collaborative tools, SM, and whatnot. One day they'll just delete everything, migrations will fail, it's slow and unreliable. Email seems to work well enough personally, though less so with the advent of "cloud computing" (other people's computer).

I’ve found OneNote very useful for Todo lists. It’s very flexible and supports collapsible nested lists. But the killer feature is the “dock to desktop” feature, which makes the list always visible on my monitor. It forces me to stay on task and reminds me what to do next. I create a new page every week and copy over my remaining tasks from the last week. I’ve been doing this for 3 years now and haven’t looked back.

I use OneNote at work. It's the one Microsoft product I really enjoy using. It does so much and lets you organize things any which way you want. It is about as close as I've seen to digital paper.

Granted, I haven't had to do sketches in there, or any kind of OCR. I think I'd still do those on paper.

I've got one folder per project and one folder for each thing I want to learn.

Same. I've had the same OneNote for over 10 years now. My life is in that OneNote lol

It is relatively recent for me, but my journal, to do list and similar eventually found a home in Zim. At the end of the day, it is just a bunch of text files and it just works for me.

I think an ideal system would include voice notes. The problem is, I would really like it if the voice notes were geotagged and timestamped AND really easy to record. I think a smartphone app is to cumbersome. It should be a single physical button, just for that purpose.

What I really would like is a minimal device with a microphone and a button, that stores the notes in my phone.

I have not figured out how yet.

My Samsung smart watch does a not bad job at this requirement.

I use “just press record” on my Apple Watch for this all the time.

I do similar only it's a notes.txt inside whatever project I'm in... for all todos for that project...

I've been working on getting more organized though and have started using Joplin for similar thing, though not single file it does sync things... I like having a more organized look at things than just searching through a txt file that can get super huge.

For people on the go that need somewhat more organization I like iAWriter for iPhone (let’s you use md files for notes) and then you can also edit the markdown files directly on your laptop in the iCloud folder. Everything syncs up nicely in a nonproprietary format it’s seriously life changing

I have thought about different apps for this txt-approach for iOS, and you’re right. iA Writer seems to be perfect for this.

I just checked it out again, and it doesn't seem to support the Files API, only syncs with iCloud. Same with the app "txt".

That's annoying, because my default sync service is OneDrive, and iOS generally supports it very well.

Yea that’s actually the most annoying thing for me too, I would rather use it with gdrive or Dropbox instead of iCloud (which is prone to a ton of issues). I had to do some hacky things to get it to work the way I wanted tbh.

Yup! And if you work in a team and need version control for your notes there’s an app called Working Copy which integrates perfectly. Then you push changes directly to a git repo which acts as your source of truth


There's beauty and power in simplicity. Thanks for sharing! Also, take a look at Roam (https://roamresearch.com) which almost comes full-circle to a place of simplicity (just write instead of worrying about where to put things or how to organize them) while providing all kinds of benefits. There are many tradeoffs and valid reasons to prefer your .txt (or my .md) file(s), but I highly recommend playing w Roam to see what's possible.

Roam is totally cool, but at the moment not very polished.

Even worse they're loosing a lot of data, which stopped me from using it – sadly. I still think it's superior to anything else, but loosing data is a show stopper.

Huh. I have a list of things I feel it needs before it's really ready for broad adoption, but data loss? I haven't experienced any, and yours is the first mention I've come across. That said, it's still beta quality and they're moving really fast; since it's still free I'm reserving judgment on the reliability front. It's so good, w so much potential; rooting hard for them to get it right.

The data loss was attributed to scaling problems. They've recently seen a large spike in usage, presumably in part from attention on HN.

They're hiring (Clojure): https://angel.co/company/roam-research/jobs/718960-full-stac...

Greenspun's 11th Law:

"Any sufficiently complicated note-taking/productivity/GTD system contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of Org-Mode."

So Org-Mode is a more complicated note-taking, etc., system that does twice as much as you actually need it to?

No, it's a note-taking &c. system that offers the capability of doing lots of other things, but nothing compels you to make use of any features you don't need, and in the end the files are plain text files that are perfectly readable in any arbitrary text-editor.

In my Emacs setup org-mode has at least two reproducible bugs(that I know of) and one feature that's obviously implemented in a more complicated way than necessary.

That said it is a fantastic package with some great ideas.

Can you please elaborate on the bugs and feature?

When I enter a new line within source blocks(but often also outside) it starts to wiggle horizontally. It only stops after I revert-buffer or add another line. Calling comment-line in an elisp source block causes a syntax error because it'll also split up the line below.

And the time tracking feature doesn't work across Emacs restarts, because for some reason it seems to rely on some timer running in the background. That's not really necessary as all that's needed is calculating the difference between two timestamps and inserting the result in a plain text file.

Ok thanks :)

Please report bugs or badly implemented features to the Org-mode mailing list at emacs-orgmode@gnu.org - thanks!

Notepad++ user here. I use multiple pads and create new notes. The autosave feature is great that you don’t have to sAve a note to persist after a restart.

Once a week I either save and file these tabs or just discard them. It’s like a great scratchpad.

I also try not to hoard on too much data, I discard a lot with this in mind

Ps in notepad++ ctl+alt+up/down arrows move a line up and down. I use this a lot to rank lists and mark priority by moving it to the top

I wonder if there's any correlation between static/dynamic typing fans of programming languages, and people who organize their lives with highly structured apps versus a big text file.

I've tried to use various to-do apps and calendars and email organizing systems (and some of them look really cool!), and they're all way too structured for me to use for even my most boring week. They're too complex, but not in useful ways, because I don't get the flexibility I want out of that complexity. I end up putting most of my information in the big "NOTES" field, or in giant email drafts to myself, where it's not really usable for anything.

Sadly, while I see many effective programmers who prefer static or dynamic languages, and many effective organizers who use structured or unstructured task systems, essentially 100% of the new software I see are new highly structured systems. Were Emacs and Hypercard unique events in all of computing history, with a power and flexibility that is never to be repeated, for fear of crossing the streams?

I have attempted something similar for some time, but always have issues making a habit of it. My solution is to use a physical piece of paper that I can always carry with me. The physicality of it is a great reminder for me.

Heres a vim shortcut for something like this: `alias did="vim +'normal Go' +'r!date' ~/did.txt"`

More: https://theptrk.com/2018/07/11/did-txt-file/

I know how to work with org-mode and I’ve also tried the paper notebook. Both seem like they should be working fine, my problem is that I never remember to work on my notes or todos. The last entries are likely at least a few months old.

Typically I just want to start with whatever comes next, I probably already have a plan in my head and it doesn’t occur to me to write something down after I’m done. My workdays vary also significantly (tools, projects, contexts, etc.) so there’s no typical environment where I can integrate something like this into. Even a weekly reminder to write down my hours at the end of the week has failed to trigger action half of the time. It is only irritating when I do miss the notes, e.g. for a yearly review, filling out some timesheets or when googling for the 5th time in as many days for the same info.

Do you clock your time in org-mode? I find that helps me keep todos up to date even if I am working tasks based on an informal plan only in my mind.

I'm amazed by how many productivity apps there are out there right now, many with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in VC funding.

This has to be a bubble, right?

VCs just need to be a bit more productive in their funding pattern. Maybe I should write an app to do that.

To me the major takeaways from the popularity of this post/discussion: * Modern productivity software is still severely inadequate * No matter how good your system is, the affordance to drop into plain text is key for the dev market

More and more I am going back to simple tools. The simpler the better. I think using a pure text file with the basic GNU command line tools is very powerful and more flexible than anything. Just remember to keep it in git!

I have been using a single text (markdown) file for at least five years instead of the todo list I usually write what is done during the day and sometimes add important tasks that need to be done. I try to keep everything fairly plain and avoid overcomplicating the structure. For me this provides an easy way to go over the history, usually try to document more complex devops operations, decisions etc.

I use Sublime to keep the document open there, works really well with larger files.

Each day begins with separating section: # 08.02.2020 # ... # 09.02.2020 #

A single file seems like a forcing function for including the right amount of context you'll need later. I use nvalt, which is basically a small collection of text files. It seems like whenever I let myself create many files, I just feel scattered, and am more likely to enter garbage.

Nowadays I just use maybe 10 notes. If I create a new one for a meeting, etc.., I'll copy in the relevant parts and delete the meeting note after.

It seems like having a proliferation of notes has also been an issue on most orgs I've been in :/.

I have separate text files for todo and notes. I use Notepad on Windows and it has a nice (though not very well known) F5 feature to insert current dateTime. Certainly not surprising given the name of the program is notepad. I also extensively use Autohotkey to quickly open up the desired file by pressing a system-wide keystroke. I also keep these text files in a remote git repository so there's a history to restore from in case I accidentally delete something

As long as you never use Undo...

Where/How would I jot down a brand new todo? The way I understand it right now is, that everything is immediately being scheduled into an appropriate calendar spot, but that seems so very wrong that I feel I must be mistaken.

(To elaborate: To me it is critical to have swift todo entry with minimal effort to account for the random and probably inconvenient times new tasks and thoughts pop up. Having to also deal with scheduling at that very moment would really not allow for that.)

In markdown, I use [ ] (a square in my physical notebook) for an un-done todo and [x] for completed. So to keep track of current todos, search on [ ]. For physical notebook, I take some time every day to flip back the last several pages and make sure I haven't missed putting something in a more formal list.

I'm using GitLab issues for tasks at the moment, but I really like this concept...

Original author here. Yeah it feels wrong because you're not using the calendar like it's "supposed to" be used. But who cares. But what this does is 1) reduce the stress of seeing that item day after day until the day when you asked yourself to deal with it, and 2) forces you to find a day to put it when you have available time for it.

Hey Jeff, thanks for chiming in.

Do you actually take the time to schedule every new todo whenever it pops up? No jotting it down quickly, but scheduling it separately at a later point?

I use Evernote just like a folder with sub-folders and files in those sub-folders. For instance, I have my main folder, a folder to keep things of my workplace, a folder for generic notes, a folder for personal things, a folder for my monthly-semester-anual planning, etc., etc.

What I do that really has been working very well for me is maintaining a list of things to do for the next weeks (usually for the next 2/3 months). I have a list with items for my work, and generic life items.

For instance, my work list has something like:

  Week 10/Feb
  - SO: Prepare exam (print)
  - SO: Hold project discussions (Thursday, 10h)
  - CD: Prepare next semester (generic overview)

  Week 17/Feb
  - ...
My personal list has things such as:

  Week 10/Feb
  - SIM: do accounting
  - Ophthalmology (17h30)
  - ...
Every week I grab the information from those weekly lists and add to my TODO file. My TODO file is where I split the weekly items through the days:

  - SO: Prepare exam (print)
  - SIM: do accounting

  - ....
My TODO file comes from a template with recurrent items already set in their respective days, so I never miss recurrent things..

All in all, my system is like a calendar and todo list in the same place. I don't like to use two or three apps to do my planning.

Eventually I would like to get rid of Evernote mainly because I have to delete older items to keep my scroll to a minimum (and so, I lose all information about my previous weeks and todo lists)..

I like dead simple solutions like this; in general when people reach for new tools or abstractions they swing further away from greatest productivity, not closer.

But sometimes it's weak. I once had a junior dev who logged his time in a single text file, by actually typing out the times he started and stopped doing things. Using a (simple) stopwatch tool is clearly more effective than that.

What I use: - Google keep, for basic notes and todos - Alarms for things that have to happen at a certain time. Outside of collaborative work I've never felt the value in calenders. I'm not a machine and I need my slack. - Toggl for keeping track of time spent on productive things. Time is the most valuable thing we all have, so keeping track of where it's going is critical, even if it's just knowing how many hours you worked this week. - For collaborative work, a project management tool like Jira. Yes they add friction, but they're the only way I've seen to effectively keep everyone on the same page and maintain a single source of truth of project status. The biggest problem with them (other than having irritatingly complex and slow UIs) is usually the guy driving them making a dumpster fire out of them, not the tool itself.

I am thinking the consistency is part of the value.

I use paper and pen for my weekly ToDo lists, even while I play around with QtPy and MariaDB on Linux (most recent set of tech I am experimenting with) for an eventual electronic version.

I always put a title at the top left, and the date at the top right. This helps if the page eventually gets filed (like when I take notes during support calls). And if it is multi-page (usually is) I put Page X of Y at the top center. Y gets back filled once I am done, as I then know how many pages total there are.

I begin the list with my calendar appointments for the week at the top so that I keep them in mind.

Then I start with most recent or most urgent items from memory. Next I canvas my Inbox for electronic communications that indicate items to go on the list. Then I can file the email into permanent storage to keep my Inbox from becoming overwhelming.

After that I look at the accumulated service notes (I run an IT support business, among others) and add any open items/follow ups, etc. to the list prior to filing those notes in client folders in a filing cabinet. This likely catches all my phone calls, as I tend to take notes while assisting others, eliminating the need to go through my voice logs.

Last, I review any previous To Do lists and add their content so I can destroy the old lists.

This system has been working for several years, even as my programming attempts have morphed with each new platform/dialect/db I turn my attention to.

The act of writing also helps organize my thoughts and solidify some of the items in mind for the week.

I've done something similar. Since 2001 I've used txt files, but I broke them up by having 1 file for each month.

It really does work nicely without getting in your way.

I tend not to include specific time logged entries tho. I just free form drop things in. That's why I like having it split up per month, it's so I can look back and get a high level picture of "oh, that's what I was working on 6 months ago" or in this case almost 20 years ago.

The headline doesn't mention he mainly uses a calendar app to hold a list of to-dos and builds his 'things-to-do-tomorrow' list from that every night.

It also sounds like a really messy system working between the two, I guess it works for this guy, but no idea why HN is getting so doey eyed about this.

I think we all just want something simple to clean up the giant, overwhelming mess of modern life, so we're primed to approve of anything that looks like a silver bullet.

Beside email and calendar, I use the filesystem extensively and I create "project folders" for everything from software(git) to personal things like (2020-02-08_DaughterRoomBlinds) for the "project" of changing blinds in my daughter's room. Except git repo I sync everything using syncthing on my android and laptop. I also have a set of scripts to generate nice PDF using pandoc (for regular mail letters).

I've been using an Excel file (https://i-kh.net/2019/10/20/how-i-keep-the-side-project-movi...) for week-to-week goals and tracking how I do.

I find it's a bit more structured, and easier to review afterwards. Though I still use text file for organizing a day's work.

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