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Storing data in text files wherever possible is a shortcut to a simpler workflow 6 Dead Simple Tips to Supercharge Your Personal Workflow 6 Dead Simple Tips to Supercharge Your Personal Workflow Have trouble staying on top of things despite having the best of tools? Could using fewer tools or apps improve your workflow? We look at tips to improve your productivity and reduce your work stress. Read More .

You already know that your note-taking app is perfect for maintaining lists of all kinds, but you probably haven’t gotten around to considering which apps you can give up in favor of the humble text file. So let’s see which everyday items you can monitor with a text file, to help you decide if you’d benefit from giving up the fancier app that you use right now.

But before that, let’s take a quick detour to discuss some features of a note-taking app that’ll make it easy for you to track data using text files.

A Note on Note-taking Apps

While any note-taking app or text editor will do just fine for creating lists, certain apps do make it simpler for you to work with text files. This makes them ideal for adopting the text-only strategy for tracking your life.

I use Letterspace (OS X, iOS), and I’m in love with it. It’s the first note-taking/text-editing app that I dared to spend money on, and I haven’t regretted it one bit. Here’s how Letterspace makes my workflow super simple:

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It autosaves notes. It also has a good search function, which I don’t use often though.

It puts notes in a sidebar. This makes switching between text files so much easier and quicker than identifying the right file in my Mac’s file explorer and opening it from there every time. I can hide the sidebar anytime to get a distraction-free setup.


It supports Markdown and allows me to turn any list into a checklist. For every item that I want to add, I prefix it with -[ ]. This turns it into a checklist item. Once I have finished the task specified by that item, I click on the -[ ] to mark the task as complete and use Markdown syntax (~~) to strike through the item. This grays it out and distinguishes it from the tasks that are yet to be completed. Check out the screenshot below to see how easy to scan my lists are with this method.


It supports inline tags and @mentions. These get listed in the sidebar, which helps me find notes fast.

It has an archive section, which makes it easy to keep files out of sight when you don’t need them.

It’s beautiful. When you’re planning to work with an app day after day, aesthetic is more important than ever. I have given up so many awesome note-taking apps because I couldn’t bear to look at them for long or because they supported only plaintext views, which I’m not a fan of.

Now let’s move on to those potential list ideas we mentioned.

1. To-do Lists

Whether a text file will work for you as a to-do list will depend on how simple or complex you need your to-do list to be. If you need a scheduler, reminders, integrations with other apps, and so on, you do need something beyond a text-based to-do list How to Stay Organized With the World’s Simplest To-Do System That Works - Todo.txt How to Stay Organized With the World’s Simplest To-Do System That Works - Todo.txt Here at MakeUseOf, we’ve covered plenty of to-do systems in the past. But if you’re like me, to-do systems can sometimes become too much work to maintain and end up costing you in productivity. I... Read More .

If you just want an overview of all your tasks, divided into easy-to-read sections, it can’t get simpler than a text file with Markdown previews.

Cal Newport suggests having a WorkingMemory.txt file to capture administrative tasks that are fighting for space in your mind. Doing this gives you a clear picture of what exactly is on your plate and frees up headspace to allow you to get it done.

If you use Simplenote, you’ll want to read about Scott Nesbitt’s approach to working with to-do lists. You can tweak and re-use that approach to suit your to-do list requirements and your note-taking app.

2. Bill Payments

Whether it’s recurring bills or one-off payments, tracking how much money you have to allocate for expenses every month is not easy to visualize. For me, a simple list works much better than a colorful pie chart.

At the start of every month, I copy-paste my recurring payments from a template to a dedicated list for payments. I also add expenses that are limited to that month to the same list. I treat the list just like a to-do list, checking things off it as soon as I have cleared bills that are due.

3. Ideas

Some people need the visual impact of mindmaps 8 Free Mind Map Tools & How to Best Use Them 8 Free Mind Map Tools & How to Best Use Them For an office worker, a mind map can be a solo brainstorming tool or a collaborative idea collection. In the right hands, a simple mind map can help make better decisions. Read More to capture, analyze, and filter ideas. Some others find that color coding helps. I find such visual elements a distraction and like to capture ideas in a simple list format, connecting the dots inside my head than on screen or on paper.

If you also prefer this text-based approach, stick to an idea file. You can have as many idea files as you want, but it’s best to limit them to a handful to avoid creating more digital clutter.


How you classify ideas is up to you. I prefer to put them in theme-based categories like article ideas, ideas for personal projects, healthy living ideas, decluttering ideas, etc. Try not to have too many categories.

For random ideas that you need more time to mull over, dump them into a single file and move them to more appropriate categories after you decide that they have some merit.

4. Random Text Snippets

Create a file to use as a scratchpad. Whenever you want to type an email or a blog comment, it helps to have a distraction-free interface like a notepad to type it in. Once you have everything on screen, edit the text till you’re happy with it and then copy-paste it to wherever you want to post it. This way you can safeguard the text that you type from browser crashes, Internet outages, or even accidental submissions.

You could even maintain a separate file for text snippets that you use regularly. I use mine for saving terminal commands that I use often but have trouble remembering.

I also use this file to store a few standard workflows that I have for writing articles, dealing with email, managing money, etc. That’s because when I end up doing things haphazardly, I feel stressed and running against time. Outlines of my most used workflows serve as a reminder to take things step by step and work on them in the right order.

5. Templates

Whether you’re writing a blog post, an email, a recipe, or even fleshing out an idea, templates are a good place to start from How to Use OneNote Templates to Be More Organized How to Use OneNote Templates to Be More Organized OneNote is a great way to keep your thoughts organized, and templates can make that process even easier. Learn how to use, edit and create your own templates with this guide. Read More . They not only save you time, but also give you a logical content framework that helps you avoid indecision. They answer the question “Where do I begin?”.

The cookie-cutter approach of templates doesn’t have to stifle your creativity. It’s just a tool to prevent the kind of procrastination that’s born out of the fear of a blank page.

I recommend creating and saving templates in text files. You can even program a shortcut in your text expander program What Is Text Expansion & How Can It Help You Save Time? What Is Text Expansion & How Can It Help You Save Time? If you could save yourself even a small fraction of the time you spend typing, you could save hours of your time every week. That's exactly what text expansion is for. Read More for each template, so that every time you want to make use of a template, you can have it ready to go in a couple of keystrokes.

6. Learning Material

If you’re picking up a new skill, you’re sure to have a ton of information to assimilate. But there’s nothing more important than getting the key concepts and principles right. Keep them handy as quick, scannable outlines in a text file and review them every single day, so that they stick to the inside of your brain like glue.

Maintain a separate section or file that works as a cheatsheet. You can even go a few steps further and create a digital version of the Feynman Notebook with the bits and pieces of your expanding knowledge.

7. Shopping lists

This section can have several subsections for all the stuff that you have to buy, from groceries to tech to winter wear. I even have a section for items that would be impulse buys if I didn’t put them on a 30-day list to think about whether I really need them.

You might want to add a section for stores that stock rare items or stores that you have been meaning to check out.

8. Books to Read / Movies to Watch / Songs to Listen to

Goodreads, a popular online bookshelf service, never worked for me. I guess it’s because I find the social aspect of websites a distraction What Happens When You Quit Social Media? I Found Out What Happens When You Quit Social Media? I Found Out Quitting social media is easy. The hard part is handling what comes after this "extreme" step. I should know. I deleted all my social media accounts mid 2013. Read More rather than an attraction. Anyway, now I stick to a simple text list to track books that I have read or want to read. The same goes for movies and songs.

To make it easy to decide what to watch / read / listen to next, be sure to divide these lists into sections based on themes, genres, or based on the source of a recommendation.

Will Text-only Work for You?

If you spend some time ruminating on this text-based approach, you’re sure to find a wider variety of data that’ll benefit from it. Of course, this approach could turn out to be all wrong for you, but it’s worth giving a shot.

I have tried and given up many list-making apps, budgeting apps 5 Budget Apps You Should Use If You Really Want to Save Money 5 Budget Apps You Should Use If You Really Want to Save Money Here are the most effective budget apps currently available. Pick the one you like best. Read More , text editors, and idea-gathering apps. Now storing everything in text files is working out really well for me. The key is to use a smart, intuitive note-taking app and split your data into logical, easy-to-scan sections.

Do you prefer graphical apps over simple text files for tracking your day-to-day life? If you use do text files, what are some of the unique items that you track with them? Share how you use text files in your workflow.

  1. Kelsey Tidwell
    March 29, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    I respect the text-based's what makes keeping a daily journal cool. But unfortunately, I'm too ADD for it. I've tried endless plain text methods for list keeping and such, but I always end up wanting all of that just out of the way so I can actually get on with what the list is about.

    Every time I've tried to slow down and really plot out a hierarchy of text systems, I end up in endless analysis paralysis. It all becomes about the system. So, chose to shortcut my systems, and it's worked out great for me...

    Google Keep for all notes. Easy checklists, and after things are checked off, they don't disappear. They just go to the bottom of the list so that later on I can un-check them and put them back in the list if needed (think grocery lists).

    Bill pay and other things that I do regularly, I use Google calendar reminders. I post one on the due date, set to remind me in advance for the preceding week's paycheck so that I'm not late :) And forget about it the rest of the time.

    Being able to dive in and dive out is key to me. Otherwise I get distracted and bogged down by the system itself. Markdown language is very powerful and useful, but all the additional keystrokes makes me really enjoy Keep's instant little checkboxes lol. Happy day all!

    • Akshata Shanbhag
      March 30, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      I had a similar problem with the text file approach initially. It's too easy to keep creating lists for just about everything and then get lost in them. Now I have capped the number of list-based text files I can have at any given time to five. That (and this article by Leo Babauta) has forced me to be think carefully about what I track and it turns out there's very little that I need to.

      Looks like Google Keep is working out great for you, so I wouldn't suggest fixing what isn't broken :) Thank you for sharing your workflow, Kelsey.

  2. Rusty
    March 28, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Been using this type of system for years.
    If you are on android platform a must have for "text snippets that you use regularly" is "clipper+" you won't remember how you lived without it.

    • Akshata Shanbhag
      March 30, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Good tip. Thanks for mentioning that one, Rusty.

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