Storing data in text files wherever possible is a shortcut to a simpler workflow.
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.
Letterspace. Great app for making impromptu to do lists and jotting down stuff. No gamification or karma to compete with. Plain to do lists.
— ?????? (@Sajesh) December 8, 2015
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:
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.
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.
@noah_weiss Simplenote! I've used it for years and it always syncs perfectly, is beautiful, and has exactly the right set of features
— Dan Harrison (@mr_raconteur) February 29, 2016
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.
Some people need the visual impact of mindmaps 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.
— Sharp & Fine (@SharpandFine) January 24, 2016
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.
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. 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.
— Rich McCue (@richmccue) March 3, 2016
I recommend creating and saving templates in text files. You can even program a shortcut in your text expander program 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.
"He [Feynman] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON'T KNOW ABOUT. For the… https://t.co/JGXSRsKxAp
— Pedro De Abreu (@pedrodeabreu) January 15, 2016
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.
— TeddingtonPools (@TeddingtonPools) March 3, 2016
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 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, 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.