hacks

Plain-Text GTD

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on May 24, 2011

This post does just what its title says, so if terms like GTD, Things, and Notational Velocity mean nothing to you, you may want to move along: there’s nothing to see here but an excruciating display of plain-text nerdiness.

But if you are looking for a way to implement the Getting Things Done approach to task-management on your computer without spending much (or any) money, if you are a devoted user of Things by Cultured Code who has begun to toy with alternatives that support cloud synchronization, and/or if you secretly thrill to posts like this one, read on.

I started using Things at the same time I was introduced to GTD, in the Spring of 2008. I got hooked on Things when it was still in free beta. When version 1.0 appeared and quickly began winning awards, I gladly shelled out the asking price. Even today, I still think Things is a great program. I used it much like Shawn Blanc used to and Ryan Cordell does, so if you’re not familiar with the program, start there.

I began thinking about alternatives to Things, though, when I got an iPod Touch, and then an iPad, and joined the legions of Cultured Code followers waiting longingly for cloud synchronization (which is now apparently coming soon). I was also reluctant to shell out at least another $20 for the iPad version.

That’s when I started developing the following system. I should stress that I do not claim that this system fully replaces the functionality of Things, which remains a good piece of software. But this does allow me to replicate the way I was using Things, with some added advantages I didn’t even know I was missing.

A txt for every task

The core principle of my GTD system is this: every task gets its own plain text file, whose filename is the name of the action I need to take.

In Things, each of my tasks was an item in a database that also had separate fields for tags, notes, and a due date. In other plain text GTD systems, a task might be a line in a list contained in a text file. In my system, each of my tasks is the name of a plain text file.

When I need to create a new task, here’s what I do on my Mac: I use Notational Velocity to create a note whose title is my task. Within the note itself, I then put any associated information about the task: notes, hashtags, contexts, links, due dates, whatever. If you already use Notational Velocity, you know how fast and easy this process is; if you aren’t familiar with NV, it’s free, easy to download, and easiest to understand when you’re actually using it. Imagine a text editor that doubles as a Finder window and Spotlight, and you’ve almost imagined what an awesome tool NV is.

I have my NV preferences set so that each note is stored as a plain text file in a folder called “notes,” so when I create my task as a note in NV, I’m actually creating a plain *.txt file with the note title as the file name. That has advantages I’ll talk about later, including the fact that I can view my tasks in any text editor. But viewing these text files in Notational Velocity has several virtues. For example, NV recognizes hyperlinks, so if there is a webpage associated with my task, I can paste the URL into the body of the note, and it creates a link to that page. It also recognizes email addresses and turns them into links too. I can also drag a file from the Finder window into a Notational Velocity note, and it will create a link to that file, just like I could do in the notes section of a task in Things.

I keep lots of different kinds of notes in Notational Velocity, so I also need a way to distinguish “tasks” from ordinary “notes,” for the purpose of accessing my things to do more quickly. I do this by adding the two letters qq at the beginning of every note title that is a task. (Hat tip: Merlin Mann.)

Here’s a concrete example. Let’s say I need to go to the library to pick up a book on hold. I create a note in NV called qq Go to the library to pick up book. Within the note body I might put the name of the book. I would also put an @work hashtag to tell me this is something I need to do at work. If there is a due date for the task, I’ll type due() and put the deadline in those parentheses.

This is the kind of information you put in a task in Things, too, but in NV I can put all of this information and more anywhere I want it, and in any order.

Reviewing Tasks

The importance of regularly reviewing tasks is a key principle of GTD. When using Things, I scheduled a weekly time when I sat down and looked at every item in my “Next” list. I would then tag the things I wanted to focus on this week with a “ThisWeek” tag. During the week, when I wanted to see at a glance all of the week’s tasks, I would view the Next list and filter it so that only tasks tagged “ThisWeek” were visible. Each day, I would also “star” tasks I wanted to do that day, which would make the tasks appear in the Today list in Things.

Each of these functions is easy to perform in my new Notational Velocity system. When I want to see all of my tasks at a glance, I enter qq in the NV search bar. Instantly all of the notes except for my tasks fall away from my note list. During my weekly review, I select the tasks I want to do this week, and rename the notes, adding a simple string @tw to the end of the title. For tasks I want to do today, I append @to to the note title.

Now, if I want to see all of this week’s tasks, I enter qq @tw in the search bar, and only those tasks are shown. If I want today’s to do list, I search for qq @to and I have a tidy little list of tasks. I can also filter by any other string. If I want to see all tasks to be done at work I search for qq @work because I put that context in the note body of all my work tasks. I can search for qq @work @tw and so on, depending on how I want to view my list, and the list view in NV will update in what seems like the speed of light. If I want to look at due items, I search due( or due(May to see items due this month. And so on. To see all my notes again, I tap the Escape key or click the X button in the search bar and I can see all of my notes again.

Notational Velocity’s useful keyboard shortcuts or hotkeys also make scrolling through my tasks a breeze. I can use command-J and command-K to switch to the next or previous note, respectively, while keeping my keyboard focus in either the search bar or the text-entry pane. If I have a note selected and want to rename it, I click command-R. Command-L takes me back to the search bar, where I can create a new note or search for a different string.

Elaborations

The search function in NV looks for my search terms anywhere in the title or body of notes, so it doesn’t really matter where I have put the @tw tag or even the qq. The NV list pane also gives me additional ways to review my tasks by allowing me to “sort” notes alphabetically or by date. If I want to see my newest tasks, or the tasks that have been sitting around for a while, I search for qq and sort by Date Modified, in either ascending or descending order.

I also have a way of mimicking the “project” or “area” lists in Things. If I have some tasks that all belong to the same project, I put the project name in brackets after the qq in the note title. For example, I might enter a task as qq [246] Write lecture for Tuesday @tw. That tells me I have a task associated with a course–HIST 246. I can view all the tasks in a project by–you guessed it–using the search box and searching for qq [246]. (I can add the project name as I’m entering the task for the first time, making “filing” the task simple, or I can file a task in a project while completing my weekly review by renaming the note and adding the bracketed term which, again, can actually appear anywhere in the note title or the note itself.)

I use the square bracket syntax for large and ongoing projects like a course or my book manuscript. But sometimes I also make a quick list of next actions in the note body of a smaller task, effectively turning that task into a “project” in the David Allen sense. For example, if I have a batch of papers to grade, the task I create might be qq [246] Grade position papers. Within the note, I might then list the names of all the students whose papers I need to grade. I can then virtually “cross off” those names as I finish each paper; in NV, putting @done at the end of a line of text automatically applies strikethrough formatting to that line. Nifty!

What do I do when I want to indicate that a task is completed? In Things and most GTD apps, I would probably click on a check box. In my system, I have several options:

  • If the task was a simple one I will never have to do or remember again, I just delete the note (command-delete from the keyboard).
  • If I want to track the tasks I’ve completed in my notes folder, but don’t want it to come up as a pending task, I change qq to dq (for done-q). Now, when I search for all of my qq tasks, the finished task will not appear in my search results, but I can still access the note if there was information in it that I wanted to keep, and the “date modified” column can tell me when I finished the task (unless I’ve modified it again since then).
  • If I finish a task, but the odds are that I will need to do it again the following week, I remove any focus hashtags like @tw or @to and just leave it as a qq task. Now I will be sure to see it again during my next weekly review.

One of the things I like most about my new system is the very thin, qq-shaped line between a note and a task: that is, it is extremely easy to turn one into the other, and vice versa. For example, within Notational Velocity I keep a running list of everything I need to buy at the hardware store, as well as a running list of books I want to check out next time I’m at the library. These lists aren’t really tasks, because it may not be essential for me to go to the hardware store or the library right away. But once I do need to make the trip, I just find the note with my list and add a qq to the title. Now the note will pop up during my GTD reviews, reminding me that I need to go to the store or the library. And my shopping or check-out list will already be right there when I do.

Conversely, since all that makes a note a task is the qq in the title, I can make the note itself as long and complex as I want it to be. Earlier, as an example, I imagined creating a task called qq [246] Write lecture for Tuesday. In my system, I can actually begin drafting the lecture right within the text file named after this task, without ever leaving Notational Velocity. When I’m ready to move it into a more powerful text editor for further drafting or revision, I can just open the underlying plain text file in another application and keep writing. (By right-clicking on the note title in NV, I can select another application in which to edit the file, or shift-command-E immediately opens the file in my default text editor). Even when I save in another application, the changes will be reflected in Notational Velocity. The notes field in Things wasn’t made for this kind of heavy duty text editing, and to see long notes I usually had to sacrifice my ability to see all the tasks around it at a glance. Not so now.

Getting Things Synced

You may have noticed earlier that I keep my “notes” folder in my Dropbox. That means all of my tasks are available to me, thanks to Dropbox, on any machine or mobile device on which I have Dropbox installed, and also on the Web through my Dropbox account.

Even better, however, is the fact that Notational Velocity can sync all my notes with Simplenote, a universal iPhone/iPad app that I have installed on both my iPod Touch and on my iPad. Simplenote is designed to look and feel like Notational Velocity, with two exceptions. The first line of a Simplenote note becomes the title of a Notational Velocity note, and vice versa. And to create a new note in Simplenote, I have to tap on a + button. But the search functionality works the same way, so I can review all my notes and filter them on Simplenote just like I do in NV.

Plus, whenever I am out and need to add a qq, I can create a Simplenote. The next time I’m online on my desktop, Notational Velocity will sync that new qq by adding it to my “notes” folder. Just like that, I have flawless cloud sync.

I have a Simplenote Premium subscription ($20 a year), which removes ads from the free version of Simplenote, and also gives me unlimited syncing from third party apps like NV. That means I can set up NV preferences to sync with Simplenote every 1 minute, ensuring my mobile devices are quickly in sync with my laptop.

Replacing My Things

Perhaps at this point you suspect that I’m making things more complicated than they need to be. Why not just keep all my tasks in one list in one text file?

I could, but my objective has been to replace the functionality I liked about Things. For example, one of my favorite things about Things was how easy it was to look at a subset of my tasks while hiding all the rest from view. A simple list in a text file doesn’t allow that, unless I pay for a new application with its own syntax or want to constantly be clicking on toggle arrows to collapse or expand “folded” code blocks (though I confess this system did catch my eye). In my system, I can achieve all of the views I used in Things, without learning someone else’s syntax or paying money for a new GTD app.

I’ve also found easy ways to replicate the other things that I really liked about Things. Take, for instance, the Quick Entry dialog box in Things. I used this all the time to quickly enter a task and then dismiss it, all with a universal keyboard shortcut. In my new system, Notational Velocity runs so fast that calling it up takes no longer than calling up the Quick Entry box in Things (which sometimes took a second or two to appear), and you can set a universal keyboard shortcut to bring NV to the front at any time. (I’ve set my shortcut to the same one that Things used, because I’ve gotten so familiar with it.) In many ways, quickly entering a task into NV is even quicker than it was with Things, because I don’t have to tab into different fields to set due dates, tags, notes, projects, and so on–I have two fields to think about in my system: the title, and the note, and I can actually put any of the metadata I want to use in either place. Moreover, when I enter a task into NV, it’s already in my next actions list by virtue of the qq. I don’t have to collect tasks in a separate inbox, as in Things, and then drag them or move them to different projects or areas. The “quick entry” bucket in my case is the same as the bucket that contains all of my tasks. Thus, I’m able to reproduce the functionality of the Things quick entry box and even eliminate some steps.

The other thing I used all the time in Things was the ability to automatically fill the notes field of the Quick Entry box with information associated with that task. For example, if I was looking at an email message in Mail.app and pushed control-space, I would get the Things Quick Entry box with a link to the email message already in my notes field. If I had text selected, Things would automatically also put that text into the notes of my new task. (Read more about this useful trick in Things.)

I can do something very similar in my system, because Notational Velocity installs a system-wide Mac OS X service that allows you to create a new note in Notational Velocity using the text you have selected in any other program. Usually all you have to do is push shift-command-V while your text is selected, but you can also access the Services menu (aka, “the menu you never go to” but should).

Because I sync my notes with Simplenote Premium, I also have a nifty way to create a task from email. Simplenote gives me a unique email address associated with my account, so that whenever I email something to this address, it immediately creates a note in Simplenote with the subject as its first line (and, ergo, also creates a plain text file in Notational Velocity with the subject of the mail message as the title). So if someone sends me an email message I need to act on, I forward the message to my Simplenote account and change the subject to my task, using my qq syntax, adding anything else I want to note in the body of the email message. Presto: I have a task in Notational Velocity with the full text of the associated message. This trick allows my system to meet what Jason B. Jones recently called an essential feature of task lists: the ability to create tasks from email. And it means I can also create tasks from my email on my iPad or my iPod touch as easily as I can on my laptop–something that could not be said of the Quick Entry Auto Fill provided by Things.

Qualifications

That about sums up how I use Notational Velocity as a replacement for the way I was using Things. I should now immediately note, however, that my system doesn’t do everything Things did as well as Things did it. Exhibit A: scheduling due dates and tasks. Ultimately, I don’t miss this as much as I thought I would. I had lots of repeating tasks set up in Things to automatically appear in my Today list on particular dates or days of the week, but in my daily practice I found myself deleting a lot of these. Anyway, the GTD diehards of the world will tell you that too much automation in your system is defeating the point–the point is to constantly review what you have to do and make decisions about what’s important right now, and in this context. That principle doesn’t lend itself well to fully automated task creation.

Besides, because my system stores all of my tasks in plain text files instead of a proprietary database, I actually can create some scheduling functionality by harnessing the power of Mac OS X, Automator workflows, Applescript, and iCal. That’s a post for another day, but suffice it to say that it’s not too difficult for me to create rough simulations of what the Things scheduling engine did, just by working with my plain text files.

A final question that deserves to be asked is: why Simplenote? As I’ve noted several times, my system works for me because I ponied up the money for a Premium subscription to Simplenote. I’m willing to do that because I like the Simplenote interface and some of its distinctive iOS features, like the ability to “pin” notes to the top of my list. I also love the ability to email things to my unique Simplenote email address and create notes that way–a feature I haven’t found in any comparable app. That said, I am keeping my eyes open for apps that might allow me to cut free from that $20 a year. I have my eyes on Notesy, for example, which uses Dropbox to sync. A forthcoming version of WriteRoom on iOS is supposed to do the same. At that point I might have to weigh how much that unique email address is worth to me.

[For more about how I am using this system a year later, please visit More Plain-Text GTD.]