Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

In Praise of the Text File

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll have read all the posts that look at apps (whether on the desktop or the web) that let you work in plain text. I use a few of them, including one that lets me publish this blog.

Some people, though, don’t even need to do all that much. They just want to keep track of things they need to do, to organize their schedules, to create check lists, or to take notes. To do any of that, they don’t need a a specialized tool.

A humble text file is more than good enough for any of that.

Why? A few reasons:

A text file is easy to create and simple to use. You don’t need to install any additional software on your computer, or need to use any web-based applications. Every operating system comes with a basic text editor —for example, gedit (with various Linux distributions), TextEdit (with MacOS), and Notepad (with Windows). On the web, there are a variety of editors like TextDrop. And there are numerous text editors for mobile devices, too.

A text file is pretty much a universal file format, one that hasn’t changed in decades. Sure, there are subtle ways that a text file differs across various operating systems but it’s nothing that makes a file moved between, say, Linux and Windows unusable.

A text file has no frills, so you can quickly and easily get down everything that you need down to get down. You don’t need to worry about features that you rarely use getting in the way.

A text file is generally small. A text file containing 3,200 words weighs in at around 15 KB. A Microsoft Word document of with the same number of words comes in at around 53 KB —that extra 38 KB doesn’t buy you much.

Of course, the drawback of working with a plain text file is that it will often reside on one computer or device. In that case, you can’t get at it if you’re using another one. Especially another computer that’s not yours. A way around that is to add a tool like Dropbox to the mix. Just save the file in a folder on your computer that’s synchronized with Dropbox and you can get to it anywhere. Even on the web. More on that in an upcoming post.

All in all, using a plain text file is a very low-tech way of doing things. But, then again, do we really need complex software in to do many of the things that we need to do? I don’t think so.

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