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

Organizing Yourself With Plain Text

Typing in a text editor

Back when I started this blog in 2012, one of my goals was to share techniques and tips for living and working in plain text. I haven’t done that for a while. Quite a while, in fact.

It’s not that I’ve abandoned plain text. Not at all. I use it more than ever these days. It’s just that … well, other topics and ideas for this space just got in the way.

Recently, though, approached me to help him become a bit more organized and a bit more productive. He works on a couple of old laptops and 1) doesn’t feel the need to replace them, and 2) doesn’t want to install any new software or get an account with any web application. I relish challenges like that!

With that in mind, I asked him if he’d consider using plain text. He was, understandably, a bit apprehensive. He’s used to working in word processors; text editors are a bit foreign to him. After a few words of encouragement, my client was game. While I wasn’t surprised, the results were better than he expected.

Let’s take a look at how I helped my client become more organized using plain text. This advice could help you, too.

What You’ll Need

The only tool you need is a text editor. Every operating system comes with one, so you don’t need to install any new software on your computer. You can, however, download any number of free or open source text editors. Use your favourite search engine to find and test drive a couple.

If you’re going to edit your text files one multiple devices — for example, a laptop, a smartphone, and a tablet — you’ll want an easy to make those files accessible to all your devices. I suggest using file syncing tools like Dropbox, Google Drive, ownCloud, or Box.

Most tablets and smartphones don’t pack a text editor. You can find one in your app store of choice.

Organizing with Plain Text

I realize that plain text has limitations. But it’s perfect for the following jobs:

  • Task lists
  • Checklists
  • Daily plans or schedules
  • Personal journal

You’re not limited to those choices. You can use a text file for just about anything.

Get started by creating a folder on you computer to hold your text files. I often call that folder Admin (short for administration). Then, create sub folders under it for types of text files that you plan to use.

Here’s a look at a sample Admin folder I created on my Chromebook:

An example directory structure

While it’s easy enough just to dump text files into each of those sub folders, I advised my coaching client to organize his task lists, daily plans, and journal entries by week. Here’s an example:

Breaking down entries by week

Naming Your Text Files

Keep the names simple. Where necessary, include the date and the purpose of the file.

For example, let’s say you’re naming your daily task lists. You can use a name like Tasks - Feb 2.txt or 02022016 - Tasks.txt. Use whatever naming convention works best for you.

For checklists, which might not have a date, use a name that corresponds to the checklist’s purpose — for example Travel Checklist.txt.

Structuring Your Text Files

Again, keep the structure and the contents of your text files as simple as possible. Let’s take a look at the structure of the text files for the four jobs I listed earlier.

Task List

Your task list should contain two elements:

  • A heading at the top of the file — for example, Tasks for February 22, 2016:
  • Your list of tasks

Put an asterisk (*) in front each task, to act as a bullet. Add the status of the task in square brackets at the start or end of the line. I use the following statuses:

  • DONE
  • IN PROGRESS
  • BLOCKED

Here’s an example of a plain task list:

A task list in a text editor

Checklist

Checklists have the same format as task lists. You include a heading at the top of the file, but instead of an asterisk you put square brackets, with a space in between, in front of each item in the list.

When complete an item in the list, put an x between square brackets. Here’s an example:

A checklist in a text editor

Daily Schedule or Plan

A daily schedule or plan is just that: a breakdown of where you need to be and what you should be doing at given times during the day. Many people use a calendar application for that, but for some a text file works as well (if not better).

You can break your schedule or plan down by time of day — for example, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening — or by hours or blocks of hours. The coaching client I worked with, for example, breaks his day down by hour and minute — for example, 9:00 to 9:15.

Here’s an example of a daily schedule:

A daily schedule in a text editor

Journal

You can use a journal to record your most private thoughts, to note significant events that happened during the day, or to record interactions with customers and clients. Or all of the above.

I advise using a very simple format for a journal. Each journal entry should be an individual text file. I usually name that file with the day’s date — for example, 02292016.txt.

The file can contain a header with date and, maybe, a slug line or title. Then, just type below that. Your journal entries can be full sentences or paragraphs, or just a summary in the form of a bullet list.

Here’s an example of a journal entry:

An example of a journal entry

Using the Text Files

The easiest way to do that is to open them all in a text editor and keep the text editor open in the background while you work. Of course, this assumes that the text editor you’re using supports multiple tabs. Windows Notepad, for example, just won’t cut it.

As your day progresses, switch over to your text editor and check items off your lists. Yes, it’s that simple. There’s not a lot of overhead and no new software to learn. All you really need to do is build the habit of using text files. (And if you need help with that, contact me to discuss my coaching services.)

Using plain text to organize yourself takes a bit of work up front. But you can work ahead by creating templates of the text files that you use and by copying your folder structure across months.

Organizing in plain text isn’t for everyone. However, it’s a simple and easily-maintained way of keeping track of what you need to do and where you need to be. And you can do it with tools that you already have on your computer.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.

Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Then please consider supporting this blog with a micropayment via PayPal. Thanks!