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Life inside one big text file

O’Reilly Network Weblogs: Living in text files

Giles takes one of the biggest, geekiest leaps you can—moving all of his stuff into a single big-ass plain text file.

As Danny O’Brien discovered during his research into effective organizational habits of geeks, text is the simplest, most platform-independent, fastest-to-search format we have for storing information. So everything I need - from todos, blog posts in progress, article ideas, addresses, my list of books to read, the shopping list, and much more besides, lives in just the one file. In effect, I live in that file. When I’m sitting in front of my computer, it feels like home.

This ambitious strategy—usually only whispered about among the lower geek echelons in which I dwell—seems to require a lot of confidence, planning, and familiarity with your favorite flavor of text editor. Mine’s currently TextMate, but, given what I’ve seen people like Danny do with Vim (and its incremental search-on-steroids, scripting functions, and endless shortcuts and configurability), this really reignites my resolve to hit the book and thumb through all my bookmarks again.

So. Questions for people who are already living in one text file:

  • What tips do you have for people considering the big move?
  • What tricks do you use to organize, automate, and move around in your huge-ass text file?
  • How do you decide where new stuff goes within a mutli-thousand line document?
  • Are you using section and sub-section headings to jump around?
  • How do you handle versions and multiple drafts of subsections (like, say, blog posts)
  • Got any sweet Vim tricks to share?
  • Any point where this approach starts to fall apart?
  • Have you found you think about your work differently when you work inside only one file?

Spill whatever you like about your one-file system (and, curious folks, feel free to ask questions).

Related Stuff

R's picture

I still have three different...

I still have three different ways to store a running list: * big ass text file * wiki page * cheap pocket notebook

All are useful. The text file was fine when I carried my Zaurus or Palm around, but data-entry was slow & I switched to the notebook. I use it when I need to add something & am not at a computer.

I normally run SSH & can therefore often access the text file remotely. I don't like the idea of keeping it on a USB keydrive, but some people do.

The wiki is there for things I might need some accountability for & commitments I make for others.

Now, more on the big text file...

I still sometimes use a pseudo-wiki markup, which gives it some kind of structure (with headings and such). I have a large space after the bottom organized line so I can easily drop unsorted stuff. Sometimes I just "echo 'thing to remember' >> big.txt. I also have a bash alias so I only have to type "b thing to remember'. This means I don't have to open up vim. vim's 'dd' makes it easy to cut a line & insert it elsewhere to cleanup the file a little bit.

Another handy organization technique in vim is to use code-folding on your sections/subsections.

If I need to find something, I will normally just use grep on the textfile. But vim's search capabilities are also nice.

I don't keep multiple revisions of this running textfile. Other things which need multiple revisions are in their own text files & this is why I use grep: I search through all text files in a directory & can use it recursively if I need to. subversion or other real version control software is really ideal for versioning the text.




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