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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

mg's picture

The four big advantages I've...

The four big advantages I've found in a single todo.txt for eveything that can be digital are: portability, speed, minimal context-switching, and a fast weekly review. Portability: I have a Mac at home, Windows at work. When I tried depending on software for todos, I found that I missed utility X on one platform or the other. (X was usually Quicksilver.) Speed: Any editor with an incremental search function makes Spotlight, Quicksilver, even Google feel slow. Context-switiching: I found GTD @Contexts as separate files less than helpful; I tried them for a while, and was always flitting between the files, the way I had with other, pre-GTD approaches. When I flit like this, the trivia in short term memory that I'm trying to record or track is lost to the more-fun-to-think-about stuff that's buzzing in the background. Weekly review: I spend more time filing the paper I have to keep for one reason or another than I do noting my progress for the week. The review proper, with list updates and additions to about 30 projects takes just a couple minutes of typing time, which leaves plenty of time for contemplation.

If canonical @Contexts lists as separate files are a big win for you, or if the thought of having your whole life in one file is distracting, or if you need GUI cues to find things, a single todo.txt will be be a net lose for you.

To Jason's point: Most of the time I'm only looking at few lines of text, a single list, a single blog post; I use whitespace liberally to minimize visual noise. Once in a while I get overwhelmed by what's in the active task portion of the file. This is a sign that I'm trying to do too much, and should ask for help, or delegate, or drop things, and say no more often.

Goes without saying perhaps, but: a good fixed-width font (ProFont and Courier are both good; Courier New is serviceable) is essential for going the plain-text route; eventually, you'll want to put something in proper columns.

Speaking of columns: cal, on the UNIX command line, produces simple, nicely formatted monthly and annual calendar views.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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