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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

Mitch Wagner's picture

Bloody hell, the comments software...

Bloody hell, the comments software doesn't seem to like my HTML. Why don't I try using the Preview button this time, as if I were not a dope?

I've been playing around with TiddlyWiki lately. It's a single-user wiki designed to run on the client -- more specifically, inside the browser. There's a plug-in that allows TW to display dated to-dos and reminders (which tells me there's 49 days until my wife's birthday and 21 days until it's time for me to get another haircut).

TiddlyWiki is implemented entirely in HTML and JavaScript. It is as if (to paraphrase a Wall Street Journal write-up) every Microsoft Word document included code for Word so that it could be displayed. (The analogy breaks down in that TiddlyWiki is a heck of a lot smaller than Word; I'm showing it as 117KB empty, and 198 KB with a whole bunch of stuff in it.)

Just to repeat myself for clarity: it's all just one file, an HTML file like any Web page. You can use it as a to-do/tickler file, and a place to store random fragments of information. I also include pointers to full-sized files on my desktop, using the

URL format. And, partially because it's one file, you can upload it to a server and consult it from the web, although you can't modify it there using plain-vanilla TiddlyWiki. (However, there are spin-off versions that will let you modify it on the Web). You can also load it onto removable storage, such as a USB stick, a technique with the clever name, WikiOnAStick.

OK, that seems to have worked now. You really should give TiddlyWiki a try; don't let the sub-normal intelligence of this endorser scare you off it.




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