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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

korinthe's picture

Oy... I have two systems. Home...


I have two systems. Home (started earlier) is a big ASCII "todo" file, broken out into sections, edited with emacs. It has to be plain text and emacs because it lives on a server to which I ssh from home, work, the internet cafe, the library, etc. Not all of those have X servers available. The sections are: "This week", "@Work", "Errands", "Stuff-handling", "Cleaning", "@Desk", "M&M's Wedding", "J&J's Wedding", "Other" (usually relationship issues), and then a series of weekly "Tada" sections. As you can see it's GTD infected but not really GTD effective. I have a few other text files (christmas, goals, toread, etc.) most of which are projects or just lists. And I just started sorting my Christmas craft todo's by context -- a HUGE step forward in planning, for me.

The work system is GTD effective: a big-ass OpenOffice spreadsheet with many sheets (Agendas/Lists, NextActions (has regions for different contexts), and a sheet for each Project with the name, the why, the desired outcome, and the nextactions, questions, and waitingfors). Plus Oracle Calendar (group mandate).

I have been seeing a lot of references to emacs' PlannerMode and will check that out this afternoon. The home system needs some help.

A thought on the "big ass text/source file and synchronization" debate... Your hard drive contains a single big ass file if you want to look at it that way. The ease of finding/updating/automating subsections of your data is limited only by the capability and composibility of the tools you have at hand.




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