For most people, keeping notes and other stuff in text files is ridiculous – tons of services and apps could do it better. But what the better means?
Despite the availability and diversity of note-taking solutions on the market, I haven’t found any that would meet my expectations. I tried to stick to the one app but I had felt the internal resistance to settling in one specific, often a vendor-locked solution.
The breakthrough was when I ask myself – why I even want to note this information? I had started to look for my “why” and it turned out, that I don’t need a fancy app or service to storing notes but a directory called “notes”.
Why do I take notes?
Most of the people take notes – on a piece of paper, post-it notes, journals, smartphones, apps and so one. But why do we do this? I assume, that the common reason is “To remember X". It’s a far-reaching simplification. In general, we take notes to make the information available for our future self.
- If you write note that you’ll need to buy milk tomorrow, it’s a reminder for tomorrow’s self.
- If you take notes from the lecture, you’ll want to learn from them later.
- If you write a journal, you expect that information you log might be helpful someday.
- If you find interesting information, you’ll store them hoping it’ll be useful in the future.
I hope you got the point. Each note is a piece of information addressed to somebody, including your future self.
Geared with the knowledge why I take notes, I can define my needs and check if the specific approach, app or service works for me. It turned out that the best option for me is to keep notes in plaintext.
Plaintext is easy to search
Because my notes are addressed to myself from the future, I would like to be able to find them exactly when I need them. So the searchability is the crucial factor of the whole note-taking system. Does it make sense to store notes you can’t find?
Text files are search-friendly – you may look for files containing specific words or phrases. Pictures and diagrams, although still useful, need to be additionally described, if you want to look for something they show.
Files are easy to create
New notes should be easy to create. I don’t want to run a huge program to write a few words. I have an idea – bang! – a few keystrokes and it’s stored. Have you found anything interesting? Open app using the shortcut, insert what you’ve found, and add context if needed. Get back to work. That’s it.
Plaintext is long-lasting
I usually store everything I find interesting to me. The problem is that I don’t know when I’ll need this piece of information. Will it be tomorrow? Next month? When I get a new job? When I get retired? Because of that, my notes have to be long-lasting.
Software evolves and many tools I used in the past are no longer available. The company, that provides services, may change strategy or business model e.g. by introducing payments or changing policies, making the service unattractive in the outcome. Also, sticking to the proprietary format makes you dependent on the specific tool. However, plaintext is just text.
Plaintext doesn’t depend on specific software
Data, although yours, is accessible only through the one specific piece of software provided by the company, whose vision may evolve in time. You can export them but it often means losing a specific set of features or formatting in the result. The plaintext is universal and each device and operating system support it.
Keeping data in plaintext is free. There is no subscription fee for the service or app. You can use your favorite text editor or you can buy one if you want something extra, but it’s optional.
Plaintext gives you more control and more possibilities
Because data is under your control, you are not obliged to store each piece of information on the vendor’s infrastructure. You may keep everything locally or use more privacy-focused solutions that use end-to-end encryption. You can still store your notes in the cloud (self-hosted solutions have lots of hidden costs), but it’s only your choice.
By storing data in files, you’re not limited by the one app. You can use any other tools to develop the functionality you need. For instance, if you would like you to track the changes in your notes, you can use git with launchd (or cron), to automate this process.
I talked only about encryption and versioning, but there are more possibilities. I mentioned what I use because for now, they’re only things I need.
Should it be just plaintext?
The plaintext is more like philosophy. It’s a way for organizing information and knowledge without worrying about privacy, price and compatibility.
To make this system useful, you need to dive into it. Notes will be eventually a dump of your brain that you can trust. But to make this happen, you have to make your notes a part of your life. It’s much easier if you have a private space for that, without distracting, collaborative features.
But sometimes plaintext is not enough. And that’s fine! Of course, it’s much easier to store some kind of information as images or spreadsheets instead of trying to fit each piece of information into the text form. But it’s important to remember that you have that piece of information somewhere.
A lot of things still need further explication. How to start? How to organize files? One directory or many? How to name the note? How to organize them efficiently? I’ll touch these topics in the next articles, but for now, I’m going to leave two useful resources:
If you don’t take notes but you want to start, I recommend you to think big, but start small. Start with creating a daily journal or work log. Make yourself comfortable with taking notes. Don’t try to develop your perfect note-taking system, because, on this step, you don’t even know what you need. Make yourself comfortable with taking notes first, and go to the next level if you’re ready. And don’t forget about your why – your future self may thank you someday.