Keeping notes in unformatted text files

For years I have been looking for the best way to keep organized notes on my computer(s). I tried a lot of different approaches, from web based tools to emacs org mode and desktop wiki.

Now I think I can say that I found the best way (for my personal case) to do it: I keep all my notes as unformatted text files, in a single flat directory.

Here is how it works: I have a directory Notes in my computer home folder. Every time I need to take a note I put it in a text file named <TOPIC>.txt inside this folder. Even though I usually use something that looks like markdown, I do not care about the format of the file, just plain unformatted text.

So why does this method sticks when all the other failed? Let see.

1 Web based wiki

This was my first approach: I was keeping all my notes in a personal private wiki. One advantage is that I could store images. The big problem was that it was too slow to open the wiki every time I need to make a small change to a note (pretty much all the time).

2 org mode

After I stopped using a wiki, I turned to org mode. I have to say that org mode is actually quite good, and in fact very close to my current approach. I had two problems with org mode: the first is that I spent too much time making sure my org mode files were correctly formatted, and the second is that I stopped using emacs (originally to help with carpal tunnel syndrome).

3 zim (or other desktop wikis)

Zim seemed like a good choice for a while, because I could still edit my notes with any text editor, but I also had the ability to browse them like a wiki with links and formatting. The problem was that, just like with org mode, I found it too troublesome to maintain the formatting, no matter how simple it was.

Conclusion

I have been keeping my note as unformatted text files for years now, I and really got used to it. The cool thing about it is that since by design I don't use any formatting, I can quickly add to a note without triggering my computer OCD and worrying about it. If for some reason I want to use some structure in a note, I just do it on a need basis.

For example some of my note files have special meaning:

  • tmp.txt is used to keep short term notes, things that I know I won't use after a day or two.
  • todo.txt is just a list of things I have to do.
  • days.txt is a simple diary of my work time. I use a script to automatically parse it for charging my clients.

Since the notes are in plain text, I cannot have links between them, but in practice I find it much easier to use grep to quickly find all the notes with a specific word in it.


If you liked this, you can follow me on twitter: @guillaumecherea