Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Simple Beauty Of A .TXT

By Matt:

Ever since I started hacking corporate life I've been trying to figure out what I should do with all of the notes that I take. From meeting notes to conference call notes to personal brainstorming sessions... I've got notes everywhere.

I think I've finally hit upon the solution, and it wasn't near as complicated as I thought it would be:

Reviving Plain Text: The Power Of A .TXT
One of the most basic programs that come standard on any computer is a plain-text editor. On Windows systems this would be Notepad, and on Macs TextEdit. These simple, no-frills programs capture plain unformatted text and allow you to save it as a Text file (or .TXT).

I've recently started logging all of my notes - whether entered directly, or transferred from my Moleskine journal - into Text files. Here's why:
  • Text editors have a minimal impact on your computer's RAM so they open quickly and run fast
  • The text is plain so time isn't spent "beautifying" your notes - bolding, underlining, making pretty tables with colors, etc.
  • The files are extremely small and easy to move, upload, and share cross-platform

Where To Store
It's important to keep all of your Text files in one central location. I've created a folder called 'Text Files', creative I know, and have placed a shortcut to the folder on my desktop so I can get to it in one easy click. Ultimately it doesn't matter where they are stored, as long as they're together and easy to get to.

I also maintain a subfolder called 'Archive' and periodically move outdated and unused files here to keep down on clutter.

How To Name The Files
File naming is critically important to maintaining your family of Text files, and there are several elements that go into each of my file names:
Uber Marker | Project | Filename | Date .txt
  • Uber Marker: Is a general differentiator that denotes what the category of the file is. I use three categories - Notes, Lists, or Reference
  • Project: The project level component defines what the broad subject of the document is - this could be an account name or the name of the person I met with
  • Unique Filename: This is the most specific part of the name which drills down to the specific topic of the document
  • Date: My date format is yyyymmdd, so April 9th, '08 would be represented as 20080409
My Uber Markers -
  • # - Notes: Notes from meetings and phone calls. I use the "number" symbol because 'number' starts with "N" and so does 'notes'.
  • @ - Reference: Reference documents are long-term files containing information that is relevant in my day to day job on an ongoing basis.
  • ! - Lists: These are quick simple documents that contain exactly what the name suggests... lists on everything from to-do items to groceries, and marketing concepts to ideas for pranks to pull on co-workers. An exclamation mark looks like a lowercase "L", and 'list' starts with "L".
Example File Name -
So based on these guidelines, an example filename for a document of notes from a conference call w/ an account called "Stinson", regarding the launch of a product called "Widget 35X" would be...
# Stinson Widget 35X 20080410.txt

File Tagging
A final identification practice I do is "tagging", and this happens within the document, usually after I have transcribed my notes. On the first line of the document I enter in several keywords that I would associate with this particular file - things that would come to mind when trying to search for the document, but may or may not have been explicitly use in the notes themselves. This aids in searching for the files later, for example:
TAGS: Stinson, Widget 35X, Widget Launch, Spring Promotion Plan

Recall: Searching For Your Text Files

Being able to call up your notes quickly, on the fly, without hesitation is key to this entire process. PCs and Macs both have built in search functions, but I find these somewhat clunky and slow. Ultimately everyone has their own search preferences, but the key to my searching success is Google Desktop.

Google Desktop brings the power of Google's search engine capabilities to your hard-drive and networked drives. It is a powerful, and in my opinion, unmatched resource.

I do not use the Google Desktop Gadget - these eats up computer RAM. Rather, I use the keyboard shortcut - pressing 'CTRL' twice - to bring up the search dialog. If I am searching for a notes document, I simply type in a combination of keywords, and immediately the file I am looking for appears:
EXAMPLE SEARCH: .txt # stinson spring promotion
Two final notes on Google Desktop, and a matter of personal preference:
  1. I set my default search option to 'Search Desktop' as oppossed to 'Search Web' - with Google Desktop I'm primarily concerned with finding things on my hard-drive and not on the internet
  2. I also tell Google Desktop to index everything except Web History... again, I don't want to pull up my browsing history in my search results

Tying It All Together
Proper note taking, integrated with your ability to manage your to-do list and maximizing personal productivity are core components of GTD. Admittedly, the note-taking aspect of GTD has taken the longest for me to perfect, and due credit needs to go to Merlin Mann at 43 Folders for his insight on the process. My tips written out here are a modified form of his TXT Setup.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on this subject: How do you catalog and store the notes you have taken? What program do you use to search for notes you've stored on your computer? Do you even look at notes after a meeting... or are they just a time killing process for you?


Michael Henreckson said...

I use text files quite a bit myself, but I still haven't worked up a perfect system for taking and keeping track of all those little notes I need.

Matt @ Corporate Hack said...

@ Michael - Will you let us know if you use any of the tips offered here, and if they're successful for you? Would love to hear feedback.