# Organising Life in Plain Text

Since I've started to use The Archive I've become a massive plain text fan.

I currently use Things 3 to organise my ToDo's and Projects.

Wondering if anyone uses plain text to do this?

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• Yes, big fan of https://www.taskpaper.com/

• Yes: Emacs org-mode

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• See also this discussion for a comparison of both. Main advantage of TaskPaper: nice user-interface, accessible. Big advantage of org-mode: iOS client.

• I also use TaskPaper (though I confess that I veer about between solutions and find it difficult to settle on one). There is an iOS client for TaskPaper called Taskmator which I also use.

• Thanks for the suggestions!

The more I think about it, the more I think that The Archive could actually be great for organising tasks/projects/life, especially with a tag cloud.

Each task could be a seperate text file, with any extra info added as the content of the file, and tasks could easily be organised into projects using tags.

• Reading this reminded me about Todotxt. It was a spec with many implementations, which, in theory, would allow cross platform, or no platform implementation. I just looked and the e-mail group I had subscribed to seems to have stopped sending me messages in 2017.

I never actually tried to use any of the implementations, but I liked the idea and enjoyed following the discussion for several years.

• edited December 2020

While I don't use plain text for to-do lists (I use an analogue system, so it's still very future-proof), my adoption of Markdown and plaintext did cause other changes:

1. For the most part, I now use .csv files for the spreadsheets required for my field. While this has annoyed some colleagues, it has made porting data between softwares a breeze.
2. Learning plaintext tools spurred me to learn LaTeX over the last six months. I now no longer use a word processor except to open documents sent to me. Everything I produce is Markdown or LaTeX. Much like when writing in The Archive, this has really caused my output of writing to blossom.
3. I now also use Monodraw for many of my simple diagrams, which uses ASCII characters but can export to other formats. (Shoutout to @Splattack for sharing).

Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

• Org mode is indeed the most robust format for plain text planning. And it is increasingly becoming more mobile friendly.

• @ctietze said:
Yes: Emacs org-mode

@s41f said:
Org mode is indeed the most robust format for plain text planning. And it is increasingly becoming more mobile friendly.

Looks like I may have to dive in and try figure out Org mode...

I've spent an ironic amount of time over the last day looking at different organisation/to-do apps. Doing so has made me realise just how much I like the design of The Archive. It seems like SO many other apps are over-designed while also being unintuitive, clunky and limiting. The simplicity, power, and functionality of The Archive is such a refreshing contrast.

• @Jon said:
Looks like I may have to dive in and try figure out Org mode...

I've spent an ironic amount of time over the last day looking at different organisation/to-do apps. Doing so has made me realise just how much I like the design of The Archive. It seems like SO many other apps are over-designed while also being unintuitive, clunky and limiting. The simplicity, power, and functionality of The Archive is such a refreshing contrast.

Let me know how it goes with org-mode. I’ve tried to get going with it a few times, but always given up after about 1-2h of trying to understand how it all works and returned to TaskPaper because it seemed far more intuitive and less cluttered. I would say about TaskPaper exactly what you said above about The Archive – the only problem I have with it is the missing iOS client (Taskmator doesn’t work for me, partly because it doesn’t support the same Saved Searches). I’m using a workaround with Drafts 5 at the moment – but there’s definitely room for improvement.

• @Vinho I'd take 2--4 hours daily for a week or two. That is more appropriate for Emacs/org.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
@Vinho I'd take 2--4 hours daily for a week or two. That is more appropriate for Emacs/org.

Which makes me wonder more and more whether it's actually worth it... What is your current practice re TaskPaper vs org-mode after your recent review?

• A friend asked me for help trying out Emacs the other day. If you do everything with the mouse, Emacs is difficult. If you rely on some shortcuts shared by all applications on your system, Emacs is doubly confusing because not even cut/copy/paste will behave as expected. So nobody wins

I'm asking around and collect starter packs and resources to make pressing keys in Emacs less asinine. Will post them in a new discussion for y'all to try out once I have something useful.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• @Vinho said:

@sfast said:
@Vinho I'd take 2--4 hours daily for a week or two. That is more appropriate for Emacs/org.

Which makes me wonder more and more whether it's actually worth it... What is your current practice re TaskPaper vs org-mode after your recent review?

Still with org-mode. It is way more powerful.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
Still with org-mode. It is way more powerful.

Hm, okay. Would be really interested in what you consider to be the main features in org-mode that are useful for task management and that TaskPaper lacks.

• @Vinho said:
Let me know how it goes with org-mode. I’ve tried to get going with it a few times, but always given up after about 1-2h of trying to understand how it all works

I just spent 1-2 hours trying to understand how it all works but then also gave up!

I was playing around with the idea of just using one big text file to organise everything (using the app Folding Text, or just creating an index and having blank space between projects), and it's quite appealing.

But I've decided to trial using folders and multiple text files instead. The benefit I can see to this approach is that individual projects can each have their own text file, and if necessary this file can be shared/collaborated on with others.

Interestingly the approach I'm trying could be implemented in The Archive (with tags instead of folders). But thinking about it more, it seems like a nice idea to have the mundane project management/organisation/admin side of life kept seperate from the Zettelkasten.

• edited December 2020

@Jon said:
I was playing around with the idea of just using one big text file to organise everything (using the app Folding Text, or just creating an index and having blank space between projects), and it's quite appealing.

I do exactly that with TaskPaper and it works very well. Tags and powerful Saved Searches allow me to do more than I could with OmniFocus, Things, Todoist or one of the other popular solutions. It's really great (apart from the iOS issues)! Even allows drag & drop of list items and text folding, which you rarely see in plain text editors.

But I've decided to trial using folders and multiple text files instead. The benefit I can see to this approach is that individual projects can each have their own text file, and if necessary this file can be shared/collaborated on with others.

A suggestion: You could have one main text file that serves to give you an overview over all ongoing tasks and projects. Projects can be managed entirely in there if they don't need to be shared. For shared projects, you can create separate text files that you link to from your meta-file.

But thinking about it more, it seems like a nice idea to have the mundane project management/organisation/admin side of life kept seperate from the Zettelkasten.

I agree.

• @Vinho said:

@sfast said:
Still with org-mode. It is way more powerful.

Hm, okay. Would be really interested in what you consider to be the main features in org-mode that are useful for task management and that TaskPaper lacks.

The main feature to me is the org-agenda. Someday in the future, I will even costumise it.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
The main feature to me is the org-agenda. Someday in the future, I will even costumise it.

I see. What would be nice is if I could write tasks onto my zettelkasten notes where they often come up (in addition to the other ones collected in my main task file). Is org-agenda able to "scan" all these files and create a meta-view with all of my tasks in which I am still able to edit them, drag them into a certain order etc. – even if they come from different files?

• @Vinho Hmm in theory, yes! You'd have to set the variable org-agenda-files so that the Agenda scans all files in building the agenda. I bet there's some solution to scan "in the background" and cache the result, because scanning all files from disk every time you want to look at the agenda will probably take forever.

I'm not sure if down the road the approach to leave tasks in your notes will do more harm than good -- but if you pick up the convention to leave comments with the TODO keyword around, there's plenty of tools that can show you tasks. It's very common among programmers, so you'll have a multitude of tools on the web.

Example TODOs:

<!-- TODO figure out how to write this in iambic pentameter -->
<!-- FIXME the reference is missing-->


Searching for this from the command line, for example (using ag which has nicer output):

$ag "TODO|FIXME" 202011020957 Stir Espresso for even taste distribution and richer flavor #coffee #barista.txt 6:<!-- TODO figure out how to write this in iambic pentameter --> 202010280809 Extend symbol web fonts with custom glyphs #css #svg #web #font.txt 10:<!-- FIXME the reference is missing-->  or egrep: $ egrep -rn "TODO|FIXME" *.txt
202010280809 Extend symbol web fonts with custom glyphs #css #svg #web #font.txt:10:<!-- FIXME the reference is missing-->
202011020957 Stir Espresso for even taste distribution and richer flavor #coffee #barista.txt:6:<!-- TODO figure out how to write this in iambic pentameter -->


Write the result to a todo.txt and you've got a basic task overview. Surround the Ids from filenames with [[...]] and you have links to go to the task. Automate this for every 5min and you have a very basic open-loop-collector in your Zettelkasten.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• The answer to any question that goes like "Can emacs..." is yes. (I don't know how of course)

I am a Zettler

• @ctietze:
Thanks for that! But I guess if I create this todo.txt file and reorder items within it, this new order would be lost every time the file is updated via the automated loop? That would make the feature unusable for me, because reordering tasks (and keeping them in that order) is central for how I prioritise tasks...

• @dgarner said:

todotxt was my gateway drug to plaintext task management as well as the command line. Works awesome in a bash shell. Used to be a lovely, simple iOS/Android app by the original developer but it got deprecated some years ago though.

@sfast said:
The main feature to me is the org-agenda. Someday in the future, I will even costumise it.

You've probably heard of this but here's org-super-agenda. It took some time but when I got it working it's pretty cool.

@ctietze said:
A friend asked me for help trying out Emacs the other day. If you do everything with the mouse, Emacs is difficult. If you rely on some shortcuts shared by all applications on your system, Emacs is doubly confusing because not even cut/copy/paste will behave as expected. So nobody wins

I'm asking around and collect starter packs and resources to make pressing keys in Emacs less asinine. Will post them in a new discussion for y'all to try out once I have something useful.

The turning point for me came with doom emacs. Can't say it was super easy in the beginning but once I memorized maybe a couple dozen vim shortcuts and experienced modal editing to outline, draft, and rewrite large blocks of screenplay and prose text, there truly was no going back. The space between thought and expression (almost) dissolves when in state of relaxed concentration.

All that said... after getting dialed in with org-mode and beorg, I returned to Things 3 because in reality, my task management needs aren't all that complex. And gosh darn is it pretty.

• @kohled said:

All that said... after getting dialed in with org-mode and beorg, I returned to Things 3 because in reality, my task management needs aren't all that complex. And gosh darn is it pretty.

😄 That ending of your post came unexpected!

• @Vinho said:
😄 That ending of your post came unexpected!

The surprise twist!

@ctietze said:
Write the result to a todo.txt and you've got a basic task overview. Surround the Ids from filenames with [[...]] and you have links to go to the task. Automate this for every 5min and you have a very basic open-loop-collector in your Zettelkasten.
@Vinho said:
Thanks for that! But I guess if I create this todo.txt file and reorder items within it, this new order would be lost every time the file is updated via the automated loop? That would make the feature unusable for me, because reordering tasks (and keeping them in that order) is central for how I prioritise tasks...

Been chewing on this and I think it could be kind of awesome when combined with todotxt cli tools. The basic concept is that the todo.txt file is an unsorted pile. Then use todotxt cli to apply metadata such as [A] priorities and +projects etc. Then sort in terminal and work down the list. Archive completed tasks to a done.txt file.

As I'm not a programmer, learning to write an automated open-loop-collector for the zettelkasten will take me some time, but I think it'll be a fun project.

Links for the curious:
todo.txt CLI demo - I love that the video is 12 years old.
todo.txt format rules

• @kohled
I wasn't aware of todo.txt. But as far as I can see, I couldn't make @ctietze's idea work for me even with that. Would editing a task in the compiled todo.txt file change the task where it was originally created? If not, changes would be overwritten again at the next update. Also sorting through drag & drop is often easier than having to assign a priority from a given range to a task.
I think I'll stay with TaskPaper for now.
Did you ever try TaskPaper? Would have been a more obvious choice after org-mode and beorg than Things 3 – unless iOS support is crucial for you...

• @Vinho said:
Did you ever try TaskPaper? Would have been a more obvious choice after org-mode and beorg than Things 3 – unless iOS support is crucial for you...

TaskPaper is awesome. If the developer ever revisited an iOS app, I'd switch back. For a long time, I kept a taskpaper file for each writing project. Keeping writing specific actions like "Figure out why the dramatic tension flags in the final sequence" alongside regular tasks like "Bring in firewood" did my head in.

I don't think I'm articulating the usage of todo.txt cli tools to exact @ctietze's idea very well. Also, I may not have an accurate understanding of the idea.

Here's an attempt to clarify the concept through mock todo.txt screenshots.

todo.txt file with no metadata - e.g. priorities (A, B, C, etc), projects (+project), or contexts (@context)

todo.txt listed in terminal using t ls

todo.txt listed in terminal after adding priorities using t pri [line number] [A-C]

todo.txt file itself after priorites added using cli tools

@Vinho said:
Would editing a task in the compiled todo.txt file change the task where it was originally created?

The actual order of the todo.txt file doesn't matter. A task remains associated with its original line number until it's archived to a done.txt file. The power comes from filtering using priorities, projects, contexts, etc. And the todo.txt cli filtering mojo is pretty robust. Does that make sense?

• @ctietze said:
@Vinho Hmm in theory, yes! You'd have to set the variable org-agenda-files` so that the Agenda scans all files in building the agenda. I bet there's some solution to scan "in the background" and cache the result, because scanning all files from disk every time you want to look at the agenda will probably take forever.

I've continued to research ways to achieve this. For anyone else inclined to experiment with emacs and elisp, d12frosted lays out an elegant, well-explained solution in this post: Task management with org-roam Vol. 5: Dynamic and fast agenda

• edited January 21

@Jon Try NotePlan 3 by @EduardMe. It’s a Markdown task manager that syncs across Mac and IOS and calendar. Saves everything as text files. Works great if you like Bullet Journalling, GTD, and taking smart notes!

• @WoodruffCoates said:
@Jon Try NotePlan 3 by @EduardMe. It’s a Markdown task manager that syncs across Mac and IOS and calendar. Saves everything as text files. Works great if you like Bullet Journalling, GTD, and taking smart notes!

Looks neat. Is it "compatible" with ZK or should both be stored in separate folders? Meaning: would it make sense to have ZK and task files in the same folder? I would imagine this approach could mess up the structure but I guess it also could be convenient to be able to link to Zettels from within your task management system and vice versa.

Would it go too far to ask you about your approach (short version)?