Notational Velocity and Simplenote: In which Catherine schools you on notetaking

Posted by & filed under Catherine, Usability.

After Monday’s “I wasn’t tweeting, so there!” recap of FreelanceCamp Vancouver, a few people asked about my much-touted notetaking technique. I’ve been wanting to write up a good explanation of this for some time, so this is a particularly good opportunity.

I’ve known from a very early age that I tend towards clutter and disorganization. It’s difficult for me–for all of us, I suspect–to handle the ever-increasing number of tasks, appointments and numbers we’re bombarded with on a daily basis.

Seriously, handling the glut of data we’re faced with is fast becoming a major problem for our society. We build software to do it. We buy specialized calendars and schedules to fit in all we need to know–and then resort to tying string around a finger to remind ourselves to check them later. We even write lifestyle manuals describing the methods we use to just buckle down and actually do work. The productivity industry is one of the fastest-growing, and one of the few I suspect can really take off during this Great Recession. After all, if everyone’s a consultant in this brave new future of ours, we’re certainly not going to be dealing with less information than we have before now!

So how do I handle it?

I won’t lie:

mine is not a perfect system. However, it’s certainly better than trying to remember everything myself.

I use a variety of software and practices to help keep myself organized. Google Calendar and iCal handle my schedule. Bug tracking is handled by Mantis and Unfuddle. My projects and documents are all securely backed up online via DropBox, I have an extensive collection of mail filters and folders to help keep me at inbox zero, I read almost all my regular blogs via RSS. I synchronize all of the above with my iPhone, keeping all my data accessible to me when away from my computer.

However, for the past couple of years, the tool that’s helped me more than any of those–yes, even more than my calendar–is text files. Really. While there exist literally hundreds of options for keeping track of notes, tasks, links and even pictures, I kept coming back to Mac OS X’s default text editor, TextEdit, for my notetaking needs. After all, I need a system that adapts to my needs, and nothing will ever be as flexible or customizable as plaintext.

About five years go, there was a lot of discussion in the Getting Things Done and productivity communities around the “One Big Text File” organizational method. The idea behind this is to keep a single text document into which you drop everything you’re working on: snippets of code, ideas for blog posts, meeting notes, reminders–all of which can be searched.

I tried One Big Text File for a time, ultimately, like even most of its advocates, abandoning it in favour of many smaller files, organized by project or category. After all, thanks to Mac OS X’s indexed search feature, Spotlight, Command-Space lets me search the contents of files from any program.

Pretty slick, right? Well, almost. The downside to TextEdit + Spotlight is that notes tend to get scattered around my hard drive (usually in respective project folders, but still!) and that the few that I use as “working” to-do and notes documents end up being sad, “almost-there” parodies of “One Big Text File” cluttering up my desktop.

Notational Velocity application iconEnter Notational Velocity! This delightfully-named program has totally replaced my old TextEdit and Spotlight routine, instead replacing many files and separate windows with a single, omnipresent application.

Notational Velocity Window The Notational Velocity window is one of the simplest interfaces around. It’s a search bar, a list of files and an editing pane. There’s no “Save”, no “File”, no “Close”. Notational Velocity handles that part for you. All note files in the Notational Velocity folder are opened and displayed in a list. To find a file, start typing in the search bar. The results will quickly be narrowed down as you go. To create a new note, type its name in the search bar and hit Enter. Voilà!

Personally, I start typing nearly everything in Notational Velocity–even this blog post. It’s simpler for me to draw upon the notes and point form ideas I’ve come up with previously than it is to write a post or an article in a separate editor.1

When taking notes or starting a project, I tend to follow a standard outline method, jotting down things in point form, organizing my outline with a single thought per line.

I start with a premise: say, reorganizing my cluttered desk. I then break the overarching task down into sub-tasks:

  1. Move papers and junk off desk.
  2. Move monitors around.
  3. File papers.

I then break “File papers” down into sub-tasks. A lot of these aren’t just receipts, they’re business cards and things! I write “todo: research: business card scanners”, then pause as I realize something that’d be rather spiffy. Under it, on a new line, I write “a) For iPhone.” Later, I’ll search Notational Velocity for “todo” or “research”, finding these tasks and striking them from their respective notes.

Ultimately, the note titled “Project: Clean Desk” will be deleted, as its tasks are completed and related ideas moved to notes like “Idea: Business card scanner for iPhone”. On the way there, I might break it down into multiple cards, involving filing or doing research on buying a new monitor, but ultimately, the goal for this particular note is for its tasks to all be completed. When they are, there’s no sense in keeping it around.

I find this method to be the most effective for managing my data and thoughts. When an idea occurs to me, it allows me to quickly and easily jot it down, later referencing it or moving it to its own separate note.

By breaking up discrete ideas or pieces of information as needed, I can keep notes short and easily skimmable,

avoiding the problems I constantly faced with the One Big Text File system.

For a real-world example,2 consider this post. Yes, the one you’re reading right now! The initial task, reviewing a single program, has grown into four separate blog posts as well as some notes on usability, criticisms of Notational Velocity itself, and–for some reason–the makings of a mini-rant about the Singularity. If you tend to follow a similar workflow and process, perhaps now a little puzzled by the implication that anyone could arrive somewhere else, Notational Velocity just may be what you’re looking for.

So how is Notational Velocity better than or superior to TextEdit + Spotlight?

It’s a much simpler application, and your recently-edited notes are visible at all times. You don’t have to worry about saving files, or opening one after a reboot only to be forced to find your spot again. Without taking my hands off the keyboard, I can search notes, create new ones, and quickly find the information I’m looking for.

Editing a file in Simplenote

However, where Notational Velocity really shines is synchronization. Every five minutes, Notational Velocity uploads and downloads changes with Simplenote, a web service with very similar functionality. Simplenote, in turn, rocks because it has a slick iPhone app that also connects to their service. Its functionality is very similar to that of Notational Velocity.

Notational Velocity + Simplenote are currently the two most useful applications I use. Between Notational Velocity on my Mac and Simplenote on my iPhone, I actually don’t use the Simplenote website at all, though it’s nice to remind myself that it exists.

Using Windows? You may have noticed my described workflow is pretty specific to Apple devices. It sure is. Fortunately, while Notational Velocity’s Mac-only, the Notes app for Windows looks quite similar. Caveats: Simplenote support has been announced for Notes, though it’s not yet available. I’m not sure if Notes can run without its own database, storing notes as discrete files as Notational Velocity does. This latter feature in Notational Velocity can be handy for editing files with other programs.

In conclusion, the system I’ve outlined here is most definitely not for everyone. I can think of any number of ways I’d improve Notational Velocity and Simplenote to better fit my needs, but that’s another post. However, it’s definitely the best system for keeping notes I’ve found so far. Have you used a better one? Leave me a comment!

Download Simplenote for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Download Notational Velocity for Mac OS X.

Update, June 13, 2010:
Using Windows? You might want to try ResophNotes, currently in beta. (License: proprietary; Cost: free.)

  1. Email tends to be an exception: those get composed in a single sitting in my email client. []
  2. My desk is in pristine condition at all times. Obviously. []

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