Getting more done with less — plain text notes and inside out todo lists
If you work in tech, you’re probably familiar with plain text, but for the uninitiated, plain text is just that, plain. There’s no formatting of margins, fonts, bold, italic, etc., it’s just saved as text. You can read it and edit it almost anywhere on any device. I can geek out about plain text all day, but honestly the best thing about working in plain text is not having to lift your fingers from the keyboard while you work. There’s nothing like it for staying in a flow state, or taking notes while your in a meeting. If you’re a productivity nerd/hacker then you should try plain text.
My favorite way to capture plain text notes is Atom editor by GitHub, but you can use any text editor. The important thing is making capture as smooth as possible. If you’re like me you might like a little formatting later. That’s why I use Markdown. It’s just easy. I won’t bore you with the details here, just google markdown… after you’re done reading this.
So here’s the thing. I love using plain text for just about everything, but what about managing tasks and todo lists? You have to jump into a different tool right? Wrong. That’s where my workflow takes an interesting turn. I use plain text for task tracking while I’m in my notes and my fingers don’t even have to leave the keyboard! I call it an “inside out todo list”. It’s nothing new. Programmers have been doing this for decades. We just call them TODO comments.
Scratching an Itch
I started using the note taking part of this flow while serving as Chief Architect and Internet Dev Manager at Lands’ End. I had at least a half dozen projects and 15–20 developers to manage. Before imdone I had a notebook for projects and a notebook for developers. At meetings, I’d take my notes, then star or circle different sections and write reminders in the margins. Now that I could easily pick out the tasks, I’d transfer them to something like remember the milk. This process took at least 30 minutes every day and there was no hard link back to my notes and I’d have to flip through my notebooks to find context. So this is when I decided to build LeanNotes. The precursor to imdone.
So now I’m bootstrapping a SaaS company with some help from my friends at Farwell. There’s quite a bit to keep track of, but like most bootstrapped startups we can’t afford to spend a lot of time managing to-do lists, but there’s no getting around using a to-do list when you’re starting up. Luckily, that’s our thing. We’ve built an app and service called imdone that let’s you manage all your to-dos right in the plain text files you’re already using for notes and work (code, writing, etc.). imdone listens for changes to files in a directory you choose and parses out your to-dos. Here’s a markdown file in imdone-core, an open source project I maintain on github.
As you can see, it’s easy to read with a syntax that’s easy to learn and use. The tasks start with
#TODO:or any list name you choose. Now, let’s take a look at my imdone-atom board. In case your wondering, imdone-atom is a TODO tracking kanban board package for github’s atom editor.
It contains all the TODOs in my project and they’re organized for me to start tracking. Now this is great for me, but what about the rest of my team? How do they know what we’re working on?
After you add the project, imdone creates a webhook that runs every time you push and immediately clones your project and creates github issues for each of your TODOs.
Now the rest of the team can see what’s getting done and I can still update the issues from my code. How’s that for simplicity?