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Colin Devroe

Photographer. Podcaster. Blogger. Reverse Engineer.

Martin McCallion on Text Editors

Martin McCallion:

If you work with plain text, as I prefer to, then you probably try out different text editors from time to time (or, you know, constantly).

For a long time I used plain text files via nvAlt (as McCallion does). I miss plain text files. Then I moved to Simplenote. Then for a short time to Evernote. Then back to Simplenote. And now I’m just using Apple’s Notes.

In between all of those I’ve tried dozens of text editors.

Notes is incredibly useful and while it doesn’t support plain text files it is perfect for nearly every thing I do. For now.

E13: Switching to Windows 10 and the Surface Book, and pre-orders

Danny and I have a Saturday morning conversation about my purchase of the new Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base and switching from macOS to Windows 10.

Links:

Thanks to Danny for the early wakeup.

I edited this MP3 and published this post on Windows 10. Yay!

Download MP3

Saving cognitive load: Notes

In my line of work (mostly programming) it can be incredibly difficult to keep all of the details of what is going on in my brain. In fact, it is impossible.

To save cognitive load I employ a rigorous note taking strategy that frees up my working memory and allows me to focus on singular tasks. And, it also allows me to sleep. By writing down as many details as possible at key moments, where normally one may try to keep details in their brain, I can allow my brain to “forget” certain details and rely on my note taking strategy.

Longtime readers of my blog recognize this topic. I’ve written about it several times. I’ve written things like “writing is how I think” and that at the end of each day it is good to jot down what were you working on so that you can pick up where you left off in the morning a little easier.

Recently, though, after discussing my workflow with a few people I’ve realized it might be worth doing a short series of posts on my techniques for this. This post is about note taking. The next will be about where I put tasks. So, how do I do this?

My workflow is far from perfect. In fact, I tweak it constantly. And as I change, or my work changes, or as circumstances change, my workflow does as well. As do the tools. But here is how I’m handling this currently.

I use Simplenote to capture as much information at any given moment as I think I need. I use the apps on all platforms. I create templates in Simplenote for things like client phone calls, stand-up meetings, scratch notes for jotting down random “junk”, and notes for keeping collections that I’d like to refer to over time (some of which are ephemeral, some of which are not).

Confused?

Here is a short list of some of the notes I keep in Simplenote, “pinned” to the top, in perpetuity.

  • Scratch Pad: What I saw this week – This note is used to keep links and bits that I will use in my series of blog posts at the end of each week. Each time I publish a new post I clear this file out and begin anew.
  • Scratch Pad: Work – Random bits of information that have no category and could be deleted as quickly as they were created. Think: passwords a co-worker gives you by yelling it out, a random code snippet you’ll want to use tomorrow, a short note to remind yourself what line of code you were on when you left your desk for lunch. Junk. But junk you don’t have to remember.
  • Scratch Pad: General – Did your friend recommend a book in random conversation over coffee? Jot it down. When is Werner Herzog’s volcano documentary going to be released on Netflix? Jot it here.

These three working notes save me a truckload of working memory. Trying to remember when The Jungle Book will be on Netflix (November 30th 2016, by the way) is a ridiculous thing to leave to your jelly-like mass in your skull. Write it down.

Some of the templates I’ve created over time, which are copy/pasted into brand-new notes each time I need one, are useful to be certain I capture the right information at the right time. Here are a few of those that I have.

  • Template: Client Call – Hopping onto a call with a client? Paste this template into a new note. It ensures you capture who is on the call, what you discussed, and which tasks are assigned to which people afterwards. It is sort of like a “meeting minutes” note.
  • Template: Training Session – Do you find yourself needing to train people on something over and over? (In my world, we train our clients on how to use WordPress a lot). Why try to remember what you’re supposed to teach them? Make a template. Paste it into a new note for each client, and trim or add as necessary for that client. Probably saves me 30 minutes of thinking each time.
  • Template: Prospective hire – If you are in charge of recruiting new individuals onto your team, you will end up “interviewing” a lot of people. Even when you’re not really interviewing (like over a drink or at a conference). After your conversation, quickly jot some notes down about the person and keep it for later when you’re looking to expand your team. You can jot down things like skill set, attitude, aspirations.

My list goes on and on. But yours will be different than mine.

You simply cannot make too many notes. You can always delete them later. So jot down as much as you want. Searching allows you to find things later with ease. So don’t worry too much about classification. As I look through my list of thousands of notes I have things in there that may only prove useful once a year. But they are incredibly useful and I do not need to think about them.

You may wonder if I use a flat text file to keep my tasks straight. I do not. I use other tools for tasks and even other tools for events. We’ll get into those in the next two posts in this series.

Disappearing apps and services

Alexei Baboulevitch (archagon) in a comment on Hacker News:

These indie apps are often marketed as beautiful, wholesome alternatives to grimy corporate or open source software, but how could I possibly rely on these products for essential tasks like note-taking if they’re just going to disappear out from under me in a few years? The idea that software has a lifespan controlled by the developer is, in my opinion, toxic to the market. It’s just one of the many things pulling the App Store down, and one of the many downsides of living in a walled garden.

I have to agree. More and more I’m inclined to use an open (but not necessarily free) alternative for just about any app or service that I rely on.

I wasn’t a Vesper user, but if I was, I’d be scrambling to find an alternative since it is now being shut down. I’m a happy Simplenote user which is free and open and backed by a company that wants to keep things open and running for as long as possible.

Picturelife’s recent closing, which I called in January of 2015, is also a stark reminder that even if we rely heavily on an app or service, and even if we support it with our money and our word-of-mouth, it doesn’t mean that it will stick around.

If you find yourself relying on an app or service that could disappear tomorrow do yourself a favor and seek out alternatives while you still have plenty of time to make the switch. You don’t have to switch, but knowing what alternatives are out there and having a plan can save you a ton of headaches. If I hadn’t switched from Picturelife to iCloud when I did I’d be hurting right now. Bigtime.

I’ll have more on Picturelife’s shutdown in a future post.

The Evernote slide continues

Evernote just announced a price increase. A rare thing to see. Back in November of last year I wrote about Simplenote having a “moment” due to the exodus from Evernote that was seemingly happening. I’d be willing to bet that is about to accelerate. Back then, I wrote:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the people that are leaving Evernote are those who first started using it when it was still simple and mostly text-based. So while there are likely thousands and thousands of people who fit the criteria of just wanting a simple text-based note taking app, it may not put a huge dent in Evernote’s overall numbers. Evernote’s broader user base likely does use the myriad other features it has. But this exodus could help build a smaller competitor into a much larger one.

Based on the traffic that post has gotten this week I’d guess people are Googling for Simplenote.

Simplenote’s moment

The running theme the last few weeks is how many people, including myself, are leaving Evernote behind for either Apple’s Notes or Simplenote.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the people that are leaving Evernote are those who first started using it when it was still simple and mostly text-based. So while there are likely thousands and thousands of people who fit the criteria of just wanting a simple text-based note taking app, it may not put a huge dent in Evernote’s overall numbers. Evernote’s broader user base likely does use the myriad other features it has. But this exodus could help build a smaller competitor into a much larger one.

This is why I think Simplenote is about to have “a moment”. Simplenote is likely pretty popular already, though I doubt they rival Evernote’s numbers. I remember using the service pretty early on as an API to store data to using nvAlt. I loved how great Simplenote’s syncing was. It is still far better than Evernote’s is today. Being purchased by Automattic likely gave it another bump in its user base. But I think they are seeing or will see a fairly big influx of people trying it out over the coming months as people leave Evernote behind.

Also, if Evernote doesn’t IPO and fails to find a home they may run out of runway and fail. If that happens Simplenote is going to have an ever bigger moment. One that could compare to the moment WordPress experience when Six Apart/Typepad/Moveable Type started getting shakey and everyone was looking for an alternative. Thousands found WordPress.

 

What does Simplenote need to do to capture these people? Not too much. There are always going to be features that I wish Simplenote had that Evernote has. It is the nature of software to want more features. However, Simplenote is pretty great as-is and so only some small additions may make it the perfect place for people to land from Evernote.

If I may be so bold as to suggest some Simplenote features that would help them gobble up Evernote users:

 

  • Importing from Evernote – I had to do this manually. It was painful. Evernote does not have a good export tool so I couldn’t save my notes in a format that Simplenote could read. But they do have an API. So even if there was a tool that I needed to use it’d be better than doing it manually. A simple guide for Simplenote to follow: Notebooks become tags, be sure to retain creation dates, optionally include shared notebooks in the import.
  • Font choices in the apps – Right now Simplenote only allows you to change the size of the font. Allow people to choose whichever fonts they have on their devices (including Mac).
  • Duplicate note – I use “templates” that I create to start new text documents. E.g. I have a template for when I hop on a phone call. (I put it on gist) This way I can capture the call easily. In Evernote it was one click to duplicate a note. This is a time and frustration saver.
  • Markdown preview – This isn’t a personal request since I seldom use Markdown. I use something like Markdown for my files but I know so many people that use Evernote’s rich text formatting tools that at least having some way to add formatting may help. It’d be a big feature to add to allow for formatting that outputs Markdown so I think adding a Preview of files based on Markdown may help a lot. Simplenote on the web already has this so adding it to mobile and desktop apps may already be a step they are planning.

Some of these things may already be on the roadmap for the Simplenote team but I think having these would strike a balance between keeping Simplenote simple and also being attractive to Evernote users that are leaving.

One side note that causes me a little fear: Being that Simplenote is now part of Automattic I fear that it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. I have no way of knowing this but as is typical with acquisitions you really never know where the service will end up. Is the Simplenote team’s time being used on services that are more important (financially) to Automattic (like WordPress VIP)? Or, is there no internal drive to continuously make Simplenote better because it has already “landed” at its home and has less to prove? I don’t know. Two good signs, however, are that they’ve made some key updates to the service and the apps at least 3 times this year according to their blog, and their Twitter account is responding to mentions. I don’t want Simplenote to change too much so I shouldn’t expect too many software updates. I just want it to continue working really, really well.

I’m optimistic that Simplenote is the right choice for me.

Update: Some have asked “why not Apple Notes?” For me it is about being cross platform. I’m an all Apple guy today but that could change. I’ve been keeping a close eye on Surface and Lumia lately. So, who knows? I’d rather have my notes somewhere I can jump from platform to platform and while Apple does have a web interface Simplenote has apps on all platforms.