Note Taking

Published 2016-08-28

In college, I was a pretty good note taker. I found that my study sessions were generally just quick reviews of the notes I'd taken. I'd largely committed the information to memory by the act of listening to the prof and then writing the information down. I had a pretty good memory, too, so I'd always viewed note taking as something helpful, but not entirely necessary, for learning.

As I've progressed in my professional career, the number and variety of things I need to remember has grown tremendously. I haven't been keeping regular notes from conversations, meetings or incidents; instead relying on my memory. The combination of age, professional demands, and home life are making it harder and harder for me to keep everything in my head.

Years ago I saw a tweet praising NValt as the best way to take and track notes. I downloaded it and started using it casually. It didn't come naturally to me, so I didn't write very many notes. Eventually I stopped using it, but never bothered to delete it.

My recent organization efforts have me revisiting my note taking strategy (or lack thereof!). Playing again with NValt suggests that it will be a good tool. It's a low-friction way to record and find notes. I can pair the plaintext context and project labels from my todo.txt usage, easily marking notes @work or @home.

The most likely -- and important -- time to take notes is usually during a meeting. I've been making a conscious effort to not take my laptop with me to meetings because I want to minimize distractions and reduce the urge to multitask. I do take my phone with me into meetings, though, so it seems like a decent option for note taking.

NValt doesn't have a mobile version. There is Notational Acceleration, which is a mobile version of the original Notational Velocity from which NValt was derived. All three products can sync notes with other devices through Simplenote, but this is a depressingly closed-source solution from Automattic, and therefore a non-starter for me. Notational Acceleration doesn't store its data in a place that I can easily access without rooting my phone, so that makes synchronizing notes between phone and laptop harder.

Since NValt notes are just plaintext files on my laptop, I can use any plaintext editor on my phone if I can just get the notes onto my phone. Syncthing to the rescue again! I've spent a little time trying out different options. iA Writer is nice, but I had trouble opening files from directories other than ones it wants to use by default.

Monospace is what I've landed on for now. It's an extremely simple app, with almost no features. This is perfect for me, because all I want is an app to edit text files. It loads a directory of notes, and displays their titles by default. Since NValt note titles are meaningful (@home Write blog post about +monospace), I get a similar user interface to NValt. I don't currently have a huge collection of notes, so I can manually scan the list for the things I need to read or edit. Creating a new note is simple with Monospace.

Monospace isn't without faults, of course. I paid for the in-app upgrade, and while my credit card was charged the app doesn't seem to recognize the transaction. Monospace does not ignore traditionally hidden filenames, so all the dot files in my notes directory show up. Worse, all the dot files show up as title-less notes! This is a super minor nuisance, but one I'd love to see fixed.

I may well ditch Monospace for another plaintext editor in the future. That's one of the reasons why I value plaintext data so much: I have much more flexibility in selecting the tools I want. Suggestions are of course welcome! Email me if there's one you really like.


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