Plain Text Journaling System

I have become quite the plain-text aficionado these days. I am working on some long-form posts and pages detailing the plain-text journaling system* I have built over the years, but in the meantime here is a master reference for the basics and a place to collate all my core posts on this topic.

*By “system”, I mean the set of apps I use, file-naming rules, text document content formatting, folder organization and such. 

Why Plain Text?

Simple: plain text works everywhere, all the time, and will likely do so well into the future. It will not require an upgrade, a subscription, an app, an account, a purchase.

I got tired of having my content trapped in writing software or services that I had to buy upgrades for, or never worked the way I wanted them to. I also got tired of these apps just becoming information junk drawers. It was too easy to dump anything into them, that I never really went back to use much of it.

I also realized I was consistently journaling every day, but never really reading any of the entries. My plain text journaling system has solved that.

I find that the plain text system limitations actually force me to be more particular about what I write, how I write it, and how it’s stored and organized. And I am able to set it all up the way I want it to work, for my habits (good and bad).

That results in more worthwhile content being saved, and a more conscious and aggressive cultivation of what’s included.

Links

Until I write my own plain-text primer/manifesto, these will help you get familiar with why you’d use plain-text notes for journaling. This list includes articles on Markdown, which trust me you will eventually need/want to learn to use plain-text files most effectively.

My Plain Text System

My system is primarily a gigantic mnemonic device. I use it to keep my past in context.

My plain text system is comprised of four main text documents, all stored in one folder which resides on Dropbox:

The daily log file is where I capture what I did during the day. Often includes many mundane activities.

The one-entry-per-day journal is a single text file where I capture in as brief a sentence as possible the most significant thing(s) that happened that day.

The weekly agenda is a mini calendar/planner of sorts. It lets me see the entire year at once, even on a small smartphone screen. It is both planning on a big-picture scale, and then once events have passed, a personal history contextualizing device.

The monthly recap* is another personal history contextualizing device. I use it to capture significant personal history, organized by month. Typically, the content of each monthly recap is pulled from the more significant events recorded in the one-page journal.

(*I also refer to this as the “yearly recap”, but after using this for over a year I think “monthly” is a more accurate name)

In addition to these core text files, I have collections of lists which include things like: books to read, things to buy, links to check out, videos to watch. One document per topic (books, articles, movies, etc).

And then text files containing reference info on: my car, my bike, my travel plans, food/nutrition/recipes, measurements/conversions, and so on. Again, one document per topic.

Finally, log files for books I’ve read, articles I’ve read, bills I’ve paid, and the like. Same: one document per topic.

Oh, and I also have a todo file and an inbox file. Those are pretty important.

Apps

I’ll get into how I use these apps in specific posts, but briefly:

Drafts is my main tool for capturing content via iOS, 1Writer is for editing/viewing the text files that contain that captured and processed content. Workflow is also handy for capturing web content within iOS, and like Drafts, handy for automating tedious behaviors.

nvALT and Atom are text file editors/viewers for macOS.

Finally, Dropbox is where all the text files are stored, keeping the content in sync everywhere.

Automation plays a big role in this journaling system because the less friction there is, the more likely you are to actually do it.

Some automation software I find useful on macOS:

Articles

There are articles I’ve written here on this blog that pertain directly to my plain-text journaling system.

As mentioned above, automating this plain-text journaling system has resulted in me becoming a “copy/paste programmer”. So in addition to articles on the system, the apps and the philosophy, I’ve had to cobble together some code to make some things work the way I wanted.

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