This guide is meant to document the things I have done, the software I have used, and the decisions I have made to be really fast and really well-organized at work, and to help prioritize and maintain focus on my current activities. One key decision, made for speed above all else, is to capture as much of my thinking and work in plaintext as I can. Thus the name: Plaintext Productivity. I will explain my reasoning behind choosing plaintext in each section in which it is relevant.
Plaintext Productivity isn't so much a productivity system as it is a set of habits and suggested software tools to help manage the tasks, plans, priorities, and so on, of your work life. You can use it in to implement, on your work computer (assumed to run Windows and be semi-locked down) whatever productivity system you adhere to, whether it is Getting Things Done, Franklin Covey, AutoFocus, or something you've developed on your own.
I am an adherent to the Getting Things Done (GTD) system, developed by David Allen. One thing that is missing from GTD is the software to run it on; David Allen purposely leaves it out. A million GTD-like systems are available these days, mostly on the web, and some on iOS and Android. There are even a few Windows desktop programs available. After tinkering with many of them over the years, I have concluded that all these systems are cumbersome and onerous in some ways, more concerned with design than functionality, and more concerned with ease-of-use than speed and efficiency.
So, without the use of specialized software, I build a trusted system, accessible primarily on my Windows laptop but also on my mobile devices, to keep track of my many projects, tasks, and priorities, along with the notes, drafts, and other files that go with them. I boiled away all the tools to their very essence and came up with a bare-bones approach to workplace computer organization that works wonders for me.
The Plaintext Productivity System
What is it?
I lay out how to use Windows (Windows 7 or Windows 8's desktop mode), plus a few small programs, and a few new habits and behaviors to efficiently manage your work. Plaintext files are used for tasks, notes, drafts, and other files, such as a work journal, which will help you manage your work with minimal overhead.
Who is it for?
This productivity system is meant for knowledge workers (if you even know what a knowledge worker is, you are one) who:
- have to (or choose to) use Windows at work;
- are looking for a way increase their focus, organization, and productivity at work; and/or
- wish to find a simple and fast implementation of their favorite productivity system, such as Getting Things Done, that gets out of their way and helps them focus on work, rather than organization.
Why is Windows important?
Windows is a critical element in this system because it is hard to find good productivity software that runs on Windows, especially if you want to run it outside of a web browser. Windows, in my opinion, is far behind Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, in having thoughtfully designed and efficient software—both in general, and in particular for writing, organization, and task management. What is worse, if you work for a company, you probably have limited access to install or even download software, though it is often easier to install small programs, such as the ones I recommend, than you would be led to believe. (I have never had any problems installing most small or portable applications, and I usually can find a business justification for my favorite text editors, anyway.) It took me a tremendously long time, and a lot of trial and error, to find Windows productivity software I remained happy working with after the honeymoon period was over.
What's most important or unique about this system?
The name gives it away: plaintext. Plaintext files are tiny, simple, quick to work with, editable by tons of great programs, searchable by all modern operating systems, easy to back up, perfect for versioning, trivial to sync between devices, and are amazingly flexible in their uses and formats. Not worrying about adjusting text formatting saves a ton of time while writing and while copying and pasting text between programs. Avoiding complicated outlining or mind-mapping software saves a bunch of mouse clicks or dreaming up complicated visualizations (it helps if you are a linear thinker). All you need to work well with them is an editor your love to work in, and you have dozens to choose from.
In this system, plaintext files are used for most of the backbone of your organizational system. That means using
I will show you how to configure and use some really great software to tie everything together. I will also show you a way to organize your files and Windows Explorer sidebar in a specific, consistent way, to keep your current work at your fingertips, reduce thinking about filing, and optimize your files for search (which should be the primary way you access anything on your computer).
Some points that I think are unique to my system are:
- keeping a work journal as a regular place to plan your day;
- maintaining a single folder for notes, drafts, work journal, and any other lists and reference materials you maintain;
- focusing your task list on your own priorities; and
- maintaining revision history of your notes and drafts, so you can revise and delete ruthlessly.
General Outline of the System
- Why Todo.txt?
- My Preferred Todo.txt Software for Windows and iOS
- How I Organize My Todo.txt File
- Due Dates and Todo.txt
- Accountability: Todo.txt and Done.txt
- Why PlainText For Notes?
- Why Markdown for Drafts?
- Windows Markdown Editors
- How to Set Up Sublime Text for Markdown Editing
- How to Set Up Sublime Text for Markdown Export to Word
- Sublime Text Features and Packages of Interest to Writers
- Version Control (Revision History) for Plaintext
- How to Set Up Git and Sublime Text for Version Control
- Work Journal
- Activity Log
- Standing Lists for GTD or Other Organizational Systems
- @Drafts Folder for Plaintext Drafts and Notes
- File Folder Structure for Life
- Windows Explorer Sidebar
- Keyboard Shortcuts