Note-taking on a Mac revisited

David Sparks just explained in Macworld once again why plain text is best. This prompted me to update several entries from April and March on taking notes on a Mac. In this post, I describe some recent software developments and share experience in naming notes. The advice is primarily for Mac users although note naming tips may be useful for everyone.

For naming notes, I use the system described in this post, which is now somewhat refined and simplified. First of all, I stopped using a colon as a separation symbol because it takes longer to type it on iPhone and iPad and because some operating systems don’t like colons in file names. So I follow MacSparky in replacing the column with an “x”. What used to be “ref:energy:security” became “refxenergyxsecurity“.

Secondly, I simplified the leading element in my notes names. What used to be “refxenergyxsecurity” is now “rxes“. It works very well for me that all the reference notes start with “rx” and then there are only 4-5 two-letter acronyms for the areas in which I keep references. It is very easy to remember so I do not need to think much about the leading element in the note name. I try to add all substantive information  in the note title anyway, so a typical title is: “rxes quote from uk energy security review 2007“. A note with such name is easy to both sort by the name and find by the word in the title. I use OpenMeta tags if I want more refined classification for my reference notes. The same convention applies to project notes, for example “esxcosus phone meeting with editor 110601” is a note related to my publication project “COSUS” (Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability) which belongs to my research area “es”. (If you wonder about the difference between reference and project notes, it is the same as between project and reference files).

Most of my notes are reference or project notes. There is also a small number of constantly updated notes (for example, the things I want to discuss with a particular person or ideas for a publication). As described in this geeky entry, I like to add lines to such notes on the fly using LaunchBar, without even opening my note-taking application. Thus I want these ‘running’ notes to have unique and yet easily remembered names. At the moment I mostly use only two types of such names: “dsx” (for ‘Discuss’) and “idxx” (for ‘Ideas’). As long as I can remember these two things, it works well.

A few words about the software. In Spring, I started to use nvALT, a fork of Notational Velocity and I’ve been very happy with it ever since.  It is very similar to Notational Velocity but has a slightly more friendly user interface and a couple of other great features. For example, it allows Full-Screen editing which is great for writing. Thus, NValt gives you the “power of a blank sheet” mentioned by Adam Lisagor in his conversation with MacPowerUsersSimilarly to Notational Velocity, nvALT uses OpenMeta tags which is critical for organizing my reference files and notes. There is an easy shortcut to tag any note (⌘-Shft-T) from within nvALT and, of course, you can tag them in the same way you tag any reference file, because your notes are simply text files.

What has been a recent bonus for me is that from last month nvALT synchronizes not only notes but also tags with SimpleNote. This means that I can see, add, and change my OpenMeta tags on iPhone or iPad. Having one system of tags for all your files on all devices is really handy!

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Notes, Tags and folders and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Note-taking on a Mac revisited

  1. Pingback: Byword – an ideal tool for plain text writing on a Mac | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. Charlie Wing says:

    I’m using NotesDeck so my school notes show up on all my devices instantly (iPad, Mac and iPhone). NotesDeck syncs with Evernote and Dropbox so all my notes from other apps are already in it. On Mac you can set hot keys for different folders and jump right into full screen notes.

    So much cleaner than that yellow Notes app. Much more professional.


  3. Dellu says:

    I also have developed similar file naming system. I am trying to automat filenaming (note titles) in nvALT using Alfred workflows. Have u tried them?


  4. Pingback: Ulysses can assign OS X tags and manage reference notes | Academic workflows on a Mac

  5. Pingback: My Tech Set-up – Ehler

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