Plain text has long been a favourite here at Lifehacker, but over the years most people have moved away from it in favour of specialised to-do apps, notes apps, writing apps or whatever else. I still use plain text for just about everything, but never thought much about why I do. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that snazzy features aside, plain text is still king for portability and simplicity.
We’ve talked about the value of plain text to-do lists before. The short of it is simple: any computer can read plain, simple text. A .txt file is totally portable, and there are no bells, no whistles, no proprietary software and no fancy formatting options. It is one of the simplest files a computer can create, and any computer — alongside a variety of apps — can read it. Over the years, a ton of productivity software tried to replace it, and yet, from snarky to-do apps to big budget notes apps, nothing’s beaten plain text for me.
Plain Text Forces Me to Keep Things Simple
I love organising things. I love formatting things. I love outlining, keywording and listing things. This is often a useful character trait, but it’s just as often a distraction and utterly useless when it comes to writing, setting to-dos and taking notes.
Give me a to-do app with tags, colour choices and hierarchies, and I’ll give you an hour of my time to organise something as simple as a grocery list. Give me multiple notebooks for my notes and I’ll give you days of my life building an organisation system.
I will then go on to not actually use any of those systems.
Even though I love organisation and gravitate to it in many facets of my life, it’s not important to me with stuff like basic notes or to-dos. What is important is simplicity. I want to quickly open an app, write down what I need to, then close it without thinking about what tag it should get, what formatting to add or whatever else. Just give me an empty sheet of paper and a blinking text icon.
How do I find what I’m looking for without those organisation tricks? Remember, this is plain text. It’s a simple file format. Control + F, type in a couple of words into a search bar, either in the app or in Spotlight on a Mac, and it brings up exactly what I need. Of course, I have some higher level organisation too. All my Lifehacker post ideas are in one file. To-dos in another. Fiction ideas in another. You get the point. It’s simple, yet a little chaotic, which is exactly what I like about it.
I Can Stuff All My Creative Ideas In One Place
One thing that’s really kept me on plain text is the fact I can use it for everything I want to. I don’t have to divide my brain space into different apps or services. Plain text is as analogous to a single small creative notebook as software can get.
Even when you’re using an app like ToDo.txt, Sublime Text or Simplenote to manage plain text files, things get messy. Your system will never be as organised as it could be with the likes of Evernote. And that’s exactly why I love it. I have today’s to-dos right next to an idea for a feature film I’ll never write. I have notes on making a desk from three years ago snuggling up next to a text file filled with weird dreams. My list of ideas for Lifehacker articles is right next to some structural notes about a novel. Every idea I’ve had, dumb, smart, insane and whatever else is together in a single folder, accessible as one giant lump of text. Every day I see all of it, and every day I think about much of it, even when I don’t have to.
Because of this, my brain’s constantly churning through ideas good and bad. Abandoned ideas and completed ones live in the same space. Because of that I can see what works, what doesn’t and what I just haven’t figured out how to do yet. This is great for me. When my stupid idea for a video game sits right next to my grocery list, everything feels doable. Every idea is worth thinking about, and the ideas are worth thinking about multiple times, even if I can’t figure out what to do with them at first.
Of course, you don’t have to go all in like that. Most people probably find this type of system overwhelming, but the beauty of plain text is how easy it is to solve that kind of problem. You can create folders or use an app that supports tagging, and just like that, you’re organised without a lot trouble.
Plain Text Will Never Require a Subscription, Lock Away Features or Go Out of Business
Plain text is ubiquitous. It works on every operating system, and on every mobile device, regardless of who makes it. A wide variety of apps can read it. You’ll never run into file compatibility errors. You can take what you write from one app to another without a thought.
This matters because the tech industry likes to remind us that nothing lasts forever. We see apps shut down all the time. They add in a subscription fee. They lock that one feature you want behind a paywall. It’s annoying, and if you’re invested in an app, whether it’s a notes app or a to-do app, you’re often forced to pay out the nose for a bunch of features you don’t want. Plain text doesn’t suffer this problem because it’s universally readable across platforms, not to mention a bedrock of, well, computing as we know it.
Likewise, plain text will never change. Where an app might get updated with new features and a new user interface, plain text is pretty much always plain text. I will never open up an app to find a new design that I hate, or a new user experience I have to learn. Text editors may change, but there’ll always be another, and they will never all go subscription-only. This is really important to me. I use plain text every single day for simple tasks. I don’t need anything getting in the way of me capturing text as quickly as possible.
Where I’ve Abandoned Plain Text
Of course, keeping everything in plain text, even with a decent management app like Simplenote, gets a little crazy. I’ve moved away from plain text in favour of apps in a couple places to help simplify things.
The big move for me was with recipes. I’ve replaced a ton of randomly shackled together ingredients in a semi-organised text file with the recipe manager Paprika. Recipe management is a chore with plain text, and Paprika made it enjoyable.
Similarly, any public, long form writing I do goes through the likes of Google Docs, Microsoft Word or Ulysses (which is really just plain text, slightly enhanced), depending on what’s needed. Even then, I’ll often still start with plain text to get the words onto the page before sending it over to another app for formatting and editing. Writing in a format like Markdown is great for this. You can write in plain text, add some simple formatting, and you then export that plain text file to a variety of rich text formats, including HTML, PDF and DOC.
There are also tasks I used to use plain text for that have just become unnecessary over the years. With services like Spotify, I don’t need to keep a list of music recommendations any more. Likewise, Amazon wish lists let me ditch the book, comic, game, movie and whatever else recommendations I used to keep in a single plain text file in favour of nicely organised shopping lists.
So, nowadays, my plain text files are all related to creative endeavours alongside my to-do lists. It’s a mishmash of stuff that someone else could probably organise better, but I like that these things live together in the same apps. It makes it feel like even my craziest ideas are a little more achievable.