Regarding Text Files

Misusing TaskPaper for a Today List

Recorded on July 11th, 2016

screenshot of TaskPaper task list

On the latest Nerds on Draft, Gabe and Jeff discussed many areas of life that still have friction in them, and task management reared it’s ugly (i.e. always welcome) head. They talked about their struggle with the idea that the ultimate mythical task management system should be able to handle tasks, projects, time-based reminders, and calendar items all together. Those certainly seem like they should be relatable somehow, but there’s always friction between the edges of those systems.

When the subject of TaskPaper came up, the consensus was that text file-based task management systems are good at defining what tasks need to happen to get something done, but that apps like Apple Reminders are better for getting you to do dumb things like taking out the trash on a certain day, at a certain time. You have to use each system or app for what it’s good for, even if everything isn’t frictionless. It was so good to hear them articulate exactly this eternally unsolved problem in a way that sounded like they had been eavesdropping on my brain.

I know that every time I try to press TaskPaper into doing things that are better handled by Reminders, it breaks down. I need to get better at routinely actually looking at TaskPaper/Taskmator, so that I can go back to trusting it. This afternoon, I went crazy and sliced out the items that were in the “Today” pseudo-project in my Current.taskpaper mondo master file into a separate Today.taskpaper file. If I’m really good, I’ll start it fresh every morning, like a blank sheet of paper, populated with choice tasks from the Current file.1 It’s not quite the way TaskPaper is intended to be used, but I was already breaking the model anyway by having projects like “Today”, “Sunday”, “Monday”, etc. I’m thinking this way because:

  1. I love the idea of a Field Notes notebook and Bullet Journal-type syntax for today’s tasks, but I’m just not going to sustainably sit down every morning and take the time to manually recopy the undone items to the next blank sheet. I’d love to be that guy, but the practice never stuck every time I tried it. Better to use the laptop/phone clipboard to make that slightly more efficient.
  2. If I’m not going to use paper for this, I need a digital Today file that’s small enough to use with iOS Taskmator (which doesn’t like big TaskPaper files). Editorial can also do this, but it’s overkill, and since I use it for so many other text-editing jobs on the phone, my TaskPaper-formatted files are never open by default in Editorial.
  3. If I want to spend most of the day working through a list of stuff that I really want to get done today, I’m more likely to do it if that list is physically short. Not just filtered to be short, but actually a really short file, where I can cross stuff off and feel good about seeing it in an Archive section down at the bottom as the day progresses. And it can’t have all the countless other contexts and projects that tend to fill up the Current master file. Seeing that stuff every time I want to see just the Today list is too demoralizing and overwhelming, even if it’s all off the bottom of the screen.
  4. I use Drafts to prepend inbox items to the top of my TaskPaper files. As robust as Drafts, Dropbox, and text files are, I believe it’s a bad idea to repeatedly prepend stuff wirelessly to your main, long, canonical TaskPaper file all day, as many times a day as I’ve been doing it. If something goes wrong during that transaction and data gets corrupted or there’s a Dropbox conflict, it cannot be allowed to scramble the big file that has all my projects defined in it. I’d rather prepend those inbox items to a super-short Today file, and do them today if they need to be done today, or slot them into a Later project in that file to pull into Current all at once at the end of the night. (Or better, leave them entirely in Drafts if they don’t need to be done today and process the Drafts inbox at night.)

So that’s what I’m trying. Fingers crossed.

Wow. They do say that if you want to figure something out, you should write about it to discover what you really think.


  1. Note to self: Figure out a way to automate that. There’s nothing like an empty refrigerator to motivate you to discard the unhealthy past and fill it with healthy foods.)