Productivity at your Finger Tips

Acidham
5 min readAug 7, 2020

A JOURNEY BACK TO SIMPLICITY

Since years, I am trying to find a solution for daily/hourly note-taking, for example adding quick notes during unplanned meetings or scheduled meetings, clip articles from the web, create a grocery list, etc.

One of the most important essential is, that taking notes requires a convenient and practicable solution with a minimum of clicks and which runs across mobile devices and desktop computer. All the data must be available on all the devices for e.g., adding thoughts, to-dos, brainstorm, fetch HTML pages, bookmarks, etc.

One of my principles for any productivity solutions is, it MUST fit into your daily workflow. With “Daily workflow” I mean it is accessible without adding additional thought work or additional disruptive steps…it must be friction-less.

The first thought I had years ago “there must be an app” … but I was wrong and only get partially what I am looking for. Even if the app was fit for my purpose, the problem was evolving from the first second on. This problem is known as Vendor Locking. Your Notes have to survive decades but in today’s Software industry start-up companies will be bought by bigger companies, company exchange their masterminds, etc. and innovation stalls. In the worst case, you need to migrate your ever grown notes repository with ten-thousands of notes, but this becomes challenging and in most cases you have to spend hours and days to fix your notes one by one.

Back to my journey which started over 10 years ago…

I started with Evernote and I also had an eye on OneNote. I tested with typing notes and also writing notes on the iPad with the pencil. Evernote was a good product at that time because the powerful and fast search could find matches in the images of handwritten notes. Furthermore, Evernote can search in nearly every file format, which is a key feature of Evernote. Nowadays, Evernote became sluggish over time and then ended up on being just a repository for storing scans and files and made them available for search. Sure, it is possible to create documents for taking notes, but the user interface did not fit in my daily workflow.

Formatting text in Evernote is a nightmare because there are no headlines styles and tables came in late. The community is asking for markdown support, but even Evernote tried to implement kind of, but they could never get it into production. Until now, Evernote becomes a central place for JUST storing web clips, scans during research and other files, but it is not ready for note-taking.

A lot of my colleagues recommended to use OneNote which looks promising but in the early beginning, OneNote was lacking in sync capabilities. Sync is not reliable and the OneNote is overloaded with formatting options, and it requires too much mouse/trackpad interaction.

Since the early beginning of productivity tools, I was a big fan of Word Perfect on DOS, where I wrote my diploma thesis. All formatting were done by using a Word Perfect markup language. Once you got used to the markup language, writing was almost like hell. These days the mouse was lying on my desk as the newest gadget but unused because there were just a few DOS programs available with mouse support.

Around 2000, we used the wiki-markup-language to collaborate in my company. At this time, I thought I was happy to use wiki because it remembered me the time when I was using WordPerfect.

In 2004 Aaron Swartz and John Gruber did an outstanding Job in specifying Markdown. The following years’ Editors got the ability to render Markdown and nowadays, there are various versions available including additional powerful features.

Two Years ago, Bear came on stage, and it looks promising. The user interface was excellent and the tag the only approach was also a great idea. With Tag Only, I mean all notes will be categorized on the Tags written in the notes stored in flat representation…no folder or notebooks…awesome!

Searching in Bear Notes, full text, tag search, and to-dos was great to manage my Notes. All notes synced across devices and made them available whenever I required a specific text or note.

The biggest disadvantage with Bear was there is no way to get tables into the document. After a year, the tag list grew up to 500 tags and every time I tried to find a note tagged with a specific tag I had to scroll through all the tags…insane.

All the apps have the same disadvantage — you got vendor locked. Sure you can export notes but migrate to another app is always a challenge and end up in hours of manual work.

I came to the conclusion that I need to find a way to do it the other way around. Why not migrating just the tool set and leave the repository untouched?
With that, you get the freedom to choose whatever Markdown Editor you prefer, or you decide to use more than one editor. For example, use Atom for markdown writing and e.g., Marked2 to render or using Typora for typing WYSIWYG for getting quick results.

I began to change my setup beginning of 2019 by accessing my Notes repository (file system) with iA Writer. IA Writer can add an MD file location, scans for tags in the markdown files and can search across the content of the files.

There are a few pitfalls with iA Writer, especially when it comes to internal note linking.

The Next Chapter

I came to the conclusion that I need to decouple search capabilities and tag list system from the solution. The answer was Alfred Workflow with my custom-made workflow written in Python. Surprisingly, Python is fast in processing 1000eds files as you type.

With Alfred Markdown Notes, I can create and search notes directly at my fingertips.

The current setup looks like:

1. macOS
2. AlfredApp with Powerpack
3. Alfred Markdown Notes Workflow
4. Python3
5. Cloud storage (e.g. iCloud, Dropbox) or just local storage
6. Typora (macOS)
7. 1Writer (iOS)

All the tools are working independently and can be exchanged because the MD Notes are stored on the file system.

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