Why I zeroed in on the Only-Text-Files Philosophy

March 2020 · 4 minute read

Hello there!

This is the very first issue of my super personal newsletter. Thank you for even just opening it: in these days of micro-attention-span, this is not a given.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what I’d like to write in here, and I came to the conclusion that… I don’t know yet. It depends on how many people subscribe, what’s the reaction to what I write, what will happen to my life in the next few weeks/months, and so on.

As a starting point, I decided to keep it as a “private journal”. In my website, I’ll blog about what I learn, while in here I’ll write about the process of learning. My website is the product, while my newsletter is the meta one.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

Three weeks ago, I read a massively influential post on HN: My productivity app for the past 12 years has been a single .txt file.

It blew my mind. I’ve been deep into productivity for more than a year, but I’ve always followed the mainstream flow of traditional tools (and methodologies): the Notion hype, the GTD-technique, the Trello & Kanban magic team, Evernote, and so and so forth.

The “only-text-files philosophy” described in that article is kinda contrarian: no one has a true business incentive to talk about it since, well, no one has a business interest over text files. And that’s the whole point: files are the ultimate portability tool, the ultimate privacy tool, and the ultimate flexible tool.

They’ll be around in 20, 30, 100 years from now (will our Notion workspace and our Trello board still be there in 10 years?) You are in total control of your data: the text is yours and only yours. You can encrypt it, sync it with your server, do whatever you want with it. You can build your own APIs on it, integrate it with any tool you love. And finally, the way you organize it solely depends on you. The learning curve is massive (more flexibility implies more setup costs), but it’s worthwhile.

So, three weekends ago, I set up my first text file.

I synced it using my own server (on Digital Ocean) using Syncthing, routing my other services behind Nginx, and I attached to it a Python script linked to my personal Telegram chat in order to “brain dump” thoughts, minutes, todos whenever they pop up in my mind.

Good news: This is the first time a productivity setup stuck for more than 2 weeks. So it actually works!

Bad news: It opened a Pandora’s box.

In the last three weeks, I went deep into the rabbit hole of this whole text thing.

I discovered that people have been using text files since the 70s to organize their lives, that they’re still doing it after 20/25/30 years, and most of these nerds rely on a cool thing called Org-mode, a layer built on top of Emacs, to do it.

I discovered that productivity freaks love Vim as a text editor, but prefer Emacs due to its simpler APIs. So, crazy as they are, they built a combo of the two called Evil mode (Emacs as environment, Vim as editing style).

I discovered that these multi-decades editors are optimized for orthodox typing style, that no one taught me.

I discovered that some people use Org-mode for organizing projects, while others do it for noting down every piece of content they consume, so they won’t forget about it. And therefore, I came across the concept of “exo-cortex”, Roam Research and “Build a second brain”.

So, in the midst of a pandemic raging out there, I spent my last month trying to learn all of these things.

First, I tried to re-learn how to type on a keyboard. I used this tool to fully understand how people do type (yep: I didn’t know). Then, I used this other tool to improve my muscular memory.

Next step has been to fully transition to Spacemacs, a combo of Emacs and Vim fully featured with some additional cool extensions. (Here you can copy my configuration if you want.) I even deleted Visual Studio Code. This step hasn’t been easy… and I’m still adjusting, after weeks of usage. But I’ve been told that this is common, so I won’t question my intelligence just yet.

I’ve been using Org-mode for note-taking and todos, transitioning from Things 3, since last week. I like a lot, but I have the feeling I’m just scratching the surface.

And finally, I’m trying to understand how to implement a BASB process that can actually be sustainable.

So yeah, quite intense weeks.

My target is to develop a workflow to handle my my tasks, my projects and my (heavy) content consumption in a fully portable, flexible and secure way. If fully integrated, even better.

I’ll keep you posted on the process, if you’d like me to. Answer to this email for any feedback (really, anything), and feel free to forward it to anyone you think might be interested (or might give me feedback).

Keep in touch, best

gian