Forget about it. Or not.

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Blank chalkboard image. Have I ever mentioned how much I dig the Acorn image editor from Flying Meat?

I forget a lot of things. I forget how I did something, or where I found an answer, or where I put my glasses. I use technology to help with that to some extent, and Notational Velocity/nvALT are excellent at helping me find previous notes, assuming I bothered to take them.

I keep a log in VoodooPad, especially when I’m up late enough at my computer that I might not remember what I was working on in the morning. That’s handy, the search is excellent, and gathering tagged entries together on one page automatically is sweet. After a couple of years of doing it religiously, though, I’ve found that I rarely reference anything beyond the previous day or two. I rarely go back because the things I log aren’t “knowledge”, just activities. My logging system lacks the details I need to remember exactly how I did what I did. That’s my own fault, of course, but I needed a system that would build an environment-agnostic knowledgebase for remembering all the things I tend to forget.

Thus, I’ve been playing with an idea. I’m building a collection of plain-text notes (primarily using nvALT with notes saved to a Dropbox folder) where the title of the note is the question I think I would ask myself long after I’ve forgotten the answer. The content of the note is the answer in its briefest form, including commands, filenames, urls and whatever is necessary to get me back on the right track.

I can query these notes quickly from the command line (qq where glasses or qq best h.264 settings), as well as from LaunchBar and Alfred. Adding new notes can be done just as easily from the same sources. The text files are stored among all of my nvALT notes (with a special prefix to easily separate them), so it automatically benefits from Notational Velocity-style searching and editing.

One of the reasons I prefer to store my nvALT notes as plain text files is that I have access to them from Spotlight and mdfind (man page). Spotlight allows me to query a little more intricately, separating tags from titles and titles from content in a way that nvALT currently can’t. mdfind is the crux of this system. You can store all you want in plain text and feel great about it, but the ease of querying any information system is the measure of its worth.

I like tagging. I’ve found that tagging isn’t the solution for my forgetfulness, though. It’s been extremely helpful in tracking projects across multiple folders, but not so much in dealing with aged notes. I’m as likely to forget a tag I associated as I am anything else. Extra, more verbose text seems to be the trick. Instead of piling on a bunch of tags, I set my scripts up to search–but not output–anything inside of a @(extra text tag). Then I can add extra verbosity and keywords that I think might help the search later… without fouling up my tag database.

While there’s definite GTD-style comfort in knowing I have my discoveries and important notes in a portable, syncable system, the process of thinking through the syntax of the question/filename is actually helping me remember things better to begin with. It’s a conscious effort to connect neurons in a way that keeps the information more readily accessible to my feeble memory. I’ve only been doing it for a month, though, so I’m curious to see how the knowledgebase looks and functions in a year.

I’ve put the whole system and installation/usage/best practices up on GitHub. There’s a command line tool (bash), a pair of LaunchBar Actions and two standalone Alfred extensions for adding and querying the notes. As I use it more, I’ll probably come up with more ways to interface with it. Right now I’m thinking about an AppleScript/Mail Rule-based system for adding and querying notes via a GMail alias. More to come, pending determination that the new method is worth the fiddling time in the end. I do love having universal access to any bucket I use, though…

If you’ve ever forgotten where you put something important or solved a problem and later forgotten the solution, check out the QuickQuestion GitHub page. The Readme and up-to-date files are also available as a direct download below.

QuickQuestion v1.1

A set of scripts for building and querying a plain-text knowledgebase on OS X. Includes CLI, LaunchBar actions and Alfred extensions. Works great with Notational Velocity/nvALT, but does just fine without.

Updated Sun Oct 02 2011.

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