A solution for scatterbrains

[Tweet : ADN : nvALT]

As I’ve mentioned here before (see QuickQuestion), I’m a total mess when it comes to remembering what I was tinkering with late at night or early in the morning. By the time my lunch break rolls around and I want to hack a little more, I have to search through git logs and Spotlight’s Recent Files just to figure out what I was working with and where I was at with it. Two days later, not a chance. Sometimes it even happens when I’m intent on completing a todo item and let something distract me for just a few minutes. What was I doing?

It’s probably a result of choices I made in my younger years, but whatever the cause, I’m always looking for tools to make this easier. This post outlines a method that I’ve found very useful. You may have a different reaction, especially if you’re the type of person who remembers what they had for breakfast. If you’ve already forgotten about your Wheaties, read on.

I like apps like Fresh and Blast for this, but something more manually-curated has always suited me better. I’ve been using VoodooPad for a long time, in combination with Ian Beck’s Scratchpad scripts and an “@whatiwasdoing” tag. Lately, I’ve found I wanted something simpler and even more accessible for this purpose. QuickQuestion and nvALT provided the easiest answer.

What I’m doing is keeping a single nvALT note (and corresponding text file) with brief descriptions of my current goings-on. I named the note using QuickQuestion formatting (?? What was I doing.md) so I can integrate it with that system easily, accessing the note from the command line and from LaunchBar. QuickQuestion doesn’t currently make it easy to append to a note, but I can use LaunchBar, a custom script (come back tomorrow…) or even a quick echo >> on the command line if needed. For now, I’m just editing using nvALT, which is really just as easy in most cases. QuickQuestion does make it easy to access the question, though, and I can pop up a list of my current/on-hold projects just by triggering LaunchBar and typing ‘qq-space-doing’. As a side-benefit–one I learned when I first started logging my work–consciously typing out or writing down what I’m doing makes it far more memorable and reduces the likelihood that I’ll hit that blank wall when sitting back down to work (or play, as I tend to consider most of my side projects).

The note looks kind of like this:

@(whatiwasdoing)
Currently:
	- 2011-11-03 20:22 | something entirely different
	- 2011-11-03 20:19 | something I've been working on for a while now
Later:
	- stuff I intend to come back to and am not ready to delete yet

The first line is just a tag to make sure the file shows up in my older searches (it’s ignored by QuickQuestion). I’m adding my entries in TaskPaper format, just for cross-application compatibility (nvALT, TaskPaper, TextMate, Vim, etc.). If you start with a “Currently:” line and indent your entries one tab in, nvALT’s automatic list formatting works fine (it currently requires whitespace before the list item symbol), and Taskpaper and friends recognize it as a project. Each of my entries is prefixed with a timestamp on a TextExpander snippet (,,dt), then a brief description of what I was working on and/or where I was at with it, if needed. Just enough to jar my memory. I don’t need file links or anything, just that little spark to get my brain on track. I can add @tags to remind me what to search for in Tags.app or Spotlight if I want related documents, emails, etc., and I can turn part of the status into a [[link]] in nvALT to add additional notes.

I’ve been using the @done tag as a short-term reminder of what I finished recently, but things aren’t meant to stay in this note for long. I have a second project for “Later:” items, but finished and/or discarded items are just deleted. By the time I get to finishing or discarding, they should have already worked themselves into the rest of my workflow as a task, project or separate note. The “What was I doing?” file is not meant to be a permanent archive, just a short-term record. If you want a journal/log of your work, I do highly recommend the VoodooPad/Scratchpad setup.

That’s the gist of it. It’s working for me as a quick and easy solution to my (probably unusual) memory issues. I did, of course, take it a little farther. If you’re curious about how I geeked it all to Hell, tune in tomorrow for Scatterbrains 2: The Geekening.