Capture Inspiration with Simplenote and Notational Velocity

The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).

One of the “best” byproducts of my ADHD is an utterly disorganized memory, a memory that from time to time feels much like that of a goldfish. 30 seconds and whatever was in my head was gone. Sometimes the thoughts come back, but oftentimes things get lost. It is something that I am almost always combating and thanks to the always odd, yet utterly wonderful Merlin Mann and his four hours1 of Mac Power Users Episode 1 and Episode 2, I think I finally have something that works. With the combined power of Notational Velocity2 and Simplenote I am now able to ubiquitously capture ideas instead of constantly losing them.

What on earth does that mean?

The idea behind ubiquitous capture is to have a method for capturing things, and by things, I mean anything: an idea, a though, a list, a task, a quote, a blog post… you get the gist. I need to be able to capture ideas quickly and access them even faster. For many, this is as simple as keeping an index card or a notebook3 in your pocket. This is not for me. One of the wonderful byproducts of my ADHD (or my own laziness) is terrible handwriting. Mine is so bad, that when I’m rushed, I can barely read it. Pair that with a general ambiance of disorganization and it quickly becomes obvious that paper is not the right tool for the job (again, at least not for me). Paper aside, I was constantly losing ideas, tasks, and book suggestions and wanted to see if the available technology offered a solution.

Your apps are your friends…

Thanks to Merlin, David and Katie over at the MPU Podcast, I’ve found my system in the form of two free apps, one for the iPhone/iPad (or the iOS) and one for my Mac4. They work flawlessly together to give me complete access to my thoughts and a rapid mechanism for capturing new ones. And did I mention, they are free5!

  • Simplenote – This is the note-taking application that Apple should have put on the iOS6. It is one of those “does one thing well” apps, meaning that it is really only good for taking text-based notes7. You might be saying to yourself, well that doesn’t sound very different from the Notes app on my iPhone or iPad, but here is where things differ. Using their free Simperium platform8, all of your notes are stored in the cloud (Read: on the web) and can be accessed on your iPhone, iPad, through their web portal or better yet, through several text-editing programs, which brings us to our next application…

  • Notational Velocity – Specifically Brett Terpstra’s nvALT 2 is a free and minimal text editor9 that blends seamlessly with Simplenote. I could geek out more on this, but the bottom line is that when you type something in Notational Velocity, it shows up in Simplenote; when you add something to Simplenote, it shows up in Notational Velocity. It has become my default application for writing. So much so, that I no longer use bloated word processors like Microsoft Word since switching over. This means that almost all of my writing projects, with the exception of a few larger projects (more on this another day), are always at my fingertips, be it at my computer on Notational Velocity or on-the-go with my iPhone or iPad on Simplenote.

But how do I find my crap?

The biggest adjustment for many will be the lack of a folder structure10 that many of you know, love and depend on. This may be the deal breaker for some of you, but thankfully Merlin taught me a rather excellent and lightweight taxonomy (Read: method) that makes it exceptionally easy to access my files. Both Simplnote and Notational Velocity have excellent search capability and finding files is easy as long as you are smart about how you name the file.

Now, this is about to get geeky, but it’s important. With Merlin’s method, the file title is one of several keyword of your own choosing, then a one-to-five word description and finally the date. After that, you use the body of the document as you please11. I know this sounds confusing, so here are a few examples from:

  • Blogx – Blog Post Title – 11-05-20
  • Workx – Any work meeting or writing project – 11-05-20
  • Ideax – Actionable idea – 11-05-20
  • Thoughtx – Tangent for blog or idea – 11-05-20
  • Runx – Running lists of books, unprocessed to-dos, calls, etc (no date)
  • Quotex – Name of Quotee for – 11-05-20

And so on. For those who are wondering why I place the x at the end, it is so that when I use the built in search, I don’t pull up the files with my keywords in the body of unwanted notes (another Merlin tip). There are no additional tags and no folders. It is super lightweight, but it makes a hell of a lot of data manageable.

Geeky Quick Tip

Be warned, this one is really geeky… Always one to make things easier (Read: Lazy), I’ve started creating TextExpander snippets (more on this in a previous episode of Techie Scheky) for my frequently used note categories. For example, when I come up with a new post for this blog, I use the following snippet:

Shortcut: Bx


Snippet: Blogx – %| – %y-%m-%d


Text: Blogx – Type Your Awesome Idea Here – 11-5-20

This gives me a new file name on either Notational Velocity or Simplenote with my Blogx keyword, the current date and places my cursor directly in between the two dashes to type in the description. It’s a great way to get past the headache of file creation and into the actual creation.

Update: For those worried about TextExpander getting in the way of search, remember iOS automatically capitalizes the first letter. As long as you make your snippet case sensitive, you can use an uppercase first letter to trigger your snippet and a lower case to search your notes.

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  1. Yes, four hours, but it will change the way you use a Mac.  

  2. Well, Brett Terpstra’s awesome nvALT 2 fork of it anyway.  

  3. I refuse to say Moleskin… crap!  

  4. Simplenote also works with applications for Windows and Android, you can find more on this here.  

  5. Although I strongly suggest donations to both of these amazing services.  

  6. Similar to how people say Dropbox is the hard drive iOS is missing.  

  7. If you upgrade to their Premium version for $20 a year, you can also use it for lists.  

  8. You can also use Dropbox if you are a Premium user.  

  9. Text Editors are all about writing, where Word Processors like Microsoft Word are about both writing and formatting your text (Read: making it look pretty).  

  10. You know, where you hit Save and then find a proper file to store your document.  

  11. That sounded dirtier than I meant it.  

One Response to Capture Inspiration with Simplenote and Notational Velocity

  1. I like the tip of using keywords with wordX eg blogX. I figured out the same thing, e.g. I search for Pfizer and it’s everything – press release, news article – with the word. i search zPfizer (in my notation z + word) and it’s my own projects and meeting notes relevant to Pfizer, a much smaller subset. I guess it’s smarter to put the “X” or “z” at the end of the word, isn’t it – Pfizer will pull up everything and PfizerZ will pull up only intentional keywords.

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