Thursday, June 02, 2011

How I use Trunk Notes

Keeping my digital life organized with a wiki works so much better for me than hierarchical storage systems, rigid todo lists, or flat plain-text buckets. My search for the ultimate digital lifestyle tool has taken me through so many different apps and systems, but with Trunk Notes I finally feel like I’ve almost achieved digital nirvana.

A long journey

I guess it all started when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) 5 or 6 years ago, and I’ve tried so many different todo apps, note taking apps, organizers, etc since it’s just not funny. The apps I use fall into two main categories: task management, and information management. Tools to help me get stuff done, and tools to help me store and retrieve notes, data, etc.

Todo, or not todo

The first serious app with checkboxes that I recall using was OmniOutliner, which I tried to bend to a kind of GTD system until I bought the desktop version of OmniFocus when it first came out. It’s strict adherence to the GTD doctrine was too too much for me. Then I found Things by Cultured Code to be a simpler approach, but I would ultimately become frustrated by it’s lack of cloud sync and the developer’s complete disinterest in engaging with their customers, despite being very successful. From there, my todo pilgrimage took to me Wunderlist, a nice, simple, cloud-synced todo app. It was close, but I found that lists were becoming too cold and clinical for me, I needed something more organic, and found myself using Backpack by 37 Signals.

What I liked about Backpack was it’s concept of pages that can contain anything, notes, images, todo lists, whatever. It didn’t impose any form or function onto you, you can can do whatever you like with it. What I didn’t like about it was the $24/month required to access some of it’s features…

I also had my eye on TaskPaper, which takes a simpler text-based approach to managing todo lists, but it still uses a proprietary cloud sync service which customers have reported as being unreliable, and while the developer is planning to add DropBox sync at some point, his other apps are getting first priority.

Fortunately, in the meantime I discovered Trunk Notes!

There’s a hole in my bucket

For information management, I use and love Yojimbo by Bare Bones. It’s essentially a bucket to hold links, notes, pictures, PDF docs, passwords, serial numbers, etc. Again, my only gripe with it is a lack of cloud sync. There’s an iPad app, but it’s read-only, and requires wifi sync to get data into it.

So for plain notes, I ended up using SimpleNote because of it’s excellent could sync, and ubiquitous presence as desktop and mobile apps. It’s basically an omnipresent text bucket.

Unfortunately I’d often find myself having to search in multiple places to find something because I couldn’t remember where I’d put it. This arrangement left me wanting for a single system with cloud sync, to store notes in plain text and rich-text with images, passwords, and also manage todos. With Trunk Notes I’ve finally found it!

An organic system that grows with you

It’s so cool being able to take an idea, create a page, add some notes with links, insert a picture, jot down some todo items, and then have it grow organically out into other pages covering sub-topics, or breaking large projects down into sub projects, and having it all interlinked, tagged, and searchable. The wiki features of Trunk Notes alone are a revelation, not because wikis are new or I’ve never used one before, but I’ve never had one I can carry around with me in my pocket on my iPhone, and also access from my Mac and IPad. The coolest thing though, is Trunk Notes custom functions, which can turn it into a very capable, and powerful todo system.

Ubiquitous capture, automatic processing and retrieval

Here’s how I use Trunk Notes' powerful functions as my todo system. You can begin any line on a page with an “action” using a @, and then add dynamic functions to a page which collect every item from your wiki beginning with that action. I use them as tags, but you can only assign one to each item, so they’re more like contexts. As I work at home in front of a computer all day, contexts don’t fit my workflow, so I use the following actions to automatically filter and retrieve tasks:

  • @next – regular todo items

  • @due – Trunk Notes can process date stamps following the actions, allowing them to be scheduled and automatically float up to my dashboard

  • @today – a quick way to flag tasks for today

  • @done – changing an item’s action to done followed by a date stamp removes it from the other filters

  • @someday – don’t really use it much though. Someday/maybe should really be called probably/never…

My home page has a dashboard showing a summary of tasks due today, and a 7 day summary of upcoming tasks, as well as quick links to my todo section:

  • I’ve created pages with name prefixes

    • Todo

      • A dashboard using Trunk Notes' functions to show me all of my today, upcoming, and next actions on a nice dashboard

    • Todo:Today

      • Filters all tasks @due today, and tagged with @today

    • Todo:Next

      • Filters all @next actions

    • Todo:Scheduled

      • Filters all @scheduled tasks

    • Todo:Someday

      • @someday tasks which I’ll probably never do

    • Todo:Home

      • This is where I drop home tasks. When Trunk Notes filters tasks into lists, it links back to the page they’re from, which behaves in effect as contexts or areas of responsibility.

    • Todo:Home:Someday

      • I try not to put anything in here…

    • Todo:Home:Archive

      • Move stuff out of the home list when it’s done to clean it up

    • Todo:Work

      • A dashboard of work tasks. I can freeform here with links to project pages, notes, todo lists, etc

    • Todo:Work:Someday

      • Really try to keep this one empty

    • Todo:Work:Archive

      • an increasingly massive list of completed tasks, kept for reference. When I complete a task I tag it with @done and a date stamp, so can go back through the archive to check when certain things were completed.

I also keep an INBOX page, and have a link to the inbox and the main todo dashboard in Trunk Notes' special customizable footer, so I can quickly capture ideas. On my Mac, I’ve assigned a hot key using Alfred to open the inbox page in TextMate to quickly capture ideas. It works quite well, and TextMate can render the Markdown as HTML.


For notes, passwords, links, etc I just create a new page and tag it accordingly. If it’s related to another page/project I’ll link them together. For tasks, if it’s a single actionable item I’ll add it to my top-level home/work/school page. For larger projects I’ll create a new page for them and link back to it from an item on the corresponding top-level page. Within the project page I just throw notes and todo items together without actions so they don’t clutter up the dashboard pages.

At the start of each day, I’ll check my home page for today & upcoming tasks, process anything sitting in the inbox, and then drill down into the home/work/school pages reviewing next actions & upcoming tasks and deciding what to work on today.

At the end of each day I’ll go through completed tasks tagging them with @done and archive them, I’ll process the inbox, review my next actions, and generally faff around on my pet project pages gathering research, jotting down ideas, inserting pics etc.

I’m looking into using the DropBox files with Automator/AppleScript to automate some of that, but that’s for another time.

A full bag of tricks

Some other cool things Trunk Notes offers:

  • text snippets – can quickly insert regularly used text

    • can dynamically evaluate functions, for example to insert the current date/time

    • I use snippets to insert checkboxes with an action, and a notes field (using custom CSS…)

  • custom CSS

    • I use a span for my todo notes, and use the custom CSS to style them

  • include portions of other pages into the current page

    • it can even grab a random line, which I use to add a quote of the day to my dynamic footer

  • dynamic header & footer

    • the header & footer are special pages which you can edit and fully customize. I have links to my inbox & todo list, and a random quote from my quotes page.

  • encrypted pages

    • you can encrypt a page, and use it for storing passwords! A sprinkling of custom CSS makes it a very viable solution.

  • images!

    • you can insert images into the page, which are stored on DropBox

  • wifi server

    • it even comes with it’s own built in server for interacting with your wiki from a desktop device

Really, the possibilities are endless. Because it uses Markdown, I even use it to type up drafts of documentation and then use other tools like TextMate to finish it into the final product. It’s also handy for typing up blog posts like this one :)

Well, this got a bit long and ramble-y, maybe I’ll jot down a next action to refine it into a cheat sheet.


Keith said...

I'll have to give this one a second look - thanks for the ideas.

Keith said...

I'll have to give this one a second look - thanks for the ideas.

Brian said...

Would love to see the markdown for your Todo pages. I'm loving Trunk Notes, but haven't been able to achieve what you have.

Isak Hanold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isak said...

I'd really appreciate seeing some specific examples of the format on your home page. I'd like to implement your system. Thanks!

GAH said...

Hi, Thanks for the post, I love your set up! I used Trunk Notes a long time ago and have just started again. Wondering if you could tell me how you set up your @done workflow... I seem to remember being able to change the action to done and have the @done yyyymmdd show up and strike through the task text but I can not seem to find this function or set up again.
Hoping you can help,

Mark said...

These days I don't actually use Trunk Notes' todos.

I created WikiPack which uses GitHub style task lists that are also compatible with Folding Text documents.

So my flow these days is to create new documents in Folding Text, same them into my Trunk Notes folder in Dropbox, and sync them into WikiPack.

Bear also looks like a contender, but I played with it a bit and even bought the premium subscription, and found that it makes it easy to create and edit pages, but doesn't provide much for actually finding them again, so I reverted back to plaintext.