The Plain Text, Productivity-Everywhere Workflow with TaskPaper and LaunchBar

With our always-busy, always-committed-to-something lifestyle, it might be hard to keep track of all your duties. That’s where todo list and project management apps enter the stage. I’ve tried four of the most popular Mac apps in this category: OmniFocus, Things, The Hit List, and Wunderlist. But because I’m really bad at being organized, all of these apps were all too much of a hassle for me, despite being relatively simple to use.

My way of adding things to my todo list must be absolutely frictionless. Only plain text and the awesome plain text todo list app TaskPaper can satisfy my needs. If you’re like me, stay after the break to read in details about a workflow I developed to actually do things instead of just spending time fiddling with my tasks.

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What you’ll need

At the bare minimum, you will have to have the three following things to do everything in this tutorial:

You could do some of the things in this tutorial without all of these apps, but they’re the tools I use to make the most productive with plain text. So let’s get started.

The core of the system: One and only plain text file opened with TaskPaper

To me, plain text is the only true frictionless, portable, light and reliable format. That’s why I prefer to use a plain text version of my todos. I use only one file simply named ‘todo.txt’. Apart from the name, it has not really much to do with Gina Trapani’s ‘official’ Todo.txt app.

I set up my Macs to open that specific .txt file with TaskPaper. By replacing the default .taskpaper extension by .txt, I benefit both from the very powerful features of Hog Bay Software’s app and the flexibility of plain text.

Let’s start by creating a new file in TaskPaper. Right after creating it, save it as a plain text file, by simply typing “todo.txt” in the Save As dialog box.

Screenshot showing the Save As dialog box when saving a TaskPaper document as plain text, with Finder prompting for default extension change confirmation.

When saving a TaskPaper file as plain text, the Finder will prompt you for confirmation. Use .txt, it’s harmless.

Alternatively, if you’d rather use another TaskPaper file you’ve already started to fill with tasks, “converting” it to a .txt file is really easy. Just locate the file on your hard drive, Control-click on it and choose ‘Get info’ in the contextual menu.

You can use the Cmd-I keyboard shortcut to get the Get Info window open as well.

In the Get Info window, go to the Name & Extension field and replace .taskpaper with .txt. The Finder will prompt you to confirm that you really want to modify the file extension.

Screenshot showing the Get Info window for changing a file's extension, with Finder prompting for confirmation.

Mac OS X does not want you to mess things up. Choose ‘Use.txt’ and don’t worry, we’re safe here.

You now have a plain text version of your todo list. However, since todo.txt just became a typical text file, Mac OS X will open it with TextEdit or whatever app you told your Mac to open .txt files with by default. The trick is to click on the “Open with” button in the Get Info window, and choose TaskPaper on the list (if TaskPaper is not listed, choose ‘Other…’ at the end of the list and select TaskPaper in the Applications folder that the Finder just opened for you).

Screenshot showing a portion of the Get Info window for the todo.txt file, showing that the file will be opened with TaskPaper.

The most clever part of this workflow: having a plain text file opened by TaskPaper.

You now have a todo.txt file that is editable with any text editor but will be opened with TaskPaper by default.

Adding new items to your todo list: where you’ll thank Dropbox and plain text

The great benefit of using a plain text file is that you can modify it whenever you want, with whatever app you want. In fact, my todo.txt file is located in a Dropbox ‘Notes’ subfolder where I store all of my notes as individual text files. Also, this is the folder that nvAlt reads and all iOS text editors I own are also linked to that same folder.

LaunchBar and its Append Text feature: Christmas throughout the year

When I’m in front of my desktop Mac (at home or at work) and I need to add an item to my todo list, I don’t even launch TaskPaper, I use the Append Text feature of LaunchBar. Remember we’ve just changed the default .taskpaper extension to a more common .txt one? Here follows the first benefit from that change.

LaunchBar is a… well I don’t even have a proper word for how much easier this app makes my digital life. Working with text files is such a breeze with it, and one of its very handy features for our current workflow is its Append Text action command. This makes for a lightning fast, non-obtrusive way to add some new items to your todo.txt file.

To make a fast process even faster, you can assign the letter ‘T’ as an abbreviation to your todo.txt file and use the Shift-Space keyboard shortcut to Append Text.

To assign the T shortcut to your todo.txt file, first select the file in LaunchBar, then press Cmd-Alt-A (or choose the Assign Abbreviation action command in the dropdown menu you open by Control-clicking on the file name) and type T in the Assign Abbreviation field.

This way, all you have to do to add a new task at the end of your todo list is:

1: Press Cmd-Space or whatever keyboard combo you have set to invoke LaunchBar
2: Press T (selects the todo.txt file wherever it is located on your hard drive)

Screenshot showing the LaunchBar window with the todo.txt file selected.

The power of LaunchBar: with three keystrokes (Cmd-Space then T), your todo.txt is ready.

3: Press Shift-Space or Cmd-Shift-A (invokes the Append Text command)
4: Type your new task preceded by a dash followed by a space

Screenshot showing some text to be appended to the todo.txt file.

Adding a new task to your “todo.txt” file is as easy as appending a few words.

5: Press Return, and you’re done.

All of this might seems a bit tricky to explain, but with muscle memory, you can add a new task at (almost) the speed of light.

(I know TaskPaper itself has a special popup window with a general system shortcut you can invoke to add a new todo, but you have to keep the document you want to add a task opened in TaskPaper in the background, which I don’t do.)

A little extra: Edit your plain text todo list anywhere with TextDrop or Simplenote

If you’re not in front of one of your Mac and don’t have any of your iOS device at hand, but your todo.txt file is located in a Dropbox folder, you can use the TextDrop web app. For a few dollars a year, it allows you to edit, within your web browser, any text file located anywhere in your Dropbox, in an interface that looks really similar to Notational Velocity.

Alternatively, you could also synchronize your Dropbox Notes folder with Simplenote. I don’t do this because my plain text files in Dropboxd are read by nvAlt and I’ve had some problems in the past (mostly multiple identical copies of the same files) when using both Dropbox and Simplenote sync with nvAlt.

Reviewing your todo list: intensive use of labels in TaskPaper is the key

I only effectively launch TaskPaper when I need to review the things I have to do.
Remember that:

  • We assigned the letter T to the todo.txt file in LaunchBar
  • We asked the system to open todo.txt with TaskPaper

Thus, you just have to hit Cmd-Space (to invoke LaunchBar), then T, then Return, and your todo list opens in TaskPaper.

All of my tasks are in the same, unique todo.txt file. This might look like a big file that you can’t deal with efficiently. That would be forgetting that:

  • you can add as many tags as you want to any task, project or note in TaskPaper
  • and that this software also has a very powerful yet really easy to use natural language-based search mechanism

Thanks to that, you can have a huge list of tasks within your file while having displayed on screen only a few tasks.

In TaskPaper, just head for View > Search… (or, faster, hit Cmd-Shift-F) and the tiny search window pops up. Type your search terms and hit Cmd-Shift-F again to dismiss the little window.

Screenshot showing some example of search terms entered within the Search popup window of TaskPaper

Labels and logical operators can be used as search terms in TaskPaper.

In our example above, TaskPaper now only displays tasks that should be done today at work. No need to keep multiple, separate todo files or even use multiple tabs in TaskPaper.

Pressing Esc when the Search window is open clears its content. As the content displayed in your TaskPaper window is updated live while typing search terms, you can then press Cmd-Shift-F again after Esc to make the search window disappear and get back to your full list of tasks.

Dealing with due dates, contexts and projects

When some of my tasks have due dates, I simply put these in the Mac OS X / iOS built-in Calendar app. All of this is synchronized via a Google Calendar account, making that available for any device, not only Apple devices. This way, I can have reminders of things to deal with on my Macs, my iPad, and my phone.

Of course, if you want to keep track of your due dates in your todo.txt file, don’t forget that you can use the @due tag within TaskPaper and enter some defined date, or some other word(s), between brackets — @due(2012-10-31) or @due(tomorrow), for instance.

True GTD adopters will need to add contexts to their tasks. I see tags in TaskPaper as a perfect use for that.

TaskPaper lets you also group tasks into projects and sub-projects, and you can focus on a particular one. So, I can follow a rather strict GTD method only with TaskPaper and plain text.


All of this workflow might seem complicated, but this is the only flawless way I have found to be completely free about where to have things at hand, whenever I am, without having to use specific apps other than the built-in ones (except for TaskPaper, of course, but you might have noticed that I didn’t mentioned the iOS version of TaskPaper: that’s because you don’t need it with this workflow).

When defining and experimenting with a workflow, always follows some simple key concepts:

  • Never use a proprietary format when a more common format lets you do the same
  • Maximize data portability, synchronization and interoperability
  • Find the quickest way to do things
  • Always have things backed up (thanks so much, Dropbox versioning!)
  • Always make sure an action can be done by several ways

What’s your workflow for adding tasks and reviewing your todo list(s)? Feel free to join in the comments and ask more questions about my workflow. By the way, I’m pretty sure you can adapt this workflow by replacing LaunchBar with Alfred or whatever ‘launcher’ you prefer. If you’re using a different launcher for the same effect, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below!


Add Yours
  • I’ve tried many apps to be more productive, and finally I’ve find the best thing I can help myself with : forget about technology and go back to handwriting.
    For that a use a magnetic board where I can stick everything I need and where I write my todo list.
    I’ve put it near my bed so that I can brainstorm everything I have to do every morning. Trust me, writing a task helps you to not forget it.
    At night, before going to bed, I write everything I didn’t like in my day so that I can remember it the next day and deal with it.

    With writing, you can do pretty much everything you need. You won’t have to wait for an update, you don’t have to sync, you can write, you can draw, link ideas, you have the freedom to write anything in anyway.

    Hope it will help some people out there.

    • Thanks for your comment.
      You’re right, pencil and paper are still the most timeless tools.

      I would just suggest something about your workflow: why not carry a Moleskine with you? I mean, how do you deal with new ideas coming through your mind during the day, when you’re not in front of your magnetic board?

      I’ve used Moleskine for years, and still use pencil and paper to jot things down at work. However when I need to really quickly find something, I find the power of digital search engines irreplaceable. How do you deal with that? Do you use some kind of an index card-based system?

      Finally, since we’re on Mac.AppStorm here, this is rather normal that we only talk about Mac apps ;-) But thanks for your point anyway.

    • Pen and Paper are indeed great and rather ubiquitous manner of capturing ideas.

      I however have to agree with Pierre that you can’t beat the benefits of a good digital capture system. Plain text files can be accessed and edited from our smartphones so it’s always there. It’s much easier to capture hard bits of information digitally than with pen and paper (as a quick example: want to remember to visit a site with a long URL, copy & paste vs. write down the URL)

      Then comes the problem of archiving and history. The advantage of digital is that it’s significantly quicker and easier to find a task or note from a year ago using a digital workflow than it is using Pen en and Paper.

      Having said all that, the truth of the matter is… Use what works for you! ;)

  • I use a similar way of organizing my notes/todos, Pierre.

    Plain txt-files and a combination of nvALT and TaskPaper on my MacPro and Nebulous Notes on my iPhone.

    All the txt-files are stored in a Dropbox folder called “sync”. Inside that folder are subfolders for nvALT and TaskPaper as I use nvALT with multiple (lots of) files.

    I use nvALT to keep track of all my projects and notes I need/want to store in the longer term. (separate txt-files for each project)
    TaskPaper is used for kind of temporary stuff, like quick notes, links, tasks or todos that need to be done in the next few hours or days. (using TaskPapers popup window you mentioned to add a new note/todo)

    Nebulous Notes is my weapon of choice for mobile access to those txt-files.
    Nebulous can open/save/search files (txt, md, etc.) in any Dropbox folder and saves files to Evernote as well. It features great HTML and markdown preview with customizable stylesheets.

    I absolutely share your opinion about plain text-files, Pierre. Being able to access and edit your notes and todos with any texteditor on any computer or smartphone is priceless!

    Nice article, thanks for sharing your workflow, Pierre!

    • Thanks for the compliment, Dan, and thank you for sharing your workflow, too.
      Nebulous Notes is indeed one my favorite iOS writing apps, with Byword and Writing Kit.

  • You can do omething similar with Alfred, too.

    I use Notesy on my iPhone and iPad to edit text files, another great app.

    • Hey Dalton,

      Thanks for the link. We here at Mac.AppStorm are pretty much an Alfred Camp too and will have our take on this using Alfred published shortly, so stay tuned…

  • Have you tried the secret weapon? Works pretty good too :)

    • Hey Fred, I’ve had an opportunity to test TSW for a while and although it is a great way of managing tasks, it’s not as flexible as a plain text workflow with tools such as TaskPaper (and in a short while FoldingText).

      Although Evernote is a rather ubiquitous way of capture, you have to make extensive use of tags for it to really work. add to that mixture and already extensive use of evernote for other tasks and this quickly becomes unruly.

    • Thank you for your suggestion, Fred.
      I agree with Pedro, I really prefer a full plain-text workflow.
      Evernote is great for certain uses but I’m not a big fan of these ‘everything bucket’ apps. Although I use Evernote for having some sort of a online backup copy of some of my documents, I don’t like the fact that they use a proprietary format and that you have to export and import your data out of and from it. I don’t find that really future-proof.
      I also find Evernote a bit too overkill and confusing for just dealing with tasks. But that’s just my humble opinion, after all, having a workflow that suits you and stick with it is the best way of making your digital life easier ;-)

  • Clever integration ! :-)