Making the Move to Plain Text


So this whole plain text thing has piqued your interest. You might be thinking that living and working (either partly or in whole) in plain text is right for you.

Chances are, though, that you’re not sure where to begin. Don’t worry: you’re not alone. When I started down the plain text path, I was a bit lost. To be honest, I overthought the whole process. But here I am.

Let me share a few ideas for making the move to plain text with you, ideas that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Ask Yourself “Why?”

If you’re moving to plain text because that’s what some guru or productivity hacker uses and they’re convinced it’s the be-all end-all, then stop.

You need a better reason for making the move to plain text than just following the crowd or listening to the advice of someone else. Even if that someone’s me.

You need a compelling reason, a why to move to plain text. A reason that’s yours, not someone else’s. That reason could be to escape distractions. It could be to streamline and strip back the way you do things to make them more efficient. It could be to make it easier to move your work between computers and devices. Or something entirely different.

Just make sure the reason is a strong one, one that sticks with you.

Think About What You Want to Do in Plain Text

Plain text isn’t for everything. It does fall flat, in some cases quite spectacularly.

Think carefully about what you want to do in plain text. That could be:

  • Staying organized
  • Taking notes and gathering information
  • Managing your tasks
  • Writing drafts of articles, blog posts, papers, book chapters

That’s just the start. Once you know what you want to do in plain text, you’ll be better able to embrace its constraints and choose your tools.

Start Slowly

Don’t just jump into the plain text waters. Ease yourself in with a plan.

Let’s say you want to use plain text to better organize yourself. The most obvious place to start is with your to-do list. Use plain text exclusively for your task list — ignore other tools you might use. Then, gradually start using plain text to create your daily or weekly schedule.

Once you’re comfortable using plain text for those tasks, gradually start doing more with plain text.

Choose Your Tools

Base the tools you use on what you need to do. For example:

  • If you want to take note and organize your information, use a dedicated note taking tool like Laverna, nvALT, or Simplenote
  • Todo.txt is a great plain text to-do list manager
  • Or just use a text editor for everything

Don’t go overboard and fill your hard drive or mobile device with software and apps. Remember that one of the goals behind using plain text is simplicity. Having to bounce between several tools defeats that purpose. Believe it or note, for much of what you need to do in plain text, a text editor is more than enough.

If you don’t know what tools are available or where to begin, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Give It Three Weeks

It takes a little time to get used to using plain text. Yes, I am speaking from experience. When I was trying to get on the plain text horse back in the early 2000s, I tried to do everything too quickly. I fell off that horse a few times and wound up abandoning plain text on an occasion or three.

That’s why I advise people to give working with plain text about three weeks before making a final decision around whether to stick with it or not. Use those three weeks as a trial period. Why?

It will take you a bit of time to transition and adapt. It will take you a bit of time for you to learn and work around the constraints of plain text. It will take you a bit of time to get into the flow of working in plain text.

At the end of those three weeks, might find that plain text isn’t right for you. Then again, it might just be what you’re looking for.