How to Add Context to a Plain Text Task List


(Note: This article was first published, in a slightly different form, at Notes From a Floating Life and appears here via a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.)

Like many people, I try as much as possible to organize myself with plain text. Which is one of the reasons this site exists.

That generally works. But plain text isn’t perfect. When using plain text for my task lists, context can be a problem. By context, I mean things like due dates, what project a task is related to, who I’m sharing the task with, and the like.

There are easy ways to do add context to your plain text task lists, though. Here are a few ways to do that.

Giving Credit

And it’s due. Most of the ideas I’m going to share with you in this post are adapted from Getting Things Done (GTD for short), a popular productivity system.

Yes, I know that I’ve stated countless times that I’m no fan of GTD. And I’m not. That doesn’t mean, though, that it doesn’t have a few useful aspects. GTD’s ideas around concepts are something I do find useful.

With that out of the way, let’s continue.

Tagging Your Tasks

If you’ve used social media, like Twitter, you’re probably already familiar with tags. Tags are keywords that help you quickly search for and filter information. A tag consists of a hash sign (#) followed by a keyword — for example, #productivity.

I mainly use tags to indicate which project a task belongs to or the type of task it is. For example, if I’m the task calls for me to write a blog post, I’ll tag it with #blogging. If I’m working on a book project, I can tag it with the name of the book — for example, #HTMLBook.

You can also use tags to indicate who you’re collaborating with. A few years ago, I was working on a large writing project with another freelancer. We shared a plain text task list, and used the tags #forScott and #forPaul to indicate who should tackle each task on the list.

Another way to use a tag is to indicate the priority or importance of a task. I like to use a scale between 1 and 4 — 1 being the most important and 4 being the least important. So, I’d tag a high-priority task with #1. I know people who use letters (A for the highest priority and D for the lowest) instead of numbers.

Using @

The @ symbol is quite flexible. You can add it to the end of a task to indicate when a task must be started or finished, or who should be tackling it.

Indicate a date like this: @YYYY/MM/DD — for example, @2016/06/20. However, that’s a bit ambiguous. Does that mean you need to start the task on that date, or finish it by that date? You might know that, but if you’re working with someone else your collaborator might not understand what it means.

A better way use the @ symbol to indicate dates is to tack either start: or due: after the symbol:

  • @start:2016/06/20 indicates that you need to start the task on that date
  • @due:2016/06/20 indicates that you need to finish the task by that date

What about using the @ symbol to indicate who a task is assigned to? You’ve probably already guessed this by now: add the person’s name after the @ symbol — for example, @Scott.

The Caret Is Your Friend

I only use the caret (^) for dates. Specifically, the dates I need to start tasks.

How do you use it? Add ^YYYY/MM/DD to the end of a task — for example, ^2016/06/20.

The caret isn’t as flexible as an @ symbol or a tag. It does its job, though.

Can You Only Use Those Symbols?

Of course not. Use whatever keyboard symbols you want to add context to your task lists. Just make sure that you remember what context each symbol adds to your tasks. It might worthwhile creating a new text file to act as a reference of what symbols you’re using and how you use them.

Not matter what you use, it’s easy to add context to a plain text task list. You just need to use that context regularly and be consistent with it.