Sneaking Plain Text into the Office


In many workplaces, the dominant way of working is to use one of a couple of popular office suites. The components of those suites do several jobs, but for some tasks those components are just a tad too bulky.

No one says you have to use those suites. At least, not all of the time. Why not use plain text wherever possible in the office? I do that at that Day JobTM and have for … well, a lot of years. And I believe that with several tasks, working in plain text makes me more productive.

Here’s a quick look at ways you can sneak plain text into the office (even though you’re not really sneaking it in).

Getting Organized

We all have a few tasks to deal with between the hours of 9 and 5 (or whatever hours you work). Often, more than a few tasks. Keeping track of those tasks doesn’t need to be difficult or involve a number of applications. All you need you need to do is create a file called tasks.txt and keep it open in a text editor (even if that editor is as bare bones as Windows Notepad) during the day. Read this article for some advice on how to approach managing your tasks in this way.

Managers like their metrics. They like to know what you’ve been doing and how long you spent doing it. While you might have to fill out a weekly or bi-weekly timesheet (even if you’re a full-time employee), you can give those a pay grade or two above you a quick recap using a plain text worklog. A worklog, as you might recall from this article, is a combination of timesheet and journal. It contains more detail about what you did and when you did it.

Taking Notes

No matter what your job is, there comes a time when you need to take notes. That can be, for example, during a meeting, when you’re interviewing someone, or when you’re doing research.

It’s not uncommon for people to take notes in the workplace using pen and paper. But notebooks and notepads can go missing. You can recycle them, whether deliberately or not. Or, like me, you might have poor handwriting. If you take notes the analog way, you’ll want to type them up as quickly as possible to make them a little more permanent.

Plain text, whether formatted with a markup language or not, is a quick and easy way to do that. Using a text editor requires little or no overhead, and you can focus solely on your notes. Just remember to give the files containing your notes descriptive names, and organize them in a sensible way.

Writing

The bulk of my work at the day job involves writing. Mainly documentation. To do that, I have use a popular (though annoying and frustrating) tool for creating online help and such. But not for everything.

For release notes, I’ve introduced one of the teams I work with to a Docs Like Code workflow. I write the release notes in plain text, formatting them with Markdown. My team can review them in the version control system we use, and the comments flow back to me seamlessly.

Of course, there are a few people who either don’t have access to the version control system or who just don’t want to use it. For them I can use a utility called pandoc to convert the file to a word processor format. It’s fast, easy, and everyone’s happy.

I often write other documents in plain text formatted with Markdown, and convert them to word processor file. No one’s the wiser, and the results actually look quite good.

Is That Everything?

Of course not. There are many, many other ways of using plain text at work. It’s really a matter of choosing the tasks that are best suited to working in plain text, and then taking the plunge.