January 13, 2010

My Personal Information Management

Update 1/18/10: This is the first part of a two part post.

Organizing one's personal information can be amazingly complicated, especially if you want fast and light weight access to commonly used information, and you access information across devices and operating systems. It is even trickier if you want to future-proof yourself so you can access all of your information in the future as well. I have tried many solutions including Outlook Notes, OneNote, my own NoteLens, and EverNote. However, I think I have a solution that works for me (based on this solution by dougist) - at least for my basic unstructured stuff. And the solution is both simple (relying on the most basic of storage systems - a folder of text files) and complex (relying on multiple syncing services and end-user UIs). Note that even though I still use Windows a fair amount, I run it in a VM on a mac, so this software is all Mac, but of course since the data is all text files, everything is also accessible on the PC side. Here it goes:
  • Everything is stored as individual text files in a single folder. Sure, I lose fancy formatting and images, but I get guaranteed future-proofness, I don't waste time formatting, and it turns out that I don't really need images. And tagging is supported if I wanted to add a bit of structure.
  • I use Microsoft's free peer-to-peer Live Sync cross-computer cross-operating system syncing solution. I've tried the others (SugarSync is unreliable, and DropBox requires all the synced files to be under one directory - ugh!). Live Sync is fast and reliable. I love it. (Although I got mad at Microsoft when they didn't update it for Snow Leopard for 2 months).
  • I use my buddy Jesse Grosjean's free SimpleText program to sync the text files to a free Google-based web service that he runs. Note that this has one flaw which is that it sends stuff up to the web whenever there is a change, but only pulls stuff down when you sync manually - so one option I am considering is to use it on one computer, and then use my existing Live Sync solution to sync those files across all my desktops (while I wait for Jesse to add auto sync down from the cloud.
  • I use Jesse's WriteRoom for iPhone app ($5) to sync those files to my iPhone and access them there.
  • I use Jesse's WriteRoom for Mac app ($25) for full screen, distraction-free text editing.
  • I use the open source Notational Velocity program on Mac (which is remarkably similar to my earlier NoteLens app)
  • I was able to export my notes out of EverNote as HTML, and then used the freely available HTMLAsText (for Windows) to convert to text. (I wanted to like EverNote - it has a great feature list, but in practice, it didn't work for me. The UI was too heavyweight, layout changed between operating systems which was a nightmare, the UI was quite different between operating systems which was annoying, and I didn't like the Windows UI which had a weird scrollbar, and made a vertical list of all the notes rather than a notebox that just displayed a single note).
Update 1/15/2010: Some other bits - I use xmarks to sync my bookmarks and passwords across computers (and VMs). This coupled with Firefox's master password to protect passwords is crucial - it means I no longer have to manually save passwords. Coupled with Firefox's fantastic URL bar with one-click bookmarking, my webpage re-finding is dramatically better (direct comparison to Safari and Chrome upcoming - but firefox definitely wins).

I also use Microsoft OneNote for my meeting notes (with the data synced across computers with Live Sync). This makes me uncomfortable because it is Windows only and the data is totally locked in to OneNote. But the UI for note-taking that combines very flexible formatting of notes along with images, embedded files (like PDFs) and ink (when I occasionally use a tablet) make it unmatched - so far.

Notational Velocity UI
(Note: screen capture and annotation with Skitch)



Jesse Grosjean said...

Ben thanks for your post. Few comments...

Anytime SimpleText for Mac does a sync it's a two way sync of all changes. So (if autosyncing is on, it is by default) then anytime you make a change locally you'll also soon get any remote changes. But SimpleText for Mac doesn't currently do any automatic poling. So if you don't make a local change (that automatically starts a sync) then you don't get server changes unless you sync manually. Eventually I'll likely add poling, but in the meantime you can do it yourself via applescript. SimpleText for Mac supports a basic applescript dictionary, that includes a sync command. So you can force a sync from the command line with:

osascript -e "tell application \"SimpleText\" to sync"

Then for poling behavior you can put that in cron or whatever.

Also there's one (at least! :)) bug that you are likely to run into. If you create a new note in Notational Velocity (and have autosync turned on) you need to wait a few seconds for the initial sync. If you begin typing content in the note immediatly you'll lose that content when the initial sync is completed, because SimpleText for Mac rewrites the file when the sync is completed and Notational Velocity will notice that change and reload the file... but lose your changes. They are working on a fix for this.

Erik P. Hansen said...

Holy crap, Jesse! I was just exporting a quick screencast that demonstrates the bug you just explained. I was going to send it to you but I see you know exactly what's going on so I won't :) I was really startled the first time it happened to me. Notational Velocity's Paste as New Note function doesn't seem to suffer from this issue, for what it's worth.


David K. Park said...

I'm going to give this a try. I loved FolderShare but after Microsoft bought it I had trouble logging in on my Mac. How do you sync your bookmarks? I use Xmarks. Thanks for the post.

Ben said...

Once Microsoft (finally) fixed Live Sync to work with Snow Leopard, it seems flawless. Super fast, and quite remarkable that it is completely free. Current file limit is 20 folders of 20,000 files each. That means I have to be just a tiny bit strategic (by syncing a few subfolders instead of one gigantic parent folder), but otherwise is fine.

Yes, I *LIVE* on Xmarks and can not use any browser but Firefox because it is the only browser that xmarks syncs passwords so well for.

Anonymous said...

Your personal information management is way better than mine, must say you are well organized!
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Unknown said...

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