I have a lot of thoughts in my head (more than most, I don’t know) and I’ve been struggling for many years with the question of how to manage them. Since I spend so much time on the web, I am inclined to save my thoughts digitally. (I don’t have a Moleskin notebook or anything.)
After having played with many tools, I have (for now) settled on three. I have come to the conclusion that there are (for me) three types of data that need to be organized, and the tools I will discuss address (yet at the same time define) these categories of information:
- Lists of things to do (tasks)
- Lists of more-or-less static information (not tasks): bands I like, RSS feeds I read, etc.
- Mental dump (information that is not easily categorized or that cannot be summed up in a few words)
OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) is basically an XML file for outlines, or as its inventor Dave Winer defines it, “an XML-based format that allows exchange of outline-structured information between applications running on different operating systems and environments.” You can nest lists within lists. It is commonly used to import and export RSS feeds into a feed reader, but you can also use it to organize hierarchical information.
There are not many options to view OPML files on the web. One excellent tool I have found is Optimal. To the best of my knowledge its most recent update was in 2006 but it still works. You can upload it as a WordPress plugin or install it on your server. As a plugin it allows you to use something like a shortcode directly in a page or post to display an outline on your blog that is governed by your stylesheet. You can also use a php code for a sidebar. However, I fear that any future WordPress upgrade may make this not work, so I also have it installed on my server. It looks and functions exactly like the Optimal Browser.
Here is a sample OPML file:
Here is how the outline shows up using the Optimal plugin (click on the to expand Item 1:
You can also includes links and RSS feeds in OPML:
<outline text="Sasstrology" type="rss" xmlUrl="http://sasstrology.com/feed"/>
Although there is an online tool that allows you to create and edit an OPML file via a WYSIWYG editor (and that hosts it)—as well as a desktop editor developed by Dave Winer—I prefer to edit the XML proper. On the desktop, I make the edits directly via FTP. On the iPhone, I use Goodreader‘s sync function, in which I can choose to sync a file or folder on my server with a local version in Goodreader. I edit the local OPML file with the text editor, hit sync, and the file on the server now has the changes. I just have to remember to sync first so that when I make changes on the iPhone and sync again, there are no sync conflicts. I also make typing on the iPhone faster by using a keyboard shortcuts snippet in which “oou” expands into <outline text="" type="" url=""/>
The cool thing about having OPML files in Goodreader is that when I hit “open in…” it presents a list of iPhone apps that import OPML files like MindNode (a mindmapping tool) and Outliner (which syncs with its Online Outliner and Dropbox). Unfortunately these apps do not maintain any of the data except the text, i.e., they lose RSS feeds and links.
The downside of OPML is that it’s not private, so any outlines I have on my server only include lists of information that I am comfortable sharing with the public: my favorite apps, bands, books, tv shows, ifttt recipes, and so on. And although I can share an OPML file via Dropbox, the online OPML viewers cannot read these files.
Is It Worth the Effort?
iPhone apps (that, for example, import and export OPML files) come and go. Developers stopping supporting apps, or their companies are bought out by a larger company and the app is pulled from the App Store. OPML is an open standard, it’s basically a text file. Like RSS, I don’t see this standard going away any time soon. I keep my data on my own server. I have Optimal Browser installed on my server, so even if the plugin is no longer compatible with WordPress, the browser will still work. In addition, I think of my outlines as a way to share my interests in a format that is not “owned” by a particular social network. I control my data.
Omnifocus is an app for the Mac, iPhone and iPad developed by Omnigroup. It’s basically a task manager with lots of bells and whistles in which you can organize tasks by projects and contexts. You can sync among your devices or just use any of them standalone. One reason I Iike the iPhone app is that — using iCloud — it will import the tasks that enter the native iOs Reminders app via Siri. So if I’m walking down the street and think of something I have to do, I can tell Siri. Next time I launch Omnifocus, it imports the reminder and I can organize it by project, context and due date.
Omnifocus also supports URL schemes. In essence, if you type omnifocus:///add?name= into your iPhone Safari browser, it will immediately launch Omnifocus, open a New Action and insert the cursor there so you can immediately enter your task. Some iPhone apps like Drafts and Launch Center Pro take advantage of this feature (or callback URLs—I’m not a developer so I don’t understand how all this works) so that you can save steps in capturing your tasks.
The biggest downside of Omnifocus is that there’s no web app. If I were working from home this would not be an issue, but I work in an office where I can’t have Omnifocus on my desktop (nor would I want to because my tasks are private).
After listening to Merlin Mann so much, I “captured” a lot of my thoughts that were more complex than list items in text files. I was using Notational Velocity on the mac and syncing it with SimpleNote which works as both an iOs app and a web app. However I had some bad sync problems so I moved on to Notesy. Then I lost a bunch of data on Notesy when it was syncing with Dropbox, and I had to spend a long time on Dropbox.com recovering deleted files. Now I just don’t trust these text-file-syncing services.
Now I use Evernote as a brain dump. My data is both in the cloud and in my Mac. I back up my \Library onto an external drive. I just feel more secure with Evernote. It’s not as fast as if I were just editing text files but I can also add web clippings and attachments.