The end of One Big Text File

by Giles Turnbull

I have a confession to make. Remember how I was so excited about using the One Big Text File approach to organizing myself and my work? And how that sparked off quite a lot of debate at 43Folders and elsewhere? Well, I've abandoned it for something else.

This is because after a while I (a) started losing myself within it, and (b) found it didn't quite suit my needs (more on that in a moment), and (c) I got bored.

My new approach to managing workflow looks like this:

Yup, three Finder windows. Amazing, huh?

Before I explain it, let me explain what I mean about finding something that suited my needs.

My job is all about writing articles. As a freelance, success depends upon me having plenty of ideas for new articles. I think up lists of ideas, then pitch them to editors of web and print publications. Typically, those editors will respond saying they like a few of those ideas - so those become work that has to be completed, usually to a deadline set by the commissioning editor.

That means there are some ideas that have been rejected; mostly because they're just Bad, but sometimes because that publication has covered the same subject recently and doesn't want to do it again, or because there's not enough space to include it. Those ideas might still have life if they're shown to another editor; perhaps with a little revision or background research beforehand.

After years of trying out notebook applications, a variety of wikis and outliners, and most recently the one-file-fits-all idea, it suddenly occurred to me that I was making my life more complicated that it needed to be.

I decided to simplify.

There was something of a lightbulb moment when I realized that the basic unit of my professional 'workflow' is the idea. (I say workflow in quotes because, let's face it, the workflow here is pretty simple: have ideas, pitch 'em, write 'em. That's it.)

Each idea can take one of three paths:

  • idea -> pitch -> commissioned

  • idea -> pitch -> rejected, revise and pitch again elsewhere

  • idea -> pitch -> rejected & abandoned

My One Big File was fine when it came to writing articles and keeping track of my todo list; but it failed me in terms of tracking ideas. I kept losing new ideas, and forgetting which ones I had pitched to whom.

Since the unit of workflow is the idea, I decided to change my computer habits to reflect that. I spent a few hours looking at various mindmapping and idea-managing applications, but ultimately came to the conclusion that they didn't offer the kind of simplicity I was after.

My solution was three rather ordinary Finder windows. One contains all my new ideas, one idea per file. Since I tend to write in BBEdit, they're all BBEdit files, but I'm not restricted to that. My ideas can be created and stored using any software that suits.

Another directory stores ideas I've pitched, and am awaiting feedback on. A third is for work-in-progress.

Now some people might be reading this and slapping their foreheads, saying "Doh! That's so obvious! It's an In Tray and an Out Tray system." And it's true, I do feel kind of silly for not implementing something like this before.

But it was because I was dealing with the wrong problem. I was trying to save time by keeping things in One Big File - I thought that the lack of mousing around was the most important thing, that being able to keep my hands on the keyboard all the time was the priority.

This new approach requires a little more use of the mouse but it is much simpler, and more effective. Now, when I new idea strikes I can jot it down in an instant in a new text file. I can look at my list of ideas and decide quickly what needs to be developed, or written immediately. By implementing this, I've also separated my workflow from my todo list - in effect, creating a 'workflow' for myself for the first time. Seriously, I've never been as organized as this.

An in January, I'll probably try something else


2005-11-02 03:36:36
Use Finder for a 43 Folders set-up.
Nice epiphany :-) I also is trying to use the Finder as a workbench (opposite all kinds of special software) for organization.

I have always (since I read Dave Allens book) loved the idea of the 43 folders, but I don't live in the real world, organisation wise, to implement a real 43 folders system. Instead I want to implement it on my iBook and to that end I have created an iCal event that via an AppleScript each morning opens todays nad yesterdays folders in a base "43 folders" set up. I also have an AppleScript in the script menu that opens up tomorrows folder of "43 folders". I.e. I have a complete set of 43 folders as a part of my Finder Organization/Planning "tool" In these folders I can drag shotcuts or original files of "whatever" and keep procrastinating them or getting them done. Remember also that next months tasks/URLs/whatever waits in the "December" folder and so on.

2005-11-02 03:38:14
Use Finder for a 43 Folders set-up.
argh! not possible to correct errors :-/ Sorry!
2005-11-02 05:52:41
I use a similar method of organization, but instead of working from the Finder, I keep open in BBEdit a whole folder of my most-used files (mainly ideas, quotations, and notes). The drawer in BBEdit 8 allows me to scan many files worth of information while staying in the same window. (The Disk Browser function is also useful for this.) The advantage of this method for me is that every significant piece of information, because it is in its own file, can be described via its name -- I'm really just using filenames as the simplest (and most useful) form of metadata. Of course, other text editors (TextMate, for example) allow for similar strategies, but the flexibility of BBEdit for displaying, organizing, and searching is unmatched. With my beloved Markdown plug-in, I'm good to go for almost any writing project.
2005-11-02 06:50:55
missing something?
I must be missing something. Why use separate folders? I mean, if all the different folders signify is different status, why not use one folder with the Finder color tagging scheme?
2005-11-02 13:09:47
Information Manager
I think you describe exactly the reason why I never started using an Information Manager. There are very different “views” at the list of ideas and projects. For example, I need a list of projects by status and another time a list by topic. There is no way to organize this in a directory tree or in (static) folders. And having only the file name within a directory is another limitation.

A few weeks ago, I started using TiddlyWiki. It has been pretty useful so far because I can switch between views and get full text items. In general, I would like to have a program that is a kind of (flat) database or structured file with tags for each item so that I can access the items with dynamic folders or lists. But an easy access to the tags would be key issue to move items quickly from one status to another.

The problem is actually very similar to the management of bookmarks. But tagging offers a new approach that could result in a better information management. See for example: and

2005-11-04 09:29:43
White Space in TextWrangler
This is close to what I want:

Preferences>Editing: General>Extra Space in Text Views

It is almost what is needed but doesn't force the window to update and keep the insertion point in the vertical middle of the page.

From the TextWrangler User Manual:
"Extra Space in Text Views To have TextWrangler leave extra empty space when you scroll to the end of a text view, choose Half Window or Full Window here."

I've always wanted this feature when writing on my Powerbook. I hate having to write with the new text at the very bottom just above the bexel.

2005-11-04 09:31:04
n00b mistake, totally wrong article.
2005-11-12 13:16:39
missing something?
A fair question. The answer is: because I'd have to remember what every colour meant. That might sound daft, but I think I work better with *spatial* clues than *colour* clues. A glance at my three Finder windows tells me the status of any one article, or how much work needs to be completed right now, without me having to think. Colours might suit some people, but I prefer to have the spatial separation.
2005-11-14 04:41:20
Lots of little files work for me too
That's funny - I used to use pretty much exactly the method you describe here, but was lured away for a while after reading your piece on using a whopping great text file, but found myself getting lost in reams of pasted-in press releases and mysterious jottings I had no memory of making. I think that you need to have an organised mind to cope with the big file way, and I don't, so I'm back to lots of little files.

One difference: rather than mouse around, my main interface with all the little files is Quicksilver - since you can create text files with it, append and prepend text to files with it, and tag files with it, everything but the actual business of writing (I'm a freelancer too) can be managed very quickly without bothering with an editor. Eg. I create a file with QS, tag the file with 'idea' and the paper or magazine it's potentially for, and, quite often, that's that until I get a comission or rejection (my idea files are often empty - filenames are enough unless it's something I need to research).

Then if I need to dig around sorting things out, I can either search with Quicksilver in the single folder where all this stuff lives, or I can just open, eg. the Smart Folder that looks for text files with the keywords 'idea', 'magazine-xyz' and 'topic such-and-such', and if a pitched idea is rejected, I can just remove the tag for that publication from the idea file.

Sorry to go on - I find these glimpses into people's organisation methods worryingly fascinating, so felt moved to share!