The simplest file format is plain text.

When I was in elementary school, I used a word processor for school assignments. By today’s standards, I was working with stone knives and bear skins. For its pre-mouse day, it was state-of-the-art.

I don’t even remember the name of that app. Nor do I have any of the files that I created with it. (It’s been a while since I’ve even had a 5¼-inch floppy drive.) If I did, I doubt I’d be able to open them.

Plain text, on the other hand, is future-proof. Word processors come and go, but you’ll always be able to open a plain text file, whether it’s ASCII or UTF8.

This is why Markdown is so popular. It’s a plain text format that can be opened, viewed, and edited in your favorite text editor. It can be turned into a markup language like HTML when you need to publish it. It still looks perfectly understandable in your favorite text editor. (Fun fact: I write my blog posts in Markdown.)

TaskPaper is Markdown for tasks. It‘s a plain text file that can be opened in any text editor, but it has a lightweight syntax that gives specialized meaning to the status and attributes of your task list. There’s an app by the same name to make working with TaskPaper (the format) a more interactive experience. You can use it as your primary task manager and be perfectly productive.

OmniFocus understands TaskPaper. You can copy and paste between OmniFocus and any text app.

Why would you do this?

  • Get your Someday/Maybe list out of OmniFocus. A Someday/Maybe list is a place to track ideas you have for things you want to do someday… maybe. You might not do them ever; you’re certainly not going to do them now. While you can track your Someday/Maybe list in OmniFocus—I have for years—it does have its downsides. Namely, you keep bumping into them. It can be overwhelming. Because you can copy and paste TaskPaper text between OmniFocus and a plain text file, you can easily move these ideas to and from external storage. To really boost your geek cred, Rosemary Orchard has a post on how she does this using git.
  • Automate your workflow. Automation is a great way to get more done with less effort. One simple form of automation that anyone can use is to create a plain text file with templates for any projects you regularly use. The next time you need to create a project from the template, just copy the TaskPaper snippet from your template file and paste into OmniFocus. No scripting required!
  • Create a backup. No matter how careful we are, sooner or later, we’re going to lose data. OmniFocus (on macOS, at least) lets you create backups of your database which you can store offline. That’s the recommended way. If you want to create a backup that you can also read with a text editor, copy whatever you need as TaskPaper.
  • Share project updates where OmniFocus can’t. OmniFocus does many things well; sharing project updates with others isn’t one of them. If you’re tracking a project in OmniFocus, you can copy the TaskPaper representation and send it to the other stakeholders. It’s faster than retyping.
  • Capture a project quickly. You can quickly jot down a list of projects, tasks, and subtasks in TaskPaper using any app, then import it into OmniFocus. More on this below.

When you copy a task out of OmniFocus, it has all the information you need to reconstruct the task in OmniFocus. For example, here’s a complex task I just copied from one of my projects:

- Book review @parallel(false) @autodone(true)
    - Review Atomic Habits @parallel(true) @autodone(true)
    - Create book review post @parallel(true) @autodone(true)
    - Schedule book review @parallel(true) @autodone(true)

If you don’t want to memorize the OmniFocus extensions to TaskPaper, that’s fine. You can capture just the basics in plain text and tweak it

- Book review
    - Review Atomic Habits
    - Create book review post
    - Schedule book review

TaskPaper is a lightweight syntax to give structure to tasks and projects when you’re working with plain text. You can copy and paste with other apps, build automated workflows using Shortcuts, and even track everything you need to using this simple notation.

Having a standardized notation is important when you’re sharing information with other humans. Every goal you set, every project you scope, and every task you jot down is going to be shared, either with someone else or with your future self.

Question: Where do you use plain text in your workflows? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.