How nvALT changed my life


If you’ve been a regular reader of my ravenous Rubenerd ramblings for the last eight years or so, you know I don’t use the phrase “changed my life” often. A quick regex search for variations of that phrase in my Jekyll archive returned less than four examples. Three, specifically.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been an avid fan of Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann’s Back To Work programme on the mighty 5by5 podcast network. As far as I know, Merlin hasn’t ever specifically talked about nvALT, though he name dropped it enough times to know he must find it valuable. So I decided to check it out.

Brett Terpstra is systematic in win

A continuation of Notational Velocity by the lovely Brett Terpstra, nvALT can be thought of as an interface for your own text file repository, whatever that means to you. I know plenty of people who are happy using word processors or other tools to take notes; for me nothing has ever beat text files since I stared as fresh-faced kid at the Windows 3.1 Notepad.

The misleadingly simple interface features a text window with a list of note files attached. Above these, a search box allows for searching across all these notes. Behind the scenes, nvALT can store your notes in an encrypted database, or as plain text files you can sync.

Why was this enough for me to move away from Vim/NERDTree and a locally running Wiki for my notes? It wasn’t, who gave you that idea? It was a combination of these three things:

Three little s/words/reasons/

First, that search box doubles as a new note generator. Type a note that doesn’t exist and hit Return, and you start a new one with that name. Add a keyboard shortcut on OS X and you have a way to capture any idea as it comes to you. Huge.

Second, it supports Markdown. Why should you care? Because it lets you add a little consistent structure to your notes without much effort at all. Other software will recognise and parse it. I didn’t see point of Markdown until I started using nvALT.

(Markdown also lets you export HTML, but I see less utility in that).

Third, and perhaps the most critical for me, you can link between notes with double square brackets. I had been running a local Lightty web server to run a personal wiki precicely for this purpose. Overnight, I was able to reduce my note taking system overhead by a few quadrillion percentage points.

And here’s the crazymaking part

I’ll come clean, I wrote this post in February 2012 and let it languish in my drafts folder. Since that time, it’s gone from a nice to have curiosity to an integral part of my existence. I’ve taken two semesters of university notes in it. I’ve even begun importing other notes from various systems into it.

Author bio and support


Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person in bios. Hi!

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