Ken Zinser

How I capture thoughts and ideas in the moment


Sometime last year I came across a post by Dave Gauer all about his notebook system, and it inspired me to once again try my hand at keeping hand-written notes.

So I leaned into notebooks. Little Field Notes style pocket notebooks. I had the notebooks, I had the pen, I carried them around in my pocket. And I decided I did not like carrying them around in my pocket. Just another thing to carry. (Cue the “Pocket Diet” scene from Seinfeld.) I also never built the habit of revisiting what I wrote down, something I’ve found difficult for as long as I can remember.

So I went back to digital notes.

I’ve dabbled in the plain text lifestyle since college. After feeling really good about moving my blog to a static site generator, I was fully bought in. But I still had quotes and personal notes scattered across apps like Drafts and Apple Notes and in random text files tucked away in old folders. How could I consolidate all of them into a single directory of plain text files?

What do I call them? I couldn’t call them Notes because it would bother me too much to have notes in a folder called Notes outside of an app called Notes. I settled on Memos, because of its inherent meaning (“that which is to be remembered”) and because there was some precedent set with the Voice Memos app.

Also, where should they live? I wanted them in one spot, organized by date. iCloud was the obvious choice for me in terms of sync. But do they live at the root of my iCloud Drive? (It still bothers me how you can’t move the folders apps create in the root of iCloud Drive.) Do they live under Desktop or Documents? Documents made sense to me, memos are a kind of document, after all.

It wasn’t until I had sorted out this label and folder structure that I felt truly confident in the system. Something about finding a home and a name for the things I was making, individual text files with a random thought, calmed my brain. If it didn’t make absolute sense to me then I would find ways to tweak and tinker later on.

I made an Apple Shortcut called New Text File and placed it in a widget on my phone’s home screen. When I tap the icon, the shortcut creates a new text file (with the naming convention YYYY-MM-DD HHSS.txt) in a folder called Memos, and then opens up that file in iA Writer and activates the keyboard so that I can start typing right away.

Adding the hour and minute to the filename ensures a new text file is created every time I run the shortcut. I want my thoughts captured individually, like sticky notes. But based on the URL scheme documentation for iA Writer, you could conceivably create and add to a single text file per day by using a naming convention of YYYY-MM-DD.txt.

If I feel like I’ve found a topic I might want to elaborate on, I’ll edit the filename and replace the HHSS with a keyword or two. Since individual memos follow the same naming convention, when I look through the Memos folder these special ones really stick out. If right then and there I already know I want to turn the thought into a longer piece, I’ll rename the file completely, copy the date into the body of the text, and move it into a separate folder called Drafts.

Sometimes rather than type I dictate my thoughts to Siri. There’s a little microphone icon on your phone’s keyboard you can press to have Siri transcribe what you say.

One workflow that needs improvement is clipping quotes and excerpts from articles and webpages. iA created a couple sample shortcuts I’ve been using, but I need to tweak them to more reliably include a webpage’s URL.

I have 630 memos as of publishing this post. I still go through spurts of note-taking activity, sometimes capturing thoughts in a flurry, sometimes going days between the next file. But it’s okay because I feel like I’ve found durable, long-lasting organizing principles I will build on.