Managing To-Do Lists in Plain Text

The Problem

I’ve tried just about every to-do list/task manager under the sun. There are more on-line web sites that do this than you can shake a stick at. The problem is that you have to be online for them to work. Then, for my work, at least, there is the issue of putting potentially sensitive information to an untrusted and insecure online service. (Not to mention firewall issues.)

A Plain text solution

I finally gave up and just put it all in a text file, using a Lifehacker recommended format that has evolved into a standard at

Tasks all live in a todo.txt file and look something like:

(A) +ACME @review weekly report 
(A) +ACME @email Doug due:2013-03-29 
(B) +Misc Fill out timesheet 
+ACME Automate release procedure @build 
x 2013-03-08 +Misc Finished task

I’ve taken pieces of various python scripts to create my own custom that suits my needs and allows me to add items, list out my to-dos in various ways, mark items complete and archive them in a done.txt file.

This method has served me well over the years. I can sync a text file back and forth between my desktop and laptop over the local network, but really have wanted a way to group tasks by project. The todo.txt format only knows tasks, so every task has to have the +ProjectName on the line with task. This works ok unless you have a +ReallyLongProjectName. Typing long project names with every task…I just don’t have that kind of time. I ended up abbreviating project names.

Another option – TodoPaper

TodoPaper is windows-based to-do manager that has a format much simpler than the todo.txt:

  • Lines ending with a colon are projects.
  • Lines starting with a hyphen and a space are tasks.
  • All other lines are notes.

- Here is a task 
- Here is another task @today 
Here is a note.
- Here is a done task @done(2013-04-03)

You can add tags, with a special @done tag that identifies completed tasks.

Here’s what it looks like in TodoPaper:


TodoPaper works just like a text editor, but adds configurable highlighting to the lines so it is easy to see tasks and mark them done by selecting a check box. It also allows you to show/hide projects so you only display what you’re working on.

The cool thing is that although by default it saves files to a .todopaper extension, the files are just plain text and could as easily be saved to a .txt. The format is completely readable in a standard text editor.

Features of TodoPaper

There are a number of features that I really like about TodoPaper.

First of all, it allows you to add tasks to your list from a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-Space by default), so you don’t have to switch over to the application if you’re in the middle of doing something else. You can select which project to put the task in, and give it a default project (like Inbox) to assign later.


You can also easily move tasks from one project to another by right-clicking the task:


Another thing that I like about TodoPaper is that it allows you to view your tasks in different ways.  Normally, my to-do list would have 20-30 different tasks in several projects. It might look something like this:


TodoPaper allows you to collapse different projects so you can focus on only one project at a time:


Or you can filter tasks by searching for a particular word or tag, so you only see the tasks that match:


TodoPaper also has an outline view, so you can easily navigate to a certain project in a file. You can also create multiple tabs of your to-do list with different search terms so that easily navigate between different search terms in a file.


And finally, once you’ve marked a bunch of tasks as done, you’d like to get them out of your way.  With TodoPaper, you can archive those @done tasks to an Archive project at the bottom of the file.


The tasks are tagged with an @archive(ProjectName) tag so you can see what project the task came from.


TodoPaper is useful tool in Windows for managing  a large, complex to-do list, but it still keeps it in a easily portable, plain text format.  I can sync my to-do list between my desktop and laptop just as I did before.

I would definitely recommend it with one caveat, TodoPaper is a little pricey at $30. It comes with a 15 day trial, so you can try out TodoPaper before you have to buy it.

If you’re interested, go check it out at Widefido.

Update: Jordan from Widefido is providing a 50% discount until April 15 on TodoPaper.  Use the word “balance” in in the coupon field when you check out. Thanks, Jordan!

(Note: I was given a free copy of TodoPaper for me to evaluate for a review.)


Cut the Blue Wire…No the Red!

We had an oven failure occur in late March.  The oven would turn off for no reason, leaving my wife with raw baked goods on a couple of occasions. 

My prior successes in appliance repairs gave me the confidence to tackle this job as well.  I took these pictures to help me remember where to plug in all the cables.


Unfortunately, this time it was replacement of a $120 electronic module (below), but I guess I saved on having the repair guy walk through the door.


DIY Dryer Fixing

March also brought the opportunity of fixing my own dryer. My take-home lesson on the whole fix-your-own-appliances thing is:

  1. – This is the place to go for all the troubleshooting/repair steps to take.
  2. Pray for wisdom – A definite must for the clueless DIY’er.

And for those of you just looking for a little dryer eye candy:

Here’s the guts with the drum taken out.


Here’s the culprit of the whole problem, a thermal detonator fuse.


PC Recovery

January started with technology troubles.  I had a hard drive crash in our laptop and ended up having buy a new hard drive as the one that died was really dead. Fortunately, I had a backup.


If you’re interested in all the gory details, you can read ‘em here, here, and here.

Envelope Budgeting…No Really.

Envelop budgeting.  It is a concept that I learned years ago when I first got married and was trying to set up a budget.  The concept is fairly simple: You take your paycheck, divide it into different “envelopes” for your different expenses, and then pay for those expenses (groceries, gas, mortgage, eating out) out of those envelopes.  When the money is gone from that envelope, then you are done with that category…until your next paycheck, when the process starts over.

The theory is simple.  In practice, managing the envelopes, turning your paycheck into cash, dividing it up and keeping track of all the expenses can be a bit cumbersome.  This is a perfect job for a budgeting/finances software program.

I started trying to envelope budget on Quicken back when it still came as a DOS program on floppy disks.  It didn’t lend itself to envelope budgeting and I had to “hack” it to get it to work using “credit card accounts” for each of my envelopes.  Not an easy solution, but it worked.

Over the years, I’ve used a number of other programs that were either made for “envelope budgeting” or I willed it to do so by using it in a way it was never intended.  One program for which I had some hope was Larry Burket’s “Money Matters” program that was developed in the late 90s.  It was actually designed to manage your finances using virtual envelopes, and for a while, I finally felt like I was using the program like it was intended.

Unfortunately, the program was buggy and it was difficult to manually enter your financial data.  I later got a sample of “Microsoft Money”, and saw how easy it was to import data and do manual data entry and abandoned the envelope budgeting software altogether.

I fought Money for years, trying each new version that came out, hoping that they would somehow incorporate the “envelope budging” concept into it.  I loved how easy it was to use from a data entry standpoint, but always felt like I really didn’t know where all my money was. I just gave up.

In early 2008, I was leading a small group that was to help teach how to budget and get your finances under control, and I found myself again looking for a “envelope budgeting” program.

logo[1] I ran across a web site, “You Need a Budget.” It sounded corny, but promising.  I had seen them in previously when doing a Google search for “envelope budgeting”, but they had previously only had a spreadsheet budgeting tool.  Now they had “YNAB Pro”, a windows program that followed 4 rules for budgeting.  It wasn’t exactly “envelope budgeting”, but as I played around with the software, I liked it better than any other program I had used in a long time.  The “rules” were compatible with “envelopes” and after using for a few months, I felt like I had control of where all our money was going again.

YNAB is now coming out with a new version that looks even better, easier to use, and runs under Adobe’s AIR framework, so that it can run on platforms other than Windows (i.e. MAC and Linux).

I have found this to be the best tool on the market to track your bank accounts and keep track of your budget.

[Sorry if this sounds like an advertisement.  It is, kind of.  But more of an endorsement of a great product.]

When Geeks Cry (Part 3)

(A little technology rant about how it has recently let me down.)

Part 1

Part 2

I’m big on backups.  I backup incrementally every few days, and a full backup once a month.

Of course, I wasn’t always like that.  Backups were more of a chore when trying to backup your PC to 50 floppies, or 20 CDs.  Man, what a pain!  It was worse than going to the dentist.

So backups were very few.  And I had that uneasy feeling that if my little hard drive encountered an errant alpha particle, I’d be sunk.

ghost Then, on the advice of a fellow geek, I found Norton Ghost 9.  Previous versions of Ghost required that you boot off a CD, but version 9 could create a hard drive image while you were still running in the OS.  And it could do it automatically on a schedule.

So I bit the bullet, bought an external hard drive case (EIDE to USB), a copy of Ghost, and a 150 GB hard drive.  And my worries were over.  I didn’t have to worry about losing photos or documents (or the OS for that matter).

One time I had to restore an image when a Microsoft update went south.  I was a little nervous about it, but after a couple of hours my PC was back up and working with no problems.

Acronis Then we got a laptop, and the 150 GB hard drive started feeling a little tight.  So I bought a 500 GB hard drive and a copy of Acronis True Image 10 because the laptop ran Vista, and I had heard that Norton’s version of Ghost didn’t work on Vista.  Also, Acronis was a little cheaper.  I tried it out and it worked great. It seemed even more reliable than Ghost and seemed to be less flaky.

All was well until the hard drive crashed on the laptop.  But since I had my image backup, I thought that I’d have no problem.

So once the new hard drive came, I installed it easily.  I booted the PC off of a Acronis True Image boot CD (which I had to burn, myself).  (This was a little strange to me, because I could just boot off of the Norton Ghost CD directly.)

But it booted up, but then started acting flaky.  The mouse (track pad) wasn’t working right and it couldn’t find the external USB hard drive which contained the restore image.

Again, and again I tried, even booting into a “safe mode” where it didn’t load certain drivers.  I finally got it to start restoring the image (which it said would take 8 hours to complete), to find out that it had locked up a couple of hours.

Reboot, reboot, reboot.  I growing increasingly frustrated and desperate.  I had the image. I had a new hard drive.  But I just couldn’t get one on the other. The Acronis Boot CD did not like the USB drive at all.

Finally, I used a GParted disc (a Linux live CD that partitions hard drives) to create another partition on the new hard drive.  Then I used the Vista Restore CD to get a command prompt, and did an XCOPY of the drive image onto the second partition.

Now I could boot up and restore the image from the 2nd partition.

(I learned later from reading the Acronis support forums that I’m not the only with such a problem. The Acronis boot CD is based on Linux and doesn’t play well with some drivers.  They recommend building your own CD based on BartPE.  I don’t recommend this unless you have some serious geek cred…and a Windows XP installation CD.)

Finally, after hours of pulling my hair out, I got the laptop up and going again.  It was back to its old self (minus the hard drive problems).

I was battle weary from fighting technology.  Wiping off the blood, sweat and tears, I went to bed.

When Geeks Cry (Part 2)

(This is a rant about technology, and how it has recently let me down.)

Part 1 here.

I had left our laptop for days trying to get the hard drive to work again.  It had been running SpinRite for several days and was making slow progress.  There were several sectors of the hard drive with a big red “R” on them, indicating that they had unrecoverable data.

Ironically, I wasn’t concerned about the data.  I had just backed up the laptop hard drive with drive imaging software only a couple of days before, and we didn’t have any data that we couldn’t get at from our other PC.

It didn’t seem to be the program either.  I had tried running it on another computer, and it scanned the entire hard drive in several hours, with no problems.

I was beginning to lose hope that I was going to be able to fix it, and would have to buy a new hard drive. I started pricing them online.

And after a couple of days, my wife asked: “So what’s the deal with the laptop?”  She encouraged me to buy a drive and get on with our lives.

And so I ordered a drive from Newegg, and watched the UPS tracking.  I still let SpinRite do its thing, but it let me down.  I had believed that it was cure-all, but it wasn’t–at least in my case.

“Once the new drive comes, our problems will be over,” I thought, “I’ll restore the lap top image, and have it up in no time.”

I was wrong.