Living a Plain (Text) Life

I didn’t use to take a lot of notes, and whatever notes I had were on physical notebooks. But I found that they were hard to search for when I needed a particular information. Once I purchased an iPad, I wanted to continue taking notes as if I’m using a notebook with the added bonus of the notes being easy to search so I researched some note taking apps I can use with the iPad.

There were many great ones, but the one I settled with was OneNote. I had everything there, from technical notes to work notes, ranging from casual to structured notes. I bought a nice screen protector that introduced a bit more friction to the screen and that made the note taking experience better. I was so into OneNote that I got my two siblings (both medical students) into it and got them iPads so they can take notes.

This worked great for a while. I had a huge repository of notes. But over time, I realized that it suffered a discoverability problem. It was also hard to take a note on mobile. I couldn’t properly search for the hand written notes… So, I slowly started taking fewer and fewer notes.

For a long time, I have also been reading e-books. However, around 2-3 years ago, I realized that I don’t do a great job of reading when I’m reading on a screen, especially on iPad. Then began my search for a paper like device. I knew about reMarkable and wanted to give that a shot. A friend of mine bought it and she loved it. I thought I could use it to take notes like on OneNote with the bonus of feeling like I’m taking note on a paper. I was hoping that I could also search for handwritten notes. I bought it on sale and tried for a bit. But excitement for it was short lived.

First, I couldn’t take notes on mobile any more. I was tied to the physical device. Then displaying notes on desktop was not well supported. Exporting notes were hard, and useful features required subscription… So, I realized it’s not for me and returned the device.

After that disappointment, I started browsing the web for note taking systems. I stumbled upon a note taking system called zettelkasten. This video from YouTube content creator Morgan did a great job of explaining it for me and I instantly got hooked on it.

All the failed attempts made me realize that the systems I was using didn’t satisfy a few criteria that I need for a good and convenient note taking experience.

  • Ability to use Vim to edit notes

    This is not a must-have, but since I do most of my day work in Vim, it’d be very easy for me to fire up a new buffer and start adding notes. It would make the entry barrier to note taking as small as possible for me so I don’t have an excuse for not saving a note.

  • Easy to search

    I need to be able to search for an information easily. Something like grep, which is what I’m used to for code.

  • Easy to connect to other notes

    Ideas don’t come in isolated pieces. A holistic approach to note taking makes it easier to connect these ideas together and potentially form new ones with those connections. I was not able to do this with other note taking apps. Maybe I could have done something but switching back and forth would have been a pain.

  • Ability to edit files in a cross platform way

    I’ve long been a big believer in easily portable formats for data storage. I like that I can use whatever software I want to display a file, edit it, and save it. If I one day go from macOS to Windows, from iOS to Android, or use a different software, I can still access my notes the same way. Ideas also come when I’m not on my computer, so being able to take notes on whatever device I’m using is very important.

  • Markdown

    As a software engineer, I use markdown every day. Its simple syntax would mean I can add some bells and whistles like bold text, to do items etc without using specialized software.

In order to check the first box off, I quickly created a very simple Neovim plugin. I only wanted some wrapper functions around the existing Vim functionality. I wanted a plug-in that would just work without fancy options. The fanciest thing I would need is a way to list my notes with some additional information about back links, tags etc. And that is the most complex part of the plugin. The rest is just providing some sane defaults for markdown files. You can learn more about it on my GitHub account.

Then I needed to find a solution for editing my notes on the go because I don’t always have my laptop with me. And that search led me to an app called Taio. It’s the best markdown editing app I’ve used on mobile or desktop. The developer did a fantastic job! It has a very simple editing interface, provides text actions in a way that doesn’t distract you from the core functionality of editing markdown files. I highly recommend checking out this app If you are on an Apple device. I leverage Taio’s text actions feature to create zettelkasten.nvim compatible notes so I don’t rely on Vim for creating new files when I’m on mobile.

Now that I have a way of editing markdown files on desktop and mobile, I need a way to share those notes. I use Apple devices so I chose iCloud to store my notes. On desktop, I use Vim to edit my notes. And on mobile I use Taio. Since I have the full power of markdown, I can easily view it on Vim, and use Taio for a better markdown viewing experience. iCloud on macOS is horrible though. So, I’m hoping that Taio will soon support third part cloud providers so I can move away from iCloud.

Creating a Note on Desktop

I do most of my work on the terminal and I’m mostly in Vim. So when I want to record something, I simply run :ZkNew to create a new note. And I get a new buffer that looks like this:

# 2022-10-10-19-02-35 New Note

Then, I edit my title, add my note and save. The good thing about using time stamp for files is that I can change my title to something else later on and I don’t need to change all the references to this file.

If I need to attach an image or another file to my note, I simply put it in an assets/ folder and prefix it’s name with the note’s ID.

# 2022-10-10-19-02-35 Workouts

![Workout image](./assets/workout-gifs/one-leg-gecko-bridges.gif)

I can then either view this file in a Markdown viewer on desktop, Taio on mobile, or press <leader>p to preview an image on desktop.

I can even use Mermaid.js to embed diagrams to my notes and render them to SVGs for displaying in Vim, or just use Taio’s markdown viewer to display them.

Creating a Note on Mobile

No matter how much I wish, I’ll never have the same ergonomics of using Vim on mobile. So, having a mobile friendly way of creating notes is important to make it as convenient as possible to create notes. Otherwise, if it’s hard, I’m not likely to record whatever I wanted to record.

Thankfully, I can use Taio’s text actions to create new files.

  "actions" : [
      "type" : "@editor.new",
      "parameters" : {
        "location" : 0,
        "openInEditor" : true,
        "filename" : {
          "value" : "$.md",
          "tokens" : [
              "location" : 0,
              "value" : "@date.format(yyyy-MM-dd-HH-mm-s)"
        "text" : {
          "value" : "# $ TITLE",
          "tokens" : [
              "location" : 2,
              "value" : "@date.format(yyyy-MM-dd-HH-mm-s)"
        "overwriteIfExists" : false
  "buildVersion" : 1,
  "name" : "Zettelkasten Note",
  "clientMinVersion" : 1,
  "summary" : "",
  "icon" : {
    "glyph" : "wand.and.stars",
    "color" : "#FE824B"
  "clientVersion" : 1051

You can save this JSON snippet as Zettelkasten Note.taioactions and import it into Taio to use it.