mnmlist: using notational velocity

These days I use the simple Mac program Notational Velocity to write nearly everything — notes, lists, todos, ideas, blog posts, book chapters, rambling rants to the government, and so on.

I noted this in a feature Shawn Blanc did on my Sweet Mac Setup (and indeed it is sweet), and several readers asked for an elaboration – how do I use NV?

It’s not complicated. Notational, as many of you might know, is a lightweight program that does something very simple:

  • It allows you to write text.
  • It saves these texts automatically — you never have to press Save.
  • It lets you find these texts very easily through a search bar that displays matches as you type the search, very similar to Google Instant.

The last part is the magic. In the location bar, you just start typing, and instantly whatever you’re looking for appears. Also if you start typing a name of a new file you want to create, you just press Return and the new file is create — no need to go to “New File” or something like that in a menu.


And by learning one keyboard shortcut — Cmd-L to instantly go to the “location bar” — you never need to use the mouse. Just type Cmd-L, start typing your search or new file name, and press Return when you’re done. Then start typing or editing with the keyboard.

It’s extremely simple, but it works better than any other text editor I’ve used, and so I decided it would be all I use. I haven’t looked back.

My Setup

I’ve set up a couple things worth noting:
  1. Under Preferences/Notes/Storage, I’ve set it to store notes as plain text files. This allows me to email individual text files to people if necessary, to open them in other text editors, and to access the files from my phone if needed.
  2. I also have it synchronizing with Simplenote’s online service. I don’t use Simplenote as I don’t have an iPhone (if I did I would) but I like having all my notes backed up and accessible online. You can do this under Preferences/Notes/Synchronization. It’s free.
  3. Lastly, I moved the “Notational Data” folder in which all the plain text notes are stored to my Dropbox folder. I haven’t used this yet, as I only use one computer yet and don’t need to access my files from other computers, but I like that it’s instantly backed up and accessible online — once again. It’s also free and easy to set up.

My Usage

What is there to say about usage? I don’t do too much unusual, but here are a few notes:
  1. I append prefixes to the file names so I can group things — so for Zen Habits posts, I’ll have a “zh-” prefix, before the post topic, so that when I start typing “zh” it’ll show all my Zen Habits drafts. I do the same for mnmlist posts, chapters and notes for my new book “focus”, and interviews.
  2. I make the text editing field a bit bigger than default. I just like more space. Other than that, everything is default, including font and text size and all that.
  3. It would be nice if you could write in full-screen mode in NV, but instead I will just paste a file into WriteRoom or Ommwriter and enjoy the full-screen focused glory, and then paste back into NV when I’m done, where it’s instantly saved. I love instant save — why isn’t this done always in every program?
  4. I have a todo list in NV that I don’t refer to very often. I don’t use todo lists much anymore, except as a dumping ground for things I might need to remember later. Most days I know what I want to work on — whatever I’m excited about at the moment.
  5. Instead of keeping a list of ideas for posts for my blogs, I just start a new post (with the prefix I mentioned above). It’ll have notes for the post. Then when I want to look at my post ideas, I just type in the prefix (like “zh” or “mnml”) and I’ll see the list of post ideas.
  6. I store other snippets of text, like commonly used html tags I put into posts, or links to ebook downloads for those who have trouble downloading, etc. On my old iMac I had these snippets in TextExpander, which was nice, but I’ve been too lazy to set up TextExpander and all the snippets I use on my Macbook Air so they’re in NV.

That’s about all I can think of. If you have questions, ask on Twitter and I’ll add to this post.

I love NV for its lightness, its simplicity, its speed. It does everything I need with a minimum of fuss, which is basically perfect.