Productivity

Moving from Quiver to Joplin

[Executive summary: Joplin is awesome. If you’ve ever used Notational Velocity, nvALT, Quiver, Simplenote, or any other note-taking app that supports Markdown, give it a try. I think you’ll like it.]

For years now, I’ve kept a lot of useful information–the sort of stuff I used to jot down on a Post-it note and lose–in software fit for the purpose. Lots of people have a Word document or a spreadsheet somewhere, but specialized software does a better job of storing, organizing and–most importantly–finding such things. It’s perplexing that there isn’t even a good name for this category of software. The are, essentially, digital notebooks. But note-taking itself isn’t really the point (or, at least, the entire point). They’re fine for note taking and plans of all sorts. But they’re especially useful for those little bits of information that you need to be able to find later but that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. They are easily searchable repositories for all matter of data you might need in the future, and that you’ll lose otherwise. They are like a well organized attic or file drawer, but one that’s easily searchable.

Quiver

I had been using Quiver, a relatively unknown application from a one-person development team called Happen Apps for years now. But it gave me a scare a few days ago on my 2020 M1 MacBook Pro, which is running macOS Big Sur, 11.4. Many notes were blank, and I wasn’t sure why. Their titles still existed, but the contents of the notes were blank. After the initial shock of it, I had the presence of mind to check the same entires using Quiver installed on my 2017 MacBook Air, which is running the older macOS Catalina, 10.15.7. The notes were still there. I was relieved, but I also realized it was time to move on. Quiver hasn’t been updated in a long while. And the developer isn’t responsive. If this disappearing note thing is a real issue, there’s no telling how long it will take for him to fix it.

Quiver user interface
Quiver, showing a note in Markdown and a preview of the same

Enter Joplin

So I searched for alternatives and found Joplin, which I’d seen and even tried out once in the past. It was the app I recommended to my Windows friends (yes, I have a few) as Quiver is a Mac-only app. I decided that Joplin was the closest thing to Quiver in terms of features and even had some advantages over it, like a truly functional mobile app. That left me with the problem of moving data from the old system to the new one. But that, too, was resoled fairly quickly and didn’t take a tremendous amount of work.

Joplin user interface
Joplin, showing a note in Markdown and a preview of the same

All my Quiver notes were in Markdown format, and I continue to use that format in Joplin. I got into using Markdown for my notes before I adopted Quiver, when I was using nvALT (another Mac-only app, no longer in development) . Markdown is a great language for anyone who has ever done web design, web development, or any sort of programming. The original idea behind Markdown was to create a markup language which was writer friendly and human readable which could be exported to HTML for use on blogs. But it’s grown to be something generally useful for a lot of applications, especial note taking, and it can be exported to many formats, including PDF. Markdown shows up often as a formatting option in a variety of software, including blogging apps, Content Management Systems (CMS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS).

So, what’s good about Joplin? Lots of things.

As you can see from the screenshots above, the interface is very similar to Quiver, so it was an easy jump for me. But, even if you’re coming to it from some other platform–or just getting your feet wet in apps of this sort–the interface is easy to navigate and gives you multiple ways to organize things. As you can see from the pane on the left, I like to organize my life by folders within folders. I have top-level categories for Home, Freelance, Haas (my full-time job) and Upward Bound (my part-time job). [As of 12/20/2021, I have a new full-time job.] I mostly navigate things this way, but, for things that cut across folders, I take advantage of the tagging feature, which is near the bottom of that left-hand navigation menu. I have a tag called “starred” that I use for things I consider super-important, as it lets me pull all of them into view with a single click. How you arrange is up to you. you can put everything in one folder and use tags to navigate, you can use folders and ignore tags entirely, or you can blend the two, as I do.

Joplin is open source software, and the project itself is quite active. Checking the Joplin project on GitHub, I can see there was a desktop release six hours ago. For me, having moved my notes archives to what is now their third home, picking an active open source solution means it’s not as likely to go dormant, as nvALT did and Quiver apparently has.

The biggest improvement is that Joplin is cross platform. While I’m not likely to abandon macOS for Windows, it’s nice to know I could and to be able to recommend this software to Windows people. But, for me, the real cross-platform value is that there’s a fully-functional iOS version of Joplin. Quiver had a read-only app. nvALT didn’t have a mobile option at all.

I could go on, but I won’t

If you need a trusted system for storing all manner of notes and data, Joplin is your friend. If you use Dropbox OneDrive, or WebDAV, you can easily sync your data to the cloud. If don’t use any of those, Joplin has its own cloud service, Joplin Cloud, which is one of the ways they make money on the free apps.

Moving Quiver to a new Mac

Quiver from Happen Apps

I care a lot about note-taking apps. My favorite, for many years now, has been Quiver, from a small, independent software development company called Happen Apps, a one-person shop run by developer Yaogang Lian. And I’m always telling people how great it is, because I don’t want it to ever go away.

Quiver is great because it lets you easily mix Markdown, code snippets, text, and several other formats in a single note. The interface allows you collect notes into notebooks, tag them, link between them, and easily search across them all. I use it as a personal knowledge base for pretty much everything.

Today, I decided to set up Quiver on a new laptop. But, of course, I wanted to be able to access my 1,000+ notes on both my old laptop and my new one. I use Dropbox as a home for my notes. So the procedure is a fairly simple one. But, as with many things, having it documented is helpful. And it gives me yet another excuse to sing the praises of Quiver.

Step 1: Download and install Dropbox and, in Preferences –> Sync –> Selective Sync, click the Choose Folders button and be sure to sync your Quiver Data folder. I call mine quiverData, and I’ll use that for this tutorial.

Step 2: Download and install Quiver. Quiver will fire up its default library, which contains a nice tutorial notebook, as you can see in the featured image for this post. You’ll be tempted to muck around in the Quiver Preferences, especially the Sync or Backup sections, to open your existing (Dropbox-synced) library. Don’t. Instead, from within Quiver, choose File –> Open –> Library. Then navigate to your quiverData folder and choose the Quiver library within it, which will be named Quiver.qvlibrary.

Then, if you have many notes, get a cup of coffee, because Quiver will need to go through them and index them locally. You’ll see a screen similar to this one:

And that, thankfully, is it. Once Quiver finishes syncing, you’re good to go. Notes edited on any of your Macs via Quiver will be kept in sync and securely backed up thanks to Dropbox.

On Wunderlist and Productivity

[Update, May 31, 2020: As you likely know, Wunderlist was bought by Microsoft and its functionality rolled into Microsoft To-Do. For those of you interested in Wunderlist, here’s a list of 11 alternatives, kindly provided by the folks at Chamber of Commerce. — James]

For a while now, I’ve been using Wunderlist to manage my projects and to-do lists at home and at work. And it’s working so well I thought I’d share a description of my setup with you, gentle readers. What follows is a fairly long-winded description of how I (currently) keep my personal and work ducks in a row.

I like to keep my home and work projects separate. I’ve tried mingling them, and it makes things harder for me to manage. While I don’t follow Getting Things Done as religiously1 as I did in the past, I still like the concept of the Inbox, a place where tasks go before you sort them into projects (or contexts). Having two task inboxes requires two Wunderlist accounts. Since Wunderlist accounts are tied to email addresses, I have two gmail accounts. The older of the two is tied to my home account. The other (which is my nickname + “atwork” + @gmail.com) is tied to my work account.2

Recent versions of Google Chrome, my web browser of choice at home and at work, have a “People” menu which you can use to quickly switch between accounts. This is handy at home, where my wife, Gina, my son, Haden, and I share a MacBook Pro. But it’s also handy for switching between my home and work profiles. When you select someone from the People menu in Chrome, it launches a new browser window. Each window is tied to an account (the name of which resides in the upper, right-hand corner). So I often have two Chrome windows running, one for my Wheat stuff and one for my WheatAtWork stuff. Each window will have seven or eight tabs open. And more than likely, each window will have a tab devoted to Wunderlist.3

The separation of home and work becomes especially handy when it comes to integrating Wunderlist with email accounts. The company where I work is a Microsoft shop. Everyone uses Outlook. I’ve known people who used Outlook’s Tasks feature to manage their todos, but I’ve always found it lacking. But it had the advantage of being integrated with Outlook. See an email with a task in it? Flag and move on. Using anything third-party meant copying and pasting, which is more trouble than it might seem.

In June 2015, Microsoft bought Wunderlist. This worried me, and I made preparations to jump ship. But, quite to my surprise, Wunderlist under its new corporate overlords has continued to evolve in a good direction. The boys in Redmond haven’t simply fleeced its intellectual property and shuttered it, as I had feared they would. One of the biggest perks of the acquisition, for end-users like me, is Wunderlist now has an excellent Outlook integration (there’s more about it at the Wunderlist Support Center). On Outlook for Mac (Office 365 subscription required), the add-in gives you two buttons. One turns your email into a to-do based on the subject line and gives you a chance to edit all the details. The other, Quick Add, button shoots the email to Wunderlist as is. It’s great for fast-paced days when you’re trying to make sure you capture everything, even if you have to spend some time later sorting it all out.

I’ve only been using Wunderlist for Outlook for a few weeks, but I love it. Most of the poor reviews of it are due to difficulties installing it or frustration that it isn’t available for certain editions of Outlook. To be fair, Microsoft has no one to blame but themselves for that. Their product offerings have always been needlessly complex.4

So, that shores up work. How about life at home? Wunderlist doesn’t yet offer an official integration for Gmail, but the folks at Zapier do, and it’s simple enough that you can use it on their free plan. Zapier is one of those platforms that lets you connect web services together without having to know what an API is, much less how to code. They call each of these little workflows a Zap. And the Zap I currently use is called Create Wunderlist tasks from starred emails in Gmail. It’s a dull name, but it accurately describes exactly what the workflow does. You star something in Gmail, and it goes to your Wunderlist Inbox (or wherever you choose when you configure it in Zapier). I’ve tried a few of these web-pipe-fitting tools before. The folks at Zapier have the best UX and a rather amazingly broad range of integrations. Honestly, it took about two minutes to set up and test the integration.

So, there you have it. If you decide to set up something similar for yourself, let me know how it goes. So far, having two Wunderlist accounts, two Gmail account, one Zapier account–all free, is helping me keep track of everything I need to track.