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Building a Better iPad Outliner (with Nebulous Notes)

I own OmniOutliner. It’s a fantastic app when you’ve got a job to do on your Mac. However, I’ve written before about how frustrating the sync options are – the Omni method of going back and forth between the Mac and iPad versions of OmniOutliner just doesn’t work for me. It’s awkward and assumes I have a decent data connection. Sadly this is often not the case in conference rooms that sometimes do a passable impersonation of a lead-lined coffin.

What I’m left to do is create a new outline for my meeting on the iPad and then find a way to merge it back into my larger weekly meeting outline file on the Mac. It basically makes my iPad useless for taking meeting notes in OmniOutliner because the steps necessary to go back and forth are too much to bother with.

Up until yesterday, I was hauling my 13” Macbook Air around from room to room, keeping a large outline of the week’s meetings in nvALT. Since my machine was doing a backup yesterday, I cracked out the iPad and decided to figure out a way to solve my outlining problems once and for all.

My workflow relies heavily on two things – Dropbox and text files. Dropbox is the hub for all documents and does a great job syncing things back and forth between devices as well as home and work. The key to working with these files on the iPad is having an app that works well with Dropbox (and there are many) but also has the capacity to create a clear, easy-to-read, well-indented meeting outline.

There’s no clear winner on the latter part of that requirement so I enlisted the help of Nebulous Notes, a universal app which I’ve been using on my iOS devices for some time. It makes use of TextExpander, markdown and has a great macro feature which I thought might take advantage of to replace my iPad’s OmniOutliner for good (or until they make sync work the way I need it to).

My meeting notes consist of a header which contains the meeting name and a time-date stamp. I have had a TextExpander macro made for this for years and the naming consistency has helped me find many a meeting entry over that time. I just type “newmeeting” and it fires a macro that puts the cursor right where I need it.

- **%| %m%d%Y %H%M%p**

Once the meeting header is set up, I need a new line a tab and a hyphen so that markdown formatting can take over, creating nice, easy-to-read indentation. While there are some ways that Nebulous helps out of the box, such as providing a “Tab” button, it was still a lot of taps to enter the new line, hit the Tab toolbar button, hit the keyboard alternate button, find the hyphen, tap that, enter a space, etc.

Nebulous also supports custom macros in addition to the canned (albeit helpful) ones already on the toolbar. Custom macros can be put on the toolbar for quick access as well. All of a sudden this ad hoc, plain text outlining tool starting looking much easier…

The first macro is one that creates a new line, single tab and a hyphen as described above.

[return]$tab- 

Seems easy enough but it saves a ton of keystrokes and tapping. Now, when I’m on the end of a topic line, a simple button tap sends me into the details. But what if I want to create two levels of detail? Simple, another macro with two tabs. The last piece was to create another macro to add a hyphen when needed instead of the three-tap method I was current dealing with. (I realize the “slide the finger to quickly access the alternative keyboard” trick works on the iPad but it takes far longer than hitting one of Nebulous’ macro buttons.)

Just by setting up those few macros, I have create a fully-realized meeting outline tool in markdown using Nebulous Notes. The outline in the same format I’ve been using for years and is searchable, extensible and ubiquitous thanks to Dropbox. The beauty of this is, after the meeting is over, the notes I’ve just taken are ready back at my desk – they can be inserted into an email to the team with a simple copy/paste.

It’s always worth taking a look at old processes and see what you can improve. If you have to do something more than a few times, it might be time to see if you can automate it, or least take some of the pain out of it. By removing friction, you’re not only making yourself more productive but you’re also taking away some of the frustration that keeps you from doing things in the first place.