If you’re like me and use Notational Velocity1 as your primary writing tool, it’s probably because you realize that Notational Velocity makes the process of exporting thoughts to text frictionless. Great, isn’t it? But as easy as Notational Velocity makes it to start writing, Notational Velocity can’t help you finish writing. That’s still on you.

If frictionless note-taking has turned into endless drafting, it probably means that you’re simply spending too much time popping idea tokens into that big coin slot atop Notational Velocity’s interface and not spending enough time redeeming them for shippable products.

Fortunately, there’s a simple fix for most finish-less writing workflows. It’s basically a matter of using some tools you already have, then tweaking your attention budget a bit.

Use smart folders

Your Mac has an exceptional file system. It tracks all kinds of things. Searchable things. Smart folders are saved searches that you can access anytime right from your Finder sidebar. Adding a few of them can turn your Mac into a full blown, paid-for content management system.2

I use a smart folder to keep an eye on Notational Velocity files that start with “draft,” my indicator for, you guessed it, drafts.3


See those gray files up there? That’s Hazel’s doing. She keeps an eye on my Notational folder and slaps a gray color label on drafts that I haven’t touched in a while. If I decide to revisit one, she dusts it off again.

Tag but don't tag

Okay, you can use Notational Velocity's tag field if you want. I won't stop you. But I prefer to use simple text tags embedded in notes that I want to chain together. For example, if I'm working on a series of something, I'll put #seriesname in each note, usually at the very bottom. Makes it super easy to show all those notes at once by typing #seriesname in the search field.

Mind your q’s

I use a really simple adaption of Merlin Mann’s “q” trick to flag drafts that I think have real potential. I simply put qqq in the note name of any draft that I really want to finish. That makes it super easy to recall them anytime by typing qqq in the Notational Velocity search field. If I have an hour to write, I try to ship one of the qqq’s.

Review (or don’t bother)

If you're running an attention deficit today and skipped already down to this point, relax; you're still okay. This one's the most important. It pulls it all together.

I’ve learned that you have to review your text trails on a routine basis. At least once a week, I look at what I’ve generated in the last week, my old, gray drafts, and my qqq’s.

This is really just a borrowed GTD concept. Reviewing is perhaps the most important ingredient that you, as a non-computer, can add to any productivity workflow. By reviewing, you ensure that you don’t just get things done consistently, you get the right things done. It’s as true for writing as it is anything else.

If you’ve developed your own tricks for finishing things (even non-writing things), I’d like to hear about them.

  1. My favorite version of Notational Velocity is Brett Terpstra’s nvALT.
  2. Sometimes I put goofy, unique pieces of text in file names. For example, ProjABC would be in the name of any file associated with project ABC. I then set up a saved search to show me all these files. That way, it doesn’t matter where they’re saved or what format they’re in. Call it the meta-less man’s tagging system.
  3. This assumes you've set Notational Velocity's preferences to store notes as plain text files—something I recommend doing to fully future proof your writing and make it accessible in any, way, shape, or form.