Productivity tip: make “howto” files

I picked up a good trick from Russ Taylor in grad school. He kept a “howto” directory, and any time he ended up doing a bit of research to find out how to do something, he’d document it in a tiny file in a howto directory. I picked up the habit, and in my personal howto directory at Google I now have 1750+ little files. They can be as simple as how to do a gnuplot with dates or how to restart a particular web server, or they can be as long as you like. In the worst case, just take the command you lovingly constructed and just copy and paste it into a text file. For example, I’ve got a file called “extract-tar-files-to-stdout” with one line:

tar -xOf freedb-complete-20040908.tar | grep DTITLE | less

These days, I’m trying to train myself to throw my how-to files up on the web instead.

48 Responses to Productivity tip: make “howto” files (Leave a comment)

  1. I got the same thing going on…

    Each time I do something new on my PC, like a registry tweak, I write up a simple step-by-step walkthrough for it – so that I know exactly what I did, in case I want to reverse it. Or, someone else would like to do the same tweak; I have the reference readily available for them.

  2. I want to have a blog for each thing I do.


  3. use your favorite se: rcjordan usemod wiki

  4. good tips, would be pretty time consuming getting them on the web though

  5. Why not put them on an internal Wiki?

  6. Here’s another somewhat obvious tool for organizing how-tos you may run-across or post on the web: Google Notes.

  7. >time consuming getting them on the web

    Nah, that’s why I made the comment about the wiki as a howto. Mine’s primarily howto and memory-jog notes and not open for public consumption. So I do a lot of cut & paste from sites, text files, sprinkle in some urls. One thing I try not to do, however, is post passwords in the wiki. Cryptic hints, yes.

  8. I started doing that as an archive for myself and its actually built into a successful website. It started with documenting things for myself (so I don’t forget!) and has since turned into a popular howto website. Definitely a good idea Matt.

  9. Matt, just dump all 1750+ into a readable directory and link to the top level. Google can do the rest 🙂

  10. Heh. I still have a howto directory on one of my boxes too. But, yeah, finding stuff on the web tends to be easier, so I put ’em there when I can anymore.

  11. I use Google Notebook for a lot of that – simple and portable, available everywhere. Keeping URLs with the entries also makes them more valuable to me, I can take my closest one and follow the links. Do you write them for yourself or for “anyone interested”?

  12. What a timely post… over the last week I’ve been pondering a personal hosted wiki or where I should just dump things into Google Docs…

  13. If only there were such a collection of guidance for the Google webmaster guidelines that discussed each guideline, defined the terms, gave examples, showed common mistakes. Stuff like that?… : )

  14. >just dump things into Google Docs

    I’m not familiar with G docs, but I’d strongly caution against any 3rd-party wiki/blog/solution UNLESS it allows you to ftp in and grab a backup copy of the files. This howto has a way of becoming extremely valuable after a while, it’d be a shame to have it go poof.

  15. Matt,

    Wish list for 2007 is to have blogger sites be seperate from the main index with their own search apparatus and don’t let links on those blog sites influence the main index.

    That would get rid of a whole lot of MFA sites.

  16. For me the best way to save small snippets of text (or large ones – e.g. the terms of service everyone agrees to but nobody reads when signing up for a new web site) – howtos, readmes, ideas, addresses, and so on, is to mail myself a copy with a descriptive subject line. I use Thunderbird for email and it’s very quick to do a keyword search of the subjects, since Tbird is always the first app I start after reboot.

  17. I am keeping a wiki for the same purpose. It is a great way to organize the how-to’s, and others can contribute.

  18. I do this too, but using Gmail or Google bookmarks. If it is complicated or multistep, I’ll send a message to myself in Gmail and then star it. Most of my stars are little how to things. If I found the information on a website, I’ll star it in Search History and use that to find it.

    Doing it this way is nice because if I’m away from my normal computer, I can still find out how to do these things at a moments notice. I probably won’t post them because they are mostly personal things I have to do on my servers or machines.

    Oh, I also have a few shell scripts on different machines to do maintenance or fix things, which is even nicer :).

  19. Google Notebook works really good for snipping bits from the web that you need to remember for your howto. It even saves the link to the original page so you can find additional details if ever needed again. It’s much better than bookmarking a page and hoping that you’ll ever find the one piece that you needed help remembering.

  20. Teddie, some of my howto’s are Google-specific and/or proprietary. So I put them in a web-crawlable directory off my www directory, and Google’s intranet search appliance finds them just fine and ranks them just fine for people within Google.

    Eric Wettstein, I agree, but I started my howtos back before any of these things really existed. I posted this more as an explanation if you suddenly see a rash of “how to recover a horked Firefox” type posts. It’s easier just to throw new howto’s up on the web. 🙂

  21. Matt

    “These days, I’m trying to train myself to throw my how-to files up on the web instead.”

    Where..where? any URL.

    Does it contain that particular file “Whitehat SEOing for Google” 🙂

  22. I like what Aaron Pratt said.

    ‘I want to have a blog for each thing I do’

    Actually at times I get really angry at myself cause I easily get carried away from work and start browsing, looking at blogs, going to forums and as soon as u know it, 2 hours are gone.

    Now i gotta read the code I was working on again.

    Hopefully this year I’ll be more productive and waste less time.

  23. Can we expect some Google how-to’s soon? For example, a how to that explains how a frame-based site can survive on Google?

  24. I have a compilation of about 800 FAQ files of my own but they are offline. Personally I would probably go with Wiki for such a project, its easy to edit, breezy navigation and a common UI.

  25. Everyone says wiki, but many wiki solutions have higher overhead for entering a note than your text file solution does.

    I suspect that for you/us to use it, the UI has to be as cheap as:
    – get to the page
    – one click for ‘new item’
    – type title
    – change to body
    – type body
    – one click for ‘done’

    Fortunately, is just like that! It’s refreshingly different.

  26. Yep great tips.

    This is how I started my first couple sites… my own how-tos.

  27. Speaking of “how to recover a horked Firefox” type posts” … Has anyone seen a post anywhere yet on how to get Firefox to -not- go unresponsive when you are checking through bookmarks? I have a folder in my book mark toolbar that absolutely pauses for about 2-5 minutes when I click it in the morning. After about 5 minutes Firefox unfreezes and is ok for most of the day. Randomly, sometime after that it’ll go through the same process. Perhaps some type of refresh or something?

    I’ve read some stuff on various FF forums but no solutions that I’ve seen just yet.

    I feel sorry for ‘Sussie’ but unlike her, I’m not going to post my Q 8 million times. Btw (feeding the trollie) frames bite. Consider it a lost cause. It’s like flash based content, it’s fun/cool/interesting but there are problems when it comes to flash/frames/search bots…

  28. Matt – a perfect job for the web which indexes and distributes the knowledge. If every tech person put out all their little collective tips and hacks and repair notes you’d have a massive tech knowledgebase that needed nothing to organize it other than … Google or Yahoo or MSN or ASK.

  29. I had a text file with differents commands or instructions in each line, actually I have about two thousand lines with things like:

    tcpdump -nXvSs 0 ip and host x.x.x.x -w log.txt
    tcpdump -r log.txt -nXvSs 0|more

    But this tip is more useful and organized.

  30. OH man, Sussie.. Please stop it with the same questions and pleadings over and over again. There is more to be learned here sweetie. 🙂

  31. Can we expect some Google how-to’s soon? For example, a how to that explains how a frame-based site can survive on Google?

    Oh dahlink, you have zzzzzzzzzzzo MUCH to learn about ze web! Ze frames, zey are all WRONG for you! Ze code, ze multiple pages, ze maintenance, it’z juzt so 1998! You don’t want ze frames, really!

    You mussssssssssssst learn about ze wondrous zing dey call Cee-Ess-Esssssssss! You can make many stylish and zexy pages, and YES you can even make zem look like frames TOO! Izn’t dat juzt ze mozt FABULOUS newz you have ever heard? Oh, it’z to DIE for!

    You want to zee? Of course you do! Here’s a link zat will help you:

    Isn’t zat nice? And no frames whatsoever (Example 1 and 2 on zat site are ze demos), zo it’s zearch-engine-friendly too!!!

    You juzt follow ze code zere and zis uber-zexy Euro-package will be yours. Ze site, not me, zilly pooch!

    (Scary thing is that I actually have done this alterego in public. Never a good idea in a warehouse full of 300-pound tradesmen, just in case any of you wanted to try. Not that I’ve done that or anything.)

  32. Choose the Best of the Best of your how to files – organize them by theme and put together a New Directory on this Blog

    Then submit that directory as a Digg – Reddit – Netscape – Delicious

    Share the Public Stats

  33. I too have been collection info in various forms, a really long text file (that would make a much better database at this point – conversion hell).. some how tos have become thier own text document, a few in spreadsheets.. I have been pondering long and hard lately about doing a wiki or passwd protected blog for saving tidbits on the web to reference later.

    The google notebook in the comments here sounds interesting, I am gonna have to try that out. I had been envisioning a style program with comments so how tos and info tidbits could not only be tagged but discussed and added to by others who have some expertise or done more research.. is there anything out there like this yet?

    Glad to see I am not the only one gripping with information overload!

  34. I wanted to comment about using Google Notebook, it’s great, but I see it’s already been suggested. I’m a computing nomad, using desktops in several offices, at work, home, and even a laptop, occasionally. Google Notebook is a great repository, but has a few teething problems. Still, it’s worth suffering some minor rough edges.

  35. I thought I’d point you to for a public place to put code snippets like these and organise them with tags, etc.

    A local backup can be maintained by downloading the RSS feed to a local file.

  36. TiddlyWiki is also nice for this, as TiddlyWiki is a personal Wiki in one HTML+Javascript file, so you don’t even need a webserver. (TiddlyWiki is also the basis for the offline wikis now available from SocialText .) I don’t work at either organization; I just use TiddlyWiki and have looked quite a bit at Kwiki (SocialText’s cousin).

  37. I used to do it until about a year ago. After that I installed a media-wiki just for me, later a good friend and collague of mine joined.
    Since then our “intranet” grew to an ever more important ressource for everything. Not just related to Linux, Java or Asterisk – even important or maybe secret contacts and phone numbers are shared.
    Some weeks ago I noticed my parents needed exactly the same thing: My father constantly forgets the right type of contact lenses my mother needs, my mother wants to know how to make a dvd from a DVB-S recording and so on.
    The power of a wiki for that stuff is in the level of forced structuration – it’s easy just to add some “stuff” and later categorize or structurire it.
    I really would like to use a confluence instead of media wiki instead, if there just wasn’t this price tag…

  38. I have read yesterday, in the valley are some startups with NEW search-ideas and they have got dobble-digit millions 4 them. One idea is as followed: the user should ask the engine questions in full sentences.

    I wrote last year in this blog, something about my content identification and this seems to me on same (right) way. But no one asked me 4 my further ideas! It is always the same: if they saw my
    Never seen, nor heard about
    in the logo of (ex) artlight-design,
    all the people thinks as:

    this idea might be good, I try it for myself.

    How should I act now?

    I make a ”howto-make.file” and describe my Content-Vectors in it as:

    Verb acting with
    Adverb describing it
    Comparison compare with it

    to the Substantive, as the most important factor in sentences to look after content

    Google, in some cases react very well in this area
    As you may see here:,GGLG:2006-20,GGLG:de&start=10&sa=N

    but in most other cases the rule 5 words left and five words right is to easy, to be able to see content really. Later should this part solve their users for them, as their slogan says:

    The cream comes up itself!
    and browsertools should help too.

    But this tactic has a big whole and therefore: please look at these vectors above and optimize it 4 real content searches.

    And as long the old systems runs, I have my own SEO-rule #1

    GoogleSerps are ever right, but if not, I try to find possibilities to make
    what Google seems to see on these sites (if the rank was ok)!

    Greetings Karl Heinz

  39. Hi Steve and everyone, is a site that is a collection of user-submitted how-to guides for any business topics, from SEO to venture capital. Users can also comment on and save others’ guides. The how-to guide input form is pretty highly structured – good for some purposes but overkill for others. It does offer decent visibility amongst a small business community.

    Check it out!


  40. Thomas i was checking out Confluence pricing and i agree it is expensive but they do allow for a personal License. I got the info from there website below

    “Personal Licenses

    You can use Confluence as your personal wiki for free.

    * Limited to two users.
    * The Personal License doesn’t include support from Atlassian.

    A Confluence Personal License entitles you to:

    * Deploy a single instance of Confluence onto a single server in a non-commercial environment;
    * Full access for up to two registered users;
    * Unlimited anonymous visitors – allow as many people as you want to read and comment on your pages;
    * Unlimited pages, spaces and comments;
    * Perpetual Confluence use; and
    * Software updates for 12 months.”

  41. what about WikidPad

    i use it all the time to write up things like this

  42. I want to see the HOWTO find the command I need in one of those 1750+ files 😉

  43. In search of the perfect personal online/offline repository…

    I’ve been using as a personal repository for several years, but that’s a bit cumbersome. I started using Google Notebook, but now that’s gotten cumbersome too, having more than a few dozen topics and a few dozen notebooks. Google docs are slow.

    You can download/backup your archive, but not your Google Notebook.

    Perhaps a better repository would be a personal Google Group?

    You can email notes into it.

    You can keep nicely formatted, updated pages.

    You can upload/download files…

    Why not?

    Whatever it is, it should be available to any wwweb browser… no app to install… and there should be a downloadable backup, as a safety-net…

    Ideally, there would be online web access, also a downloadable backup. When not connected to the internet, that becomes an update-able “live” backup which can also be uploaded, mirrored or restored. Dynamic re-sync, even? Workgroups, too? a-la Lotus Notes?

    Anything out there now that works for all these computing-nomad needs?

    … could be the next killer app?

  44. It all sounds great, but what if Google decides to stop hosting some service we all love and use ?? Especially if it’s marked as Beta. I guess my hard-drive can crash as well, or my house can burn down with all my CD backups stashed in the basement.
    Does google guarentee anything when it comes to file safety ?

  45. I think Google Notebook and bookmarks works really good for snipping bits from the web that you need to remember for your howto.
    Yahoo answer is a good wiki service too

  46. We use a simple CMS system, similar to Joomla, with all content easily organized and faq pages easily made, and of course this can be easily viewed internally or published. Just a suggestion, it’s worked very well so far and we are amassing a huge knowledge base that’s not only easily search-able, but nice looking and presentable as well.

  47. thnxxx

  48. I also tried this once – but I just didn’t had the discipline to keep up the good work… 🙁 nice to see, that someone has!