org mode

It takes me a while to adapt to new things with the computer. While I pick things up pretty quickly, I'm aware that it takes a while for me to adapt to new ways of working with the computer. I like to settle into a system before I start changing the key bindings or writing scripts (which I always think will be more successful than they are). This seems reasonable, and is generally something that I'd recommend to other people looking to learn "cool new stuff." Go slow.

In light of this realization this post will be a review of some of my more recent adventures with org-mode. For the uninitiated, org-mode is really a subsystem of the emacs text editor. [1] It's really powerful, and has a lot of disparate features that combine to do something really kind of magical. On one level, org-mode is just an outlining program: it provides some shortcuts and interfaces that make writing structured text really productive and pleasurable (e.g. easy navigation, block folding). On another level, org-mode is a fully featured calendaring and task/project management tool. The brilliance, is that it isn't just and outliner or a task manager, but it provides accessory tools (like a great calendar, and even a table/spreadsheet functionality) that integrate the environment.

I found about this two months ago, and I've slowly started to ease into using it. This past week, however, I think I crossed some sort of boundary, because I started using org-mode for most of my note-taking and project planning/organization work. And now that I'm here, I think a small series of blog posts is in order.

I'll start, I think with "mistakes I made," as I couldn't hope to explain everything the system does, and explaining how I'm working right now isn't nearly as interesting.

My first approach was to keep an org-mode file in all of my project directories, so that the .org file would be close to the files where the actual work was going on.

Wrong.

Turns out, keeping all your org-mode files together seems to work a lot better. Org's calendar/project planning features work by generating "agenda views" of todo items and time-specified events. While the system could pull from a half dozen different project directories. Keeping things centralized means that you can add new files willy-nilly, it makes it easy to keep things synchronized between machines.

My second approach was to keep one org-mode file and divide projects using the hierarchical nature of the file to keep things straight.

Wrong.

Turns out, that while we can represent all of our projects hierarchically [2] beyond a certain level it doesn't make a lot of sense to implement "categories" or project headings in this way. Org-mode provides a tagging infrastructure and the aforementioned agenda tool to tie together files, so while you can go overboard in creating new org files, you're probably not incredibly likely to for a while. Use outline hierarchies to represent information, use files and tags to categorize and sort your headlines.

When I discovered the agenda capabilities, I made todo items out everything and started giving all of my tasks dates so that they'd be sorted into the agenda view.

Wrong.

Turns out, you can get agenda to generate a list of undated todo items before the agenda view, and that--at least for the way I work--setting soft deadlines and scheduling tasks just confuses the point rather than facilitating action. Org-mode also has a system for task priorities--which I haven't felt the need for--but I think the larger lesson here is don't attach arbitrary information to items in your org-mode files. Let the agenda mode do it's work, and you do yours, and it'll work out.

I started my ~/org/ directory [3] by creating .org files for all of the major projects in my life. Fiction writing, day-job, the blog, academic work, so that I'd be able to collect similar kinds of notes and todo-lists together in files.

Wrong.

Turns out, that while some of the setting up big sphere-based org-mode files is unavoidable, the truth is that given the power of the agenda filter, putting a lot of information that is only casually connected in the same file doesn't make much sense when tagging can provide needed meta-data. There's a happy medium between "dividing things too much to the point where there's too much 'system' to manage," and "not dividing enough so that you have to build informal systems in the outline which complicates the organization." In my experience "too much division" is much harder to reach, and "not dividing enough," is quite easy.

I'll be blogging more about org-mode in the coming days and weeks. Stay tuned :)

Onward and Upward!

[1]There's this joke about emacs, that "it's a good operating system, but it lacks a good text editor." I think the truth is that, emacs is an ok (but not exceptional) text editor, but it opens so many other possibilities for interacting with text in amazingly productive ways, that it's managed to garner the loyalty of people like me.
[2]I'm not positive of this, but emacs itself might owe it's existence to this kind of work, as it's built around an lisp interpreter, which is a language used by AI researchers in the 60s because it could reflect the way we think. Or so the theory goes.
[3]Really, it's not a directory, as much as it is a git repository. And this is I think this is a point where text-file geeks will say oh! dude! that's cool, because really org-mode provides interfaces to parse together text files, which you can: take everywhere, version and sore easily, save forever, and hell branch if you need to. A calendar. Dude!
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