The last time I talked about org-mode, I covered a number of my "beginner mistakes,", this time I think it'd be a bit more productive to explain how I'm actually using org-mode. For those of you playing at home this is one of those systems I talked about.

I'm going to try and avoid including bits of code/lisp in this post, as I don't want to confuse "what I'm doing," with "how I'm doing it." We'll get to that point in time, and there's plenty to talk about.

At the moment the features of org-mode that I use the most are:

  • org-agenda-mode
  • checkboxes
  • org-remember-mode
  • and org-mode outlines

I also store org-mode files in a git repository that lives in my home folder of all machines that I use with any regularity. I'm running emacs-23 (ubuntu package: emacs-snapshot), generally in server-mode, with two frames open, one has "the thing I'm writing" and the other has the org-mode-agenda and some org-mode file in the other window. [1]

System Layout

At the moment I have 9 org-mode files:

1. A file the novel project, that contains background notes, and outline of the story, as well as project management stuff.

2. A file that contains notes for blog posts. This is mostly organizational, and I just add ideas as I have them and check them off and archive them when I'm done.

3. A general "codex" file, that I dump links. I've had a file like this for a number of years, and I generally find that having a catchall like this is productive.

4. A general fiction file, for project management issues related to the fiction projects that aren't the novel. I'll probably split this up as needed in the future.

5. I have two files to manage web development/design projects that I'm working on for myself.

6. One file to manage my academic/research project. Includes notes/content as well as todo items.

7. A "technology" file that contains lists of tweaks and other technological projects that I need to undertake (like switching to OpenDNS).

  1. A file for work projects and notes
  2. A journal file, for tracking activities and accomplishments.

Org-Mode Features

The features that I use:

Outlines and Checkboxes

This is a no brainier, but it makes sense. Org-mode is at it's core an outlining program, but I think it is important to underscore this. It's an outlining program. use it to create outlines. All of the talk and videos that I've seen explaining and demonstrating org-mode talk about the cool agenda functionality, or the table feature (which are great tools) but this washes over the fact that it's an outlining program.

Why am I stressing this? Because the agenda commands and all the other functionality actually works better when you have a bunch of files with outlines in them. When you have outlines to deal with, you can tag the items that are truly "actionable" with "TODO" (or other action words) and include them with your agenda items. Or if an item/heading on your outline is time sensitive you can use the org calendar system to toggle deadlines/schedule points. And lists below headings can have checkboxes, which is a great boon, as well. But, if you work backwards and attempt to anticipate what agenda is going to do, then you're loosing some of it's functionality.

Brainstorm. Write notes. Add TODO flags to items that require attention. Add deadlines or schedule points if they're time sensitive. But don't organize the outlines for anything other than their utility as a reference document. Org-mode does the rest with....


The org-agenda mode is the glue that makes the whole system work, as it aggregates items together from all your org-mode files. I've set mine up so that it displays a weekly agenda with all open TODO items. This way I can see everything that needs action, without needing to add deadlines to tasks which didn't have deadlines so much as "don't forget me" status."

There's all sorts of stuff that one can do with Agenda to generate views that filter based on tags or some such, but I've not gotten there. It's really flexible.


Remember is a feature that originated independently, but has been enhanced to work with org-mode. Basically you trigger it with a key-binding and it pops up a temporary window which allows you to select a template and then add notes and other items, trigger save, and it disappears and writes to the relevant org-mode file.

One of the great pains of digital systems for note taking and organization is that if you have an idea, it is often hard for us to find a way to record these notes quickly before the moment leaves us. Remember changes that, and it's great.

Next time? Code. Cheers!

[1]This terminology is going to drive me crazy. Basically, in the emacs world, "frame" refers to what most computer users would call a window. Ironically, in the awesome window manager world, windows are called "clients." As if this weren't enough, a "window" in the emacs world refers to any given division of a frame.