Emacs #2: Introducing org-mode

In my first post in my series on Emacs, I described returning to Emacs after over a decade of vim, and org-mode being the reason why.

I really am astounded at the usefulness, and simplicity, of org-mode. It is really a killer app.

So what exactly is org-mode?

I wrote yesterday:

It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”

That’s true, but doesn’t quite capture it. org-mode is a toolkit for you to organize things. It has reasonable out-of-the-box defaults, but it’s designed throughout for you to customize.

To highlight a few things:

  • Maintaining TODO lists: items can be scattered across org-mode files, contain attachments, have tags, deadlines, schedules. There is a convenient “agenda” view to show you what needs to be done. Items can repeat.
  • Authoring documents: org-mode has special features for generating HTML, LaTeX, slides (with LaTeX beamer), and all sorts of other formats. It also supports direct evaluation of code in-buffer and literate programming in virtually any Emacs-supported language. If you want to bend your mind on this stuff, read this article on literate devops. The entire Worg website
    is made with org-mode.
  • Keeping notes: yep, it can do that too. With full-text search, cross-referencing by file (as a wiki), by UUID, and even into other systems (into mu4e by Message-ID, into ERC logs, etc, etc.)

Getting started

I highly recommend watching Carsten Dominik’s excellent Google Talk on org-mode. It is an excellent introduction.

org-mode is included with Emacs, but you’ll often want a more recent version. Debian users can apt-get install org-mode, or it comes with the Emacs packaging system; M-x package-install RET org-mode RET may do it for you.

Now, you’ll probably want to start with the org-mode compact guide’s introduction section, noting in particular to set the keybindings mentioned in the activation section.

A good tutorial…

I’ve linked to a number of excellent tutorials and introductory items; this post is not going to serve as a tutorial. There are two good videos linked at the end of this post, in particular.

Some of my configuration

I’ll document some of my configuration here, and go into a bit of what it does. This isn’t necessarily because you’ll want to copy all of this verbatim — but just to give you a bit of an idea of some of what can be configured, an idea of what to look up in the manual, and maybe a reference for “now how do I do that?”

First, I set up Emacs to work in UTF-8 by default.

(prefer-coding-system 'utf-8)
(set-language-environment "UTF-8")

org-mode can follow URLs. By default, it opens in Firefox, but I use Chromium.

(setq browse-url-browser-function 'browse-url-chromium)

I set the basic key bindings as documented in the Guide, plus configure the M-RET behavior.

(global-set-key "\C-cl" 'org-store-link)
(global-set-key "\C-ca" 'org-agenda)
(global-set-key "\C-cc" 'org-capture)
(global-set-key "\C-cb" 'org-iswitchb)

(setq org-M-RET-may-split-line nil)

Configuration: Capturing

I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs. It will capture something for me, and include a link back to whatever I was working on.

You can define capture templates to set how this will work. I am going to keep two journal files for general notes about meetings, phone calls, etc. One for personal, one for work items. If I press C-c c j, then it will capture a personal item. The %a in all of these includes the link to where I was (or a link I had stored with C-c l).

(setq org-default-notes-file "~/org/tasks.org")
(setq org-capture-templates
        ("t" "Todo" entry (file+headline "inbox.org" "Tasks")
         "* TODO %?\n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("n" "Note/Data" entry (file+headline "inbox.org" "Notes/Data")
         "* %?   \n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("j" "Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/journal.org")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
        ("J" "Work-Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/wjournal.org")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
(setq org-irc-link-to-logs t)

I like to link by UUIDs, which lets me move things between files without breaking locations. This helps generate UUIDs when I ask Org to store a link target for future insertion.

(require 'org-id)
(setq org-id-link-to-org-use-id 'create-if-interactive)

Configuration: agenda views

I like my week to start on a Sunday, and for org to note the time when I mark something as done.

(setq org-log-done 'time)
(setq org-agenda-start-on-weekday 0)

Configuration: files and refiling

Here I tell it what files to use in the agenda, and to add a few more to the plain text search. I like to keep a general inbox (from which I can move, or “refile”, content), and then separate tasks, journal, and knowledge base for personal and work items.

  (setq org-agenda-files (list "~/org/inbox.org"
  (setq org-agenda-text-search-extra-files
        (list "~/org/someday.org"

  (setq org-refile-targets '((nil :maxlevel . 2)
                             (org-agenda-files :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/someday.org" :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/templates.org" :maxlevel . 2)
(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)

Configuration: Appearance

I like a pretty screen. After you’ve gotten used to org a bit, you might try this.

(require 'org-bullets)
(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (org-bullets-mode t)))
(setq org-ellipsis "⤵")

Coming up next…

This hopefully showed a few things that org-mode can do. Coming up next, I’ll cover how to customize TODO keywords and tags, archiving old tasks, forwarding emails to org-mode, and using git to synchronize between machines.

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

Resources to accompany this article

12 thoughts on “Emacs #2: Introducing org-mode

  1. I *love* org. I have used it as my main tool for basically anything for around five years. I don’t use much of its organization tools (perhaps I should)… But I love it for the ease to author complex texts. I have so far written one text book, two theses, two book chapters, and tens of smaller pieces. Having all the power of LaTeX with none of its pain is great :-]

    1. Wow, that’s impressive. I figured I’d have to go back to raw LaTeX for more “serious” things at some point. But, I guess, I would have never used Beamer manually and yet here it just works so easily. I can see the structure of the whole presentation and muck about with it quite nicely.

  2. Excellent org-mode series! I’m in the process of learning emacs and org-mode as a total newbie. This seems like a really dumb question, but it’s the one thing I can’t seem to find a clear answer to (or I’m just missing it)… Anyway, where do all these custom configuration settings go? Where is the emacs config file? Is there one by default or do I create one? And if I create it, where does it go?

      1. Thank you John! That seems way simpler than I was making it. LOL! The learning curve for emacs is quite steep due to the VAST amount of info and custom configs out there. Everyone has their own “opinion” as to how it should be configured. :)

        One of my goals (eventually) is to get away from using Evernote for notes & document management. I’d love to read more about how you managed that if you’re ever feeling so inclined to write another post. Currently, I don’t see how one could possibly manage PDF files and/or other scanned documents using emacs. Evernote contains my life — business receipts, tax documents, medical info, TONS of tech KB stuff, and so on. Evernote is awesome, but I’m no longer comfortable having all my info in a proprietary system that could disappear one day with zero warning.

        1. Emacs is a bit like an operating system or a phone in the sense that it’s more a base to start from rather than something completed. There is no one “right” way to configure it.

          In my own setup, I use gscan2pdf (which integrates Tesseract OCR) to scan receipts, records, etc. I keep these in a directory tree outside org-mode. Mostly they are written much more than they are read, and this works fine. I can always link to one if I need to from within org-mode.

          org does have a notion of attachments.

          I’ve been using ikiwiki for KB stuff, though I am possibly going to migrate that to org as well.

  3. I tried the commands in your appearance section, and got this error:

    Warning (initialization): An error occurred while loading ‘c:/org/.emacs.d/init.el’:

    File error: Cannot open load file, No such file or directory, org-bullets

      1. Thanks John – I really appreciate the help!

        I tried M-x list-packages but I don’t see org-bullets (or any variation) listed. I’ll keep poking around to see if there is another way to install it.

          1. Cool – thanks again! I guess we’re all learning a few things! LOL :)

            I’m just taking baby steps at this point. Trying to learn all the key-bindings in emacs and switching over to org-mode for my todo’s. I’ll add more as I get comfortable with each thing.

  4. Emacs didn’t do any good for me because of the stupid key bindings that are too painful for my wrists

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