Back to Org Mode

7 minute read

A HBR article titled Smartphones, Silly Users perfectly describes why I have moved my personal information management system away from apps that sync across desktop and mobile:
  1. "We don't remember anything anymore."
    • "We're increasingly outsourcing our personal memory banks to Google and other search engines, effectively wiping our own brains of easily accessible information." a.k.a. the Google effect
  2. "We waste time preserving optionality."
    • "We're refusing to finalize our plans until critical moments. The ability to make reservations, check opening hours, look up driving directions, and review ratings on our mobile devices means that we're increasingly iterating our schedules and keeping our options open until the very last moment before that meeting, lunch, or coffee catchup is set to begin."
  3. "We get stuck in the infinite notification loop."
    • "As we endlessly loop between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other app notifications, our attention fragments, and it becomes difficult to focus on larger, more important tasks."
Till this month, I was obsessed with syncing everything across my desktop and mobile. The problem was that I became obsessed with the mobile phone unnecessarily and once you're using the phone, Point no. 3 kicks in - the infinite notification loop swallows a lot of time and attention.

Once I shifted my system to laptop-only, I don't have all my tasks and calendar at hand, I'm forced to remember things (see point 1 above), and strangely, I'm more likely to remember things to pick up from the grocery store now than I was likely to remember to check my mobile phone app for things to buy when I was near a grocery store!

The most important thing is that notes and todos are in the same place, for example, if I'm on a call, I can take notes and then I can keep referring back to those notes while creating todos and working on tasks. The tasks come out of notes, they're not separate! It really helps to have one system that can handle and encourage the normal flow instead of being forced to use separate notes and tasks apps.

Today, I'm all OrgMode. Again.

OrgMode is a notes and tasks organization system all inside Emacs. I won't go into details about OrgMode itself, the simple way to get started is to use BG's dotemacs and read the OrgMode Manual.1

Here's my transformation:
  • Tasks were moved from to a file called
  • Notes were moved from Evernote to a file for "I may need someday" kinda info and for things that "I want to keep in mind".
    • I still use Evernote as an inbox (i.e. as a temporary space) to jot down stuff when I'm not near my laptop.
  • Calendar events were moved from Calendar app to a file
  • Habits were moved from Daily Deeds iPhone app to a file with the habits org module enabled
  • Files were moved from Dropbox to a files folder
  • Diary entries (although rare) were moved from Evernote to a file with file+datetree configuration
  • Pomodoros and time tracking have moved from Focus Time iPhone app to simple clocking commands: C-c C-x e to set a time estimate, C-c C-x C-i clocks in for the current task, and C-c C-x C-o clocks out of the current task and it'll show me how much time I spent on a task and it'll even aggregate subtasks and show how much total time I took on a higher-order project/task. And all this in plain text!
  • Blog drafts have moved from WordPress to a blog_drafts folder full of .org files, including this post.
  • Archiving (C-c C-x C-a) is one of the greatest OrgMode features, where it'll take the current task and save it in an archive file for long-term storage, this is great when you want to just file a completed project's notes and tasks and move it out of your current files.
  • Backups : Instead of Dropbox or any auto syncing system, I use a combination of Git, a local folder and an external hard disk.
    • The files folder is not added to the Git repository (by adding it to the .gitignore file) because the list of files are potentially huge and I want my git history and diffs to be only about the .org files. Maybe someday, I'll use git-annex for those files.
    • I have an alias in my bash profile, so a few times a day, I type gcb in my terminal and all the .org files get checkpointed.
      alias gcb='git add . && git commit -m "$(date +"%a, %d %b %Y")"'
    • Once in a few weeks, I zip the entire folder including the files subfolder and store it in an external hard disk. I have an alias for that as well.
      alias b#="cd && zip -rq org.$(date +%Y%m%d.%H%M).zip pimfolder && ls -lh *.zip"
    • Maybe once a year, I can push the org files to a private repository on BitBucket, and zip the files folder and put it in a private Amazon S3 bucket. Or something like that.
Notice how many apps have been merged and subsumed by OrgMode!

Best of all, I'm no longer constantly looking up my mobile phone. When I'm away from my laptop, I'm free to focus on the situation at hand.

Everyday morning, a simple agenda command C-c a a gets me started, all my info is in one place, no more looking at separate apps! Getting started with the day is simple and fun again.


Juan G. (@_juan_g) says:

Another alternative to either multiple mobile apps, or nothing in the smartphone, is simply .org text files directly in both computer and mobile, using Dropbox or Unison file sync, and any mobile text editor such as Jota Text Editor for Android or Nebulous Notes for iPhone and iPad (see ).

Swaroop says:

@Juan Thanks for the suggestion but I wanted to get out of the syncing business in the first place. But in any case, if I had to syncing, I would use the OrgMode mobile apps.

Juan G. says:

That's also a possibility but, time ago, I tried MobileOrg and MobileOrgNG, and at least the Android versions were too basic. Jota Text Editor for .org files on an Android smartphone is much better for my particular workflow. For others with a better memory than mine what you propose in this indeed interesting article can be good as well.

The case of Android tablets is different. Although I use a text editor on a smartphone, a 10 inch tablet has enough screen size for the recent port of Emacs to Android, including Org-mode:

BTW, what you say about a file is another interesting idea. I also use one with an outline of years, months and days, rather than agenda views. Of course Org-mode is very flexible, and good for many different workflows.

TabTwo says:

You mentioned Evernote.
How did you export your notes (to plain text)?

@edipretoro says:

Example of #Orgmode as PIM system: #emacs #org

Curt Eckhart says:

I also noticed that sometime in the recent past, the iPhone MobileOrg app no longer syncs with DropBox. I know that the maintenance of MobileOrg is changing hands and MobileOrg currently does not appear in the app store. I use Org mode on my PC for everything and this is killing me! I like your thinking.

Swaroop says:

@Juan I'm scared of opening an Org file in a plain text editing app on a mobile phone and tinkering with it - I can mess up the formatting, it'll be cumbersome to edit big text files, and so on.

Yes, the good thing about OrgMode is exactly that you can customize it the way you work.

Swaroop says:

@TabTwo I did it the hard way (went through every single note, if it was too large, I just exported to PDF and kept it around). Of course, that was my preference in this particular case because I wanted to use OrgMode as much as possible for anything important. It should be possible to write a program to take the Evernote exported XML and convert it into OrgMode format.

Swaroop says:

@Curt I was not aware of the maintenance status of the MobileOrg apps, thanks for letting me know. As you noted, I don't want to do the syncing stuff which is why I moved away from Evernote and Things.

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