My most important discovery in 2019 was Emacs with Org-mode.
What is org-mode?
It is a mode used with the free text editor Emacs. Essentially it allows you to ‘organise’ your document and give it structure.
This is done using headings, subheadings, lists etc. They are all collapsable and adhere to a hierarchy.
You can also create to-do lists, habit-tracking, agendas, nest code and much, much, much more.
The org-mode author, Carsten Dominik, explains it in 24 words.
“Org-mode does outlining, note-taking, hyperlinks, spreadsheets, TODO lists, project planning, GTD, HTML and LaTeX authoring, all with plain text files in Emacs.”
How I stumbled across it
It wasn’t exactly a random discovery, but I could have easily missed it because it wasn’t something I was actively searching for.
I thought the setup I had for note-taking and learning (plain text docs organised by topic or author) was okay. I was wrong. I now see that’s only because I didn’t know how good it could get.
There was a thread on Hacker News asking how people maintained their personal knowledge databases. I’m always fascinated to learn how other people organise their lives, so I had a look.
It didn’t take long before one combination kept popping up: Emacs with org-mode. Again and again. People loved it. Now, I see why.
It’s worth noting at this point that how one organises their personal knowledge database depends entirely on personal preference. There is no right way. No best way. There is only the way that works for you.
I had a few criteria that needed to be fulfilled for my head to be turned. Generally speaking they were:
- Have strong structure
- Be future-proof
- Allow internal linking between notes
- Easy to maintain, backup and access
- Multiple export options
What further attracted me was the promise of org-mode being able to accomplish things that I was currently using other software or apps for, for example:
- Habit tracking
- To-do lists
I love simplicity. I find beauty and great satisfaction in it. The thought of having so much of my life organised so succinctly, possibly in just one document, got me rather excited.
I’d never used Emacs before, which meant I had some learning ahead. That was fine with me, but again, personal preference. Some people might prefer being able to use software to its full potential straight ‘out of the box’.
I’ve generally found that if something is very hard to learn, the potential rewards it offers will be greater in time. Very unscientifically, it might look something like this:
This might not be the case for everything that’s hard to learn, but I find a good barometer is seeing what’s being said and done by those people who have already learned the thing (minus the sunk-cost fallacy/attachment bias factor).
By seeing what others were saying, it didn’t take long to realise what massive potential org-mode held. Potential even beyond what I could conceptually understand.
At a purely technical level Emacs and org-mode aren’t too difficult to get to grips with (I’m talking about basic functionality here, not stuff like writing Lisp sripts).
Mostly there are just a lot of key combinations to try and remember, but there is logic behind the key-bindings, and after using them repeatedly they become second nature.
It’s then just a question of playing around, referring to the manual when you get stuck or can’t remember the right keys to press.
My own learning
I actually started by working through the org manual and noting down the key commands that I thought would be most useful. I noted them down in my .org file because this forced me to use org while learning about org. A sort of learning reinforcement. I was then able to refer to my own list of commands from within my .org file when writing other notes. More reinforcement.
At times it could be a little frustrating just not being able to remember a command to do something simple. As with most things, perseverance is key, and I improved by just using it day after day and figuring out what I needed as I went along.
Most of my time at the beginning was spent transporting my old notes into my org file. I actually forced myself to retype most of them.
- This forced me to go through all my notes, reminding me of things I’d forgotten.
- It forced me to actually use org, instead of just copy pasting.
- It allowed me to edit my notes and notice new links between things I hadn’t connected before.
That last point highights an aspect of org-mode that I find so, so useful. Linking.
Human brains suck at information retention. Or at least they suck at it in comparison to computers. They have limited space, and also have a lot of other things to do.
What brains don’t suck at is forming links between different concepts and ideas. Computers aren’t so great at this, but it’s a fundamental part of improving one’s knowledge and understanding of the world.
The more we learn, the more we make connections between new and old information. Or even just lateral links. For example:
- Person X said a=d, and person Y said b=d. They were talking at different times on different subjects, but the underlying message had a common denominator. Seeing both people talk, a human brain might quite easily see the link between the two.
- In org-mode, you create a physical link between your notes on what person X said and your notes on what person Y said.
- When person Z comes along claiming that c=d, you might remember person X said something similar about d, but not what person Y said or that it was in any way related to this new information from from person Z. You look at your notes from person X, and instantly see the link to person Y. You now can see the connection to what person Z has said, and note the links appropriately.
- This process continues, and before long you have a nicely interwoven web of information form different sources, on different subjects, but with common denominators from over-arching concepts.
Org-mode helps me achieve this linking as painlessly as anything else I’ve found thus far.
Apart from the steep learning curve for non-technical users, the main drawback would be a slight lack of mobile compatability.
If you’re after seamless syncing across multiple devices, then this probably isn’t for you. I’m hesitant to even mention this as a drawback though, because it’s not what org-mode is intended to be. At all.
In essence, an .org file is just a text file. This means that you can access it on almost any device and read the contents. It will just be lacking the useful formatting that makes it what it is.
I use a basic notes app (Standard Notes) for when I’m out, and then add those notes to my .org file when I’m back at my computer. This also offers another filter level for me - a chance to edit the notes or consider whether they’re really necessary before adding to my knowedge database.
So much more
The most exciting part of org-mode for me is that I know I am only using about 5% of its power. Considering the effect that that 5% has had on my learning, productivity and day-to-day life, it’s even more remarkable.
What’s in the remaining 95%? Some of it I will probably never have a use for. Some of it I don’t even know exists, and if I knew it existed, I wouldn’t have a clue what its use was. Some of it I am activiely trying to learn because I know it will help me.
I’m also regularly surprised to see hust how many other pieces of software have some form of org-mode compatability. This gives me regular reassurance that I’m learning something worthwhile.
The biggest compliment I can pay org-mode? I use it every day. It is the centrepiece of everything I do on my computer. It has aided my learning hugely. In a sense, I feel it has liberated me because it allows me to focus on what I want to focus on. Because it just works.
Don’t take my word for it. Have a look at what other people say: https://orgmode.org/worg/org-quotes.html