Clinton Boys

Australian software engineer and mathematician, living in London.

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The wonders of org-mode

I wrote last year about how I finally got around to building my own system of organising my notes, thoughts, writings and to-do lists based on emacs and org mode, and in the months since then I’ve only become more certain that I’m building a system that’s going to last me for life.

Org mode is an emacs “major mode” (basically just a set of functionalities to extend the editor) that serves as an outliner and markup language for editing text. This is selling it a little short though, as org mode has so many capabilities and extensions that it is possible to use it for almost anything you can imagine writing in an editor. I use org files as my environment for taking notes, writing my journal, writing any longer form prose, managing my personal and work task lists, writing literate programs and LaTeX documents, writing posts for this website, and more.

Of course there already exists a very popular, lightweight and functional text markup language called Markdown which has become extremely popular in the last ten years as a kind of default text format. Any text editor or notetaking platform worth its salt among power users will support, or better be entirely built around, Markdown (Ulysses, Bear, Agenda, iAWriter, Notion, etc). As a markup language in and of itself, org is very similar to Markdown, and I guess suffers from the fact that it is less widely used and maybe has slightly less clean syntax for some common formatting operations. But the fact that it has all sorts of crazy integrations with emacs and other emacs packages is what makes it unquestionably superior to Markdown as a text ecosystem.

Used properly, org mode can form the basis of a bespoke productivity tool that has every feature you’ve ever wanted from any existing tool you care to mention, built exactly how you want it and without anything you don’t want. This “build it your way” is core to the emacs experience, at least for people who enjoy it as much as I do, and if you fully embrace this with org mode then there truly is no limit how deep into the rabbit hole you can go making your setup exactly how you want it. You can find a very detailed write-up of my org mode setup here.