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Using OrgMode as a Life Manager



Some Background

For those of you following my series of articles on my current GTD system, this is the last installment in the series. I had to think about this for a bit, as I am afraid that the subject matter may be above and beyond the interest of the readership. I had to really think hard about it, but I think the principles of why I chose Org-Mode are sound.

I tried many different task based systems, including:

  1. Remember the Milk
  2. Things
  3. OmniFocus
  4. GMail's Tasks
  5. Notebook

With most of the above applications, there is a mobile counterpart, which means that you can use them on your mobile device, and one way or another, sync them back to you desktop. I found that using these mobile systems sort of clunky, and didn't really fit into what I wanted. I wanted something quick, easy, and natural.

The Things I Didn't Like

By "tried," I mean that I actually used them in my daily work for a great deal of time. I didn't just work with them for a short time, and decide that they weren't my thing. I put some serious life work into them.

There were certain aspects of using them that I didn't really like.

  1. I felt trapped by the GUI.
  2. I couldn't move files in and out of the system easily.
  3. There was way too much reliance on the mouse to get things done.
  4. The systems didn't feel natural, like pen and paper.

Meanwhile, in chasing around the next best thing, I once again found that the best solution for me would be to use the old tried and true combination of emacs and org mode.

What I Liked

There are several things that made org-mode a natural fit for me. I have always been an emacs user. I use emacs daily, and am very comfortable using the myriad of shortcuts available. I found that orgmode presented me with some incredibly useful perks.

  1. The ability to incorporate tasks anywhere in a document
  2. The ability to write a document and export to tex and pdf immediately.
  3. Adding and linking documents is incredibly easy
  4. Generating a daily/weekly agenda view of things that need to get done is simple.
  5. Changes made anywhere in the system are immediately global.
  6. Best of all, the system works pretty much just like pen and paper.

The thing I was most comfortable with is that the system behaved much like a paper system. I could free form write notes and develop documents, and with a few simple commands, index, print (very pretty!), and get a detailed look at everything that needs to be done today, or during the week.

I use the Levenger Circa system, and one of the things that I really like to do is keep my documents printed out and handy. I use org-mode to print the agenda for meetings, then mark them up and update my GTD when I process these notes.

I also use org-mode for long term goal planning. Having access to a pretty printout for my notebook puts it in front of my eyes more often.

Some Caveats

One thing you should know up front about org-mode is that there is a steep learning curve. You must first learn your way around emacs. This could take some time. Then you need to learn org-mode. Once you have figured out org-mode, this shouldn't be too tough. Do keep in mind that I have been using emacs for decades and org-mode for years, and I am still learning on both systems.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a tutorial on org-mode, I can point you in the direction of some excellent resources.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at any time.

Some Places to Learn More

  • The Org Mode Website - This is the place where org-mode lives. Lots of great stuff here.
  • The Tutorial Page - This is a clearinghouse of great tutorials and videos. They are not super beginner friendly, but you can get through it if you pace yourself.
  • Intro Screencast - This is a great intro level screencast. Even if you are a current org-mode user, I would suggest watching it to get even more out of org-mode.
  • A More advanced GTD example - Once you are comfortable with the tools, this is a great read. Take special note of the author's use of refiling.

Other Free Form Systems

The productivity booster for me with org-mode is the ability to freely type and document my thoughts and ideas without the clutter of an imposed system. I have found two other systems that would work for a user without the severe requirements.


I have never tried it, other than looking at the website, but it does look like it would handle many of the tasks that I use org-mode for. It looks like it's missing the task scheduling functions, but this might not be a deal killer for you.


I just ran into this the other day, and it looks like the online counterpart for taskpaper. I went through the tutorial, and it looks very promising. Good work, guys!

Posted by Sergio T. Ruiz at 11 January 2011, 10:01 am with tags management, organization, gtd, planning, life link
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