while true live

Musings on the fatality of infinite loops and other stuff.

This Is Not an Org-mode Tutorial

I guess it was about a year ago when I decided to give org-mode another go; I had used it before but hadn’t been able to quite wrap my head around it. This time I managed to get through the hard first difficulties so that I’m a vivid org-mode user by now… but first make clear: what is org-mode anyway and what has it to do with plain text?


org-mode is an Emacs major mode. There is lots of documentation and tutorials on org-mode and I won’t be tempted to give another tutorial (the sheer amount of org-mode features to present would make that post very, very long…). I’d rather like to give an explanation of its philosophy and applicability.

On its official website it is characterized as follows: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system. Although that obviously is a description without a doubt, org-mode still has a broader area of applicability – in fact, the HTML title of that official website describes it best: Your Life in Plain Text.

To put it bluntly, org-mode can act as a replacement for any application you normally use for structuring any text-based information. Well, what is ‘text-based’ information? Actually, this is pretty much everything; only images and audio files come to my mind as exceptions. However, even for images and audio files you normally store text-based information in the form of meta information. So, generally, nearly all information that needs structuring is of a text-based nature which is accessible to org-mode as a consequence.

Org-mode’s killer feature

So the ‘killer feature’ of org-mode is not any specific application – neither ‘TODO lists’, nor ‘planning projects’ – it is rather the fact that you can use it for structuring/managing whatever text-based information you want! You don’t need to use 20 different applications for your daily ‘informational needs’ any longer, you just need 1 to rule them all! That fact alone of replacing 20 different things with 1 single, more general thing somehow makes my programmer’s soul smile – just imagine the improvement of code quality when you factor out a common pattern of 20 similar methods into 1 generalized method. Or: Imagine a ‘collection’ interface which provides methods like ‘length’ for all ‘collection’ implementations… Anyway, I’m convinced that such an abstraction not only shines in programming but also in ‘real life’ – look at it from this point of view: for any rise of efficiency you’ll achieve in mastering org-mode you would have needed an equal rise of efficiency in all 20 applications in the first place! And: you own all your information in plain text. I’ll explain in a second the benefits of ‘owning’; first, let’s address another objection which will lead us there.

We are slaves of interfaces

You might argue that you don’t even need close to 20 applications but you’d be surprised how fast they add up: preparing slides, managing your calendar, writing your thesis, managing contacts, TODOs, writing a blog post, adding bookmarks, etc. – with the rise of IT we have gradually become slaves of a lot of programs. Still some of us might remember the organizers we once had for taking down anything a decade or two ago – handwritten, plain text was good enough in those times – they were the Personal Information Managers of the pre-IT era. Gradually, we have been convinced to use different desktop applications with specialized interfaces for managing text-based information; the smartphone and tablet era has actually even amplified that trend of veering away from plain text.

We don’t own our information

Those 20 applications from before have ‘hidden’ our information in databases which only understand SQL. So you would need to learn SQL to connect to ‘your’ information – apart from the fact that the application in question might be a web application and you don’t have any direct access to the server where ‘your’ information is located… that legal loss of ownership is not what bugs me for this blog post’s sake, though. It is rather losing one’s grasp on one’s information. Suppose it’s a TODO list application: you need the corresponding app for our tablet/smartphone/etc. to get to your TODO items. For many domains of applications a plain text export option can not be taken for granted. Even for an application with a that simple domain model like a TODO list application you might have troubles to just copy the TODO items from your browser window as this would not save the “done” status ;) (Calendar applications normally are the exception as they provide some standardized import/export options)

I want to emphasize that this should not be understood as a rant on the IT world and evil web apps which hide my data ;) On the contrary, I like my iPad and the applications which provide me nice interfaces to add my text-based information. I just pity the fact all those IT developments have led to a loss of control of our information which is equally proportional to the degree of which we moved away from plain text! Anways, we are lucky, there is a possible escape: Use org-mode’s plain text as the data source and the beautiful iPad app as its view only! For instance, that works well for my org-mode calendar data which I can sync with Google Calendar. Another example is this blog post: I’m actually writing this in org-mode and export it in a Markdown format which the Octopress blogging framework understands.

Anyway, I will perhaps post several customizations of how I tailored org-mode to my needs in future posts.


org-mode provides the power of structuring text-based information and numerous export options to communicate those information to the outside-world. If you care about information and you are an Emacs user anyway, give it a try.

If you shy away from Emacs you might be interested in the web application workflowy. It provides some portion of org-mode’s benefits of managing hierarchical textual information with only structure and no layout in mind. If you need the full power there is no alternative to org-mode, though. After all, there is only one ring to rule them all.