This post describes the way in which I’ve set up org-mode to track my work and life in general. It’s broken down into a couple of “sections” and I’ve linked to the relevant parts of my config on my github account. I’ve tried to be a little verbose to explain how things work so that you can try this out if you’re inclined. If you hit any snags, mail me and I’ll try to help you out.

All this is stuff that I use on a daily basis. I’m not as organised as I like to be but I mostly practice what I’m about to preach in this post. This covers only the PIM part of my setup. I also use org for some authoring which I haven’t discussed here.

Also, my emacs configuration files are in need of cleanup. They’re functional as far as config files go thinking of them as “programs” makes me retch.


I’ve messed with quite a few ways of keeping myself “organised”. I took a course on the Franklin Covey system and for a while, kept my weekly and monthly sheets up to date. I tried a bunch of programs that helped me track time, keep notes and organise myself in general. None of them really worked and in retrospect, there were a few reasons

  1. They were hard to “Get back into” - Everyone makes mistakes and stumbles when trying out a new system. If it’s hard to reset and get back into the flow when you mess up, the inertia is hard to beat and you end up ditching the system altogether.
  2. They were hard to tie up into other spheres of my life - Like most people, I get todo items, information etc. from various source (e.g. email, phone calls, personal conversations etc.). While your system needn’t be omniscient enough to track it all in a single place, it should be powerful enough to do most of what you need so that your mental strain is reduced. A smaller variant of this problem is the inability of most software systems to integrate with the rest of your work.
  3. I’m lazy, disorganised and a disgrace to humanity - No point denying this. But once I realised and accepted it, it’s given me a set of constraints to work under.

I tried GTD but the “process” doesn’t work for me (although I will admit however that it was better than the Franklin Covey strategies). It did however solidify my ideas of what I wanted out of a task tracking system. I’ll try to summarise below

  1. One place for to look for things. I don’t want to have to wade through sheets of paper and jump through programs just to figure out what I have to do. Did I pay this months rent? Have I paid my utility bills? What work do I have to do today? What was that website with the colour pickers that I used last week? All should be in a single place.
  2. Should be quick. If someone tells me something that’s I have to work on (later or immediately), I need a way of grabbing it immediately before my attention deficit addled brain discards it. If software, I want the kind of thing where I can develop muscle memory and forget about the mechanics of doing things. I especially value this given my email reading experiences with mutt which is still in my opinion the fastest way to read and reply to emails.
  3. Should never get lost. I don’t want to end up doing the “Did you ask me to do that? Damn. I was sure that I had starred that email” dance.
  4. Should be “fun”. Being a tinkerer, I like stuff that’s fun to do and with a few knobs and wheels. If they’re missing, I’ll probably get bored and give up.
  5. Flexible. If I want to, from tomorrow say, start tracking habits, my system should be flexible enough to accommodate that.

So I flirted with the idea of writing some command line scripts to do this kind of thing and found todo.txt which “worked” but didn’t really cut it for me.

My suite of “productivity tools” consisted of something called “gtimer” (I think) which was a simply app to keep track of time spent on projects, EmacsWiki (the precursor to Emacs muse) and TomBoy to keep notes (thereby violating the one place only rule), a notebook and pen to track todo items and a couple of ad hoc thing like starred emails etc. to keep track of “projects”. No, it didn’t work. Yes, I wanted something better.

I had used the Emacs outline mode and hated it but then came across Carsten Dominiks excellent Google tech talk on org mode. I tried it and it was love at first sight. Never looked back since.

Now, let’s get onto the meat of the matter.

Current setup

My org mode files are stored in a git repository that I keep on my private account. I don’t put it up on github since it contains a lot of personal information and I don’t want anyone to clone it and send me a pull request.

The layout of the files is as follows

|-- non-org
|   |-- bank-statements
|   `-- invoices
|-- official
|-- pycon
|   |-- 2009
|   |-- 2010
|   |   |-- IPSS
|   |   |-- logos
|   |   |-- presentations
|   |   `-- pycon docs
|   `-- 2011
|-- specs
|-- training
|   |-- business
|   |-- materials
|    `-- outlines
|-- projects.org_archive

There are a few parts that are not heavily accessed or modified and they have accumulated cruft.

The non-org directory contains stuff like exported PDFs, .odt files and stuff which contain invoices etc. Mostly binaries. The official directory contains agreements and other formal materials. It should probably be a sub directory of the non-org one. pycon is a top level directory mainly because it was one of my “big” projects and I was experimenting with org-mode features. specs contain org-mode files which are outlines of projects I’m thinking about. It serves as my notebook and doesn’t have anything in that I track. A digital pocketbook of sorts. training contains all the stuff that I use while taking and planning trainings. Course materials (e.g. this was written as an org file), outlines which businesses want, different versions of my training profile etc. is a file that contains a list of harsh lessons that I’ve learnt over time. It might seem silly to put them in a text file and forget them but I find the act of writing it down useful. is a file I’m trying to use to track a few habits I’m working on. It’s not yet “production” ready so you can ignore it. is a bucket where I dump semi-detailed ideas which occur to me. Sort of a cold freezer to search for things to do when I have time. Not necessarily computer related. is my main file around which my life revolves. Most of this article will be discussing that. There’s an _archive version of the same file which I use to keep older subtrees. contains phone numbers, links, addresses, things which I would forget if I didn’t write them down. is my default capture target (I’ll discuss this later). is a sandbox file I use to pimp features to people when I’m in front of them and for writing out small things which I can export to different formats. is a file that stores URLs, names of books, links to videos, movies etc. which I plan to look at. It should really become a section in projects but like I said, the layout needs work.

The first thing I’ll discuss is the file which is where all tasks land up before they are moved off into the right places. The process of putting them there is something worth mentioning and it addresses point 2 in my list of requirements.

Data sources

Things come into my life via. email, real life (phone + meeting people), the web and while coding (Ah! I should do this, fix this later). This might seem like an oversimplification but it works.

The intention here is to capture things that come in via. these channels into our PIM. Once that’s done, it becomes a regular “item” that can be managed using our regular workflow. The capturing process has to be quick and non-intrusive.


Org has a somewhat new system for “capturing” things into org-files. The idea here is to get things into your system quickly rather than think about where to file stuff.

The idea is quite simple. You define a bunch of templates and then globally assign a key which you can hit anywhere to “capture” something.

Let’s take email as an example. Suppose I get an email that asks me to “do something”, I hit C-c r and my org-capture buffer pops up

Org capture interface

This allows me to capture the email using any of these templates. If (for example), it’s not a TODO but just something I need to keep track of (e.g. a phone number or an address), I’d hit r. It would allow me to fill some stuff extra information in, annotate it with a link back to the email and add an entry to my file. Now, it’s safe.

If it was an email asking me to do something (e.g. fix this bug), I’d hit t and it would open a buffer asking for information. Usually, at this time, if I can quickly think of when I want to get to that, I schedule it using C-c C-s and put a date in there so that I don’t have to worry about that later. This would get dropped into

If I’m working on the openlibrary code base and see a little bit of code that I need to fix but don’t want to interrupt my current flow, hit C-c r and capture it using o. It captures it as a TODO and drops it into This works as a trackable /*TBD*/ in your code. I keep this separate from the regular TODO because it’s work related and large enough to be treated separately.

The j is used when I want to write a diary entry. I’m probably going to get rid of this since I can’t really track or mine journal entries and it’s more fun writing them on paper anyway.

So, at the end of the day, the file might look something like this

* TODO Fix default assigneed for support cases    
  SCHEDULED: <2011-07-19 Tue>
  Email from George Oates: Fwd: Re: Default assignee
* TODO This task needs more logging
  SCHEDULED: <2011-07-19 Tue>
  [2011-07-17 Sun 14:33]

For real life things which occur while I’m at the computer (e.g. phone calls etc.), I just fire a capture and record it as a TODO. For things that happen while I’m away from my computer, I use a stack of paper pieces I carry with me where ever I go and write down what I need to do. One task per piece of paper. I have a little ritual of putting these tasks into my system every night before I hit the sack which I’ll come to later.

At the end of this process, everything is either in the file or the file. i.e. within my control. The next thing to manage them properly.


At the end of every day, before I crash, I have a little refiling ritual. The bottom line is to empty the file. If this file has entries in it that are more than a day old, you know I’ve been procrastinating.

org-refile is bound to C-c C-w by default and can be configured to present you with a list of possible trees into which you want to move an entry. My file used to be a directory of multiple files each dedicated to a different area of my life (e.g., etc.) but I moved them all into a single file under different headings.

You can see my refile configuration here. It uses ido to make the refiling process smoother and more “Emacs like”. Here’s what a refiling looks like

Org capture refile

It’s asking me where I want to move this item to and offering me the four headings in my file. I select one and it gets “refiled”.

Scheduling and agendas

Org-mode has an extremely powerful scheduling and agenda system. The basic idea is that you schedule your tasks for a specific day and/or set deadlines for them and then ask org mode to generate a view that prints out what you should be doing today, this week, this month or this year. The scheduling system is flexible enough to handle repeating tasks (e.g. pay rent on 10th of each month), effort estimates, clocking etc.

I personally use just the basic scheduling capability.

So, when I refile, I try to schedule stuff for certain dates. There are some tasks which need to be done “at some time” for which I randomly schedule them a few weeks from now and forget about them till they pop up on the agenda again. Some things are already scheduled while capturing so that’s cool. Some, I know when I will have time to do them so I schedule them appropriately. In any case, the process of refiling makes sure that scheduling is done. The dates needn’t be accurate but tasks should have some date when you’ll look at them.

Once that’s done, C-a a lists out my agenda for the current week (focussing on the current day) and I can get to work. Here’s a sample of my agenda from last month (the capture templates were different back then so it’s slightly different from what you’d see currently).

Monday     20 June 2011 W25
Tuesday    21 June 2011
Wednesday  22 June 2011
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Email from George Oates: Support System - bugs/tweaks l [5/5] :tbd:
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Email from George Oates: Re: Email setup    :tbd:
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Implement email system for support [5/5]
  projects:   Deadline:   DONE Implement email system for support [5/5]
Thursday   23 June 2011
Friday     24 June 2011
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Email from Anand Chitipothu: Account validation glitches :tbd:
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Fix account validation problems 
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Mail Vikas about Org-mode information he wanted
  projects:   Deadline:   DONE Email from George Oates: Support System - bugs/tweaks l [5/5] :tbd:
  projects:   Deadline:   DONE Email from George Oates: Re: Email setup    :tbd:
  projects:   Deadline:   DONE Vitalise Reassign/close case in support system
  projects:   Deadline:   DONE Change =/task= to =tasks=
Saturday   25 June 2011
  projects:   Scheduled:  DONE Integrate habits with capture
Sunday     26 June 2011

Now, you just pick out things to do, do them and hit C-c t to mark them as done so that they move off your agenda.

Things I don’t do

  1. I’m not a clocking junkie who has to know exactly how much time I spend on tasks. I tried using arbtt to do that for a while and it works very well but I don’t really need or use it.
  2. Custom agenda views. The default view looks fine to me. I haven’t really felt the need to change it yet.

Things to do

Other things which I want to include in my system are

  1. Capturing directly from my browser using org-protocol and maybe a custome extension. Bookmark and schedule for reading rather than dive into that hacker news article in the middle of work.
  2. Some tiny xmonad customisations to capture while outside Emacs. A popup Emacs capture buffer using emacsclient to take something down and close it.
  3. Integrate skype chats with Emacs using bitlbee and erc so that I can “capture” skype conversations for reference or as tasks.
  4. Try some effort estimation to practice my estimation skills.


So, the bottom line is that you simply capture stuff from various parts of your life into org, refile them appropriately once a day, schedule them and get them done. No more missing tasks or items.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. My Config files are on github and you’re more than welcome to cannibalise them.

If there’s sufficient interest in a formal Emacs lisp tutorial, I can take a conventional class sometime later this year in Bangalore. Let me know.

At PyCon 2011

I’ve submitted a talk for PyCon India 2011 which will discuss my Python development settings for Emacs. It will discuss mostly programming tools but I do plan to spend a little time discussing tracking stuff with org etc. so if you’re interested, you should sign up.

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