Learning Emacs: Start

I came across a random thread on twitter where a writer was wondering how they managed to do any writing before they discovered Scrivener. Another person I followed answered that they were able to recreate every feature they needed from Scrivener in emacs.

I’ve heard of emacs before, but I’m pretty sure that the only place I’ve ever heard of it was when Merlin Mann would talk about it on Back to Work or Do By Friday. He’d constantly mention losing his emacs settings file.

Anyway, having heard about emacs from two people and seeing that it looked like some genuine #NerdShit I decided to give it a try. The first two videos that I watched looked crazy. There was a ton of keyboard shortcuts to remember and a visual interface that looked more like a terminal window than any text editor I have ever worked with1. I didn’t even download the thing because it looked too intimidating.

But then I saw the one feature that made me want to drop everything and figure it out — time tracking.

I’ve been using Toggl on and off for time tracking over the past two years. I first became interested in time tracking after hearing CGP Grey talk about it on the Cortex podcast, but then I quickly realized that “Hey, if I actually knew how much I was working, maybe I wouldn’t feel so guilty when I felt like I wasn’t working enough2.” Now, Toggl is great (especially when used along with Timery on Mac and iOS), but there’s a lot of friction when you have your personal todo list in one app, your office tasks in another application, and then your time tracking in a third application.

The beauty of emacs is it’s orgmode component. Org-mode is basically an outlining tool + task manager + time tracker + SO MUCH MORE, but in one single package. I now have all my personal and work projects in a single (plain text!) file, and I can time-track each task individually and get auto-generated reports every day/week/month to see which tasks (and categories of tasks) I spent the most time on.

Now I have all my tasks in three major buckets:

  • Office
  • Personal
  • People

Within each one of those I have sub-categories. For example, in my main “office” bucket I have:

  • Editing
  • Writing
  • Management
  • Communications

And then I have sub-tasks in each of those. Now, when I start a sub-task in management, that will count the amount of time I spend on that particular task, then add it to the overall time I spent on “Management” tasks in general, and then add that to the time I spent on “Office” tasks as a whole. Thus, by the end of a day I have a clear breakdown of how many hours I’ve worked, which type of work I spent the most time on, and which individual task took me the most/least time during the day.

I’ve only been with this system for a couple of days (I decided to learn the basics of emacs on Sunday evening), but it’s already a vast improvement over how I used to organize my work and track my time.

Why I Like Plain Text

I’ll probably write a whole post about why I think everyone should move to plain-text-based systems, but the gist of it is — they work everywhere. You can open a .txt file on basically any computer and any phone that’s been released after 2005. You can modify them, reference them, and if you know how — even “search” them.

This became especially relevant for me when my office-issued computer died and I had to return to my old (2011) MacBook Pro for work. It didn’t support the latest version of OmniFocus so I was stranded with what I was able to export into Drafts by chance the day before my laptop died. Then this whole thing with Russia and a potential war happened and I was like, “Okay, come tomorrow I might not have access to any type of computing device at all, so I need to have my most important information printed and everything else stored offline on a USB stick so that I can access it from anywhere at any time as long as I have access to a computer with a USB port.”

And so that’s how in the span of a couple of days I moved my entire note-taking and productivity workflow from OmniFocus, Obsidian, Evernote, Drafts, iCloud, and Google Drive into a plain-text archive of everything that I have on a USB stick that I can access, modify, and work with through a software tool that I learned in, like, an hour and a half.

I’ll definitely write more about emacs if I stick with it (and I think I will). The basics of it are easy to learn (took me 30 minutes), and most “common” use cases can be figured out in a couple of hours (with the right YouTube videos and StackOverflow answers). At some point I will definitely write about how I’ve set up my emacs so that A) You can try it and B) If I ever need to do it again on a different device I can do so easily by referring to my own blog.


1Though I have to admit, in the end, it’s a lot like drafts.
2We can talk about how unhealthy this attitude is later.

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