Personal organization software

I’ve tried various strategies and pieces of software for personal organization and haven’t been happy with most of them. I’ll briefly describe my criteria and what I’ve found.

My needs are fairly simple. I don’t need or want something that could scale to running a multinational corporation.

I’d like something with a portable, transparent data format. I don’t want the data stored in a hidden file or in a proprietary format. I’d like to be able to read the data without the software that was used to write it.

I’d like to be as structured or unstructured as I choose and not have to conform to a rigid database schema. I’d like to be able to do ad hoc queries as well as strongly typed queries.

I’d like something that exports to paper easily.

Here’s what I found: org-mode. It’s an Emacs mode for editing text files. It provides sophisticated functionality, but all the sophistication is in the software, not the data format. It’s more convenient to work with org-mode files in Emacs, but the raw file format is just a light-weight mark-down, easy for a person or a computer to parse.

When I went back to using Emacs a year ago after a 15-year hiatus, I heard good things about org-mode but didn’t understand what people liked about it. I heard it described as a to-do list manager and was not impressed. I’m not interested in the features I was first introduced to: tracking the status of to-do items and making agendas. I still don’t use those features. It took me a while to realize that org-mode was what I had been looking for. It was similar in spirit to something I’d thought about writing.

Emacs is an acquired taste. But someone who doesn’t use Emacs could get some good ideas from looking at org-mode. I imagine some people have borrowed its ideas and implemented them for other editors. If not, someone should.

The org-mode site has links to numerous introductions and tutorials. I like the FLOSS Weekly interview with org-mode’s creator Carsten Dominik. In it he explains his motivation for writing org-mode and gives a high-level overview of its features.

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