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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21 thoughts on “Personal organization software

  1. Do you use it for basic outlining? I use outline-mode, and that does enough for me that I haven’t gone up org-mode, which seems to have a lot more features than I need. How do you do the queries you mention?

  2. I use plain text to keep almost everything in my digital life, for several of the reasons that you state — except for personal organization (or GTD, if you like). Though I do not need to scale this to an organization either, at any given time I have 30-40 projects (defined as bundles of related tasks). There are certain features that a product like OmniFocus has that simply cannot be replicated in flat text files, at least as far as I’ve seen. With the stroke of a key, I can turn an email into a task (or an entire project), link tasks with due dates in my calendar, sort all my tasks either by project or by context. So, while I more or less live in my text editor, there are certain things that I find purpose-built, commercial software does better.

  3. I went through a lot of tools using OmniFocus for a while, then Things. I am back to Text files and vim also. TextPaper for my phone has all features I need and the software stack on the computer is my own and as flexible as I need it to be. It is rather funny how everything I do converges back to my text editor of choice after trying out so much different stuff.

    I would have jumped to org mode, I even tried learning emacs for it, but I have just vim engrained in my brain.

  4. William: I haven’t used outline-mode, though I believe org-mode is a fork of outline-mode, so they’re probably similar.

    I may use 2% of org-mode’s functionality. I’m not interested in many of the features, but there are some I’d like to explore more.

    As for queries, there are ways to extract reports based on tags. For example, you could extract a report of everything tagged as a to-do item.

  5. I was looking for something with the same kind of flexibility, some kind of hybrid between a wiki (for keeping notes and a journal) and a to-do list. I don’t know about org-mode (I haven’t used emacs for years now) but I have been using MonkeyGSD, a standalone html page (based on tiddlywiki) which is pretty much exactly what I wanted: I can keep track of to-do lists, do searches, make notes and cross-link them etc.
    And since the file sits in a dropbox folder, I have access to its latest version from any of my computers.

  6. orgmode is great, because you can use only the basic functionality and try other features incrementally.

    I started with a simple todo list and then migrated my google calendar data to it, so now everything is in emacs and it’s great.

  7. Have you considered synchronized plain text with tags? Simplenote (iOS, web app, very affordable synching service) is supported on the desktop by Notational Velocity (Mac) and ResophNotes (Windows). Both desktop clients can be configured to store notes as plain text files, which can live in a Dropbox folder, allowing double backup. ResophNotes just added Simplenote tag support, so that might work for your scheme. I personally use Simplenote (even the in-browser web-app) for my home chore TODO list (bills, etc.), my shopping list, my project / brain dump, and at work for my actual software design task list, as I move between Linux, Windows, Mac, and multiple laptops, desktops, VMS, and meetings throughout the day.

  8. Sorry, I should have added that all clients have instant, full text search, so you could create your own tagging scheme pretty easily, too. And it goes without saying that plain text is flexible and future proof.

  9. Interesting post. I originally started using Emacs just for org-mode when I encountered Charles Cave’s article a few years back:

    What drew me too it are exactly the reasons you gave: portability, transparent data storage and flexibility wrt how you can use it. It’s simple (after the initial plumbing required to set things up) and continues to meets my needs well.

    Two ideas I’ve had to build on top of org are: a) A daemon to allow global shortcuts (i.e., outside of Emacs) to capture directly into org files and (b) a widget to put up a simple display of one’s daily agenda on the (desk|phone)top. Not surprisingly, these ideas themselves were captured with org (I think the file’s called… 🙂

  10. I will have to look at org-mode in EMACS. I cut my teeth on EMACS as a way to work around the limitations of a VT-100. It also made it easy to do reproducible computing in S-Plus and I liked the syntax-aware software modes.

    I never have found a better editor for working with regular expressions, particularly when doind find/replace. I do all my software development in VS but EMACS survives on my machine for text wrangling. If I ever need to edit source in any obscure language, it would be my first choice.

    I think there are a number of similarities between EMACS and slide rules. Both were great solutions for problems which are much less common today than when they were popular, but of course retain the adavntages they had. Some of these problems are better solved nowadays by other tools, but by being different tools they lack some less important advantages which are only apparent in retrospect.

  11. Emacs is bloated by Unix standards, but it’s svelte as a piece of Windows software.

    Speaking of reproducible computing in S-Plus, org-mode lets you embed code in a document and execute the code on export (say exporting to HTML or LaTeX). So org-mode is a competitor to Sweave. I haven’t played with this, but I’d like to. One advantage is that the embedded code could be other languages, not just R.

  12. i’ve actually only seen 1 mention of it, but i’m also a user of tiddlywiki. ok i spent a while personalising it and finding the modules i wanted to add, but i’ve kept it pretty basic. there are plenty of variations out there that are all prepackaged from the most basic tiddlywiki, to full on organisers, GTDs and project planners. i love that it’s just a single html file; i can read it anywhere, store online easily, add in dropbox and you have a use anywhere (with internet, or carry on usb) and on an platform solution that is infinitely personalisable and customisable. i cannot reccomend it enough.

  13. If you’re still look for alternatives that meet your needs, I highly recommend Taskwarrior ( It’s a command-line todo manager that seems to fufill nearly all of your requirements (the data is stored in plain text and contains the description, and other projects details that are more easily accessible with the CLI.) I’ve been using it since May 2011 and still love it.

  14. nice read ;I came up with following issues in my experience with to-do apps
    I say that my efficiency is not constant in duration of doing a recurring task over days .

    To simplify let’s say it ll monotonically increase or decrease depending on my affinity to single recurring task in question and daily amount of work is constant over the interval.

    In former case i ll need lesser hours over time everyday as the days latter case i ll need more and more hours to avoid backlogs.

    How do map/account for this in a to-do lists /apps a linear[even nested] list [rank = 11 ],[yes even with tags,votes and multicollinear priority in >3 colors ]?

    In case of multiple recurring tasks of different affinities i can use this mapping to distribute my day in accord with corresponding affinity , with something like discounted work flow [ like DCF]

  15. Matthew Kenworthy

    I’ve been a diehard vi user for 15 years, and have used GTD for seven years or so. I’ve been using Evernote for task management, but it isn’t fast enough and I’m used to the command line, so I was trying a new hybrid of gmail tags and a Google spreadsheet to manage tasks. But it was still a clunky system – how to monitor subtasks in a project? how to get a quick overview of what needs to be done? It felt too patchwork for me.

    I finally folded and I’ve learnt enough emacs to use org-mode and all I can say is:

    I’m a complete fool for not having done this a decade ago.

    Drop your presumptions about emacs, forget the rivalry, enjoy the experience and frustration of learning something from the ground up. org-mode is perfect. Each time I’ve gone ‘It would be nice to have TODO cycling, deadlines, checkboxes’ I find it’s already been implemented in org-mode. I’m finishing the process of importing all my old task lists and it’s…. lovely. One .org file on Dropbox, I’m done. No futzing with formatting, it’s all plain text with pragmatic markup, and it’s been road tested for nearly twenty years.

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