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UOMF: How to Start With Emacs Org Mode

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This is an article from a series of blog postings. Please do read my "Using Org Mode Features" (UOMF) series page for explanations on articles of this series.

If you just found out about Org mode and you want to try it out yourself, there is a chance that you are going to be disappointed because of some common mistakes people tend to do. This article tries to come up with some tips from my hands-on knowledge so that your experience is starting as a pleasant one.

Be my guest.

Keep it Simple

In general, I advise you limit yourself to the absolute minimum for now. For example, this relates to the common mistakes:

Let's not got that way by just keeping it simple and easy.

One Single Files Is Enough

When starting with Org mode, there is no reason to come up with half a dozen of files, each containing a clever heading hierarchy waiting for all kind of information you throw at it.

Start with one single Org mode file. Give it a general name. Mine was as uninspired as misc.org and guess what: it still is a central part of my Org mode file collection.

As your requirements will grow, your Org mode file will do so as well. By then, you have developed a much better feeling on which heading to move to a separate Org mode file.

My Org mode files were all derived from very large headings of my misc.org. And still: whatever does not fit into my "specialized" Org mode files, lands in misc.org. And that's perfectly fine to me.

Just be aware that when you start a new Org mode file, its content and topics should be completely distinct from the other file(s). This way, you are not going to end up not knowing what information has to go where or where to look for any specific information.

Structure Will Change

Within the Org mode file(s), the structure of your headings will change. This is a natural process. Don't try to invest too much thoughts on "the perfect system". It does not exist as long as your life is advancing and your personal requirements will change as well.

A common question is, whether something should be a heading or a list item. Nobody can come up with a rule that satisfies everybody here. My personal approach is:

You will develop a similar mental concept for your situation.

Features

Yes, Org mode has millions of nice features. Be brave and stick to basics until you have the urge to do more. I started with headings, TODO keywords, lists with checkboxes, simple tables, dependencies between tasks and that was it probably for a couple of months. No priorities, no spreadsheets, no internal links, no export and even no tags although I was writing my PhD thesis about tagging back then.

Play around with new features until you develop a feeling how this feature is really going to help you in your daily life. Don't just add something to your personal workflow just because others are using it. They most likely live in a totally different environment. Even learn how to stop using a features that does not add value to you.

Learning

Make reading the manual a habit if you wonder about something. The manual is written very well and it gives you a good overview of certain features. It does not explain how you use those features to organize your daily life. This is up to you. With this blog series I'm trying to explain how I use certain Org mode features in my digital life.

It does not always have to be the online manual. You've got the manual matching your current Org mode version at hand via M-x org-info. You will notice that its structure is not that complicated. Therefore, you are fine with navigating and searching for keywords within the current buffer view.

Note: Probably even advanced users of Org mode are not aware that you can link to a Org mode manual page with the usual C-c l (store link) and C-c C-l (insert link) combination for future reference.

As stated above, use only what you need at the moment. As you get more elaborated, it is a natural thing that more will follow with time.

Don't be overwhelmed or intimidated by the large set of Org features: I assure you that nobody is using all Org mode features. Not even close. It is not possible and it would not make any sense as well.

In order to find Org mode features that help you implementing more workflows for your digital life, the manual is not the only asset you've got. I often find helpful commands using the following two methods:

Apropos keyboard shortcuts: I hereby claim that a handful of keyboard shortcuts will do probably even for the first months of using Org mode. Additional to some basic emacs movement/search/edit functionality (which I assume you already have learned beforehand), I think that the following set is a good start:

collapse/expand something TAB
toggle/execute/re-calculate something C-c C-c
open links/files/… C-c C-o
move something around M-<arrows>
new heading or list item M-RET

Yes, the C-c C-c is as handy as it sounds. Whenever there is only one main thing that could be "done" at a given spot, C-c C-c is a promising candidate. It toggles list checkboxes, re-calculates table cells, executes embedded source code blocks, or provides you the tagging menu when your cursor is on a heading. Fun fact: I only learned the latter one most recently, after using Org mode for almost a decade.

You can also lean about more shortcuts via the Emacs menu most people tend to have hidden.

Community

Additionally to the manual, Worg offers some tutorials, workflows, and community-generated documentation of all kind. It's worth skimming and there are beautiful gems hidden there. Again: You start simple and learn more complex features as your requirements develop themselves on the way.

Of course, the community also lives in places like reddit (orgmode and emacs). For the tech-savvy people who want to follow the current development of Org mode, I recommend following the mailing list. I'm not following the IRC activity so I can't talk about that.

The best source of all is a friend or a colleague who is using Org mode. Challenge each other, ask the most stupid questions, go and look for any local community. Hackerspaces or any nerd/geek event are a very good starting point. Don't be shy as a non-geek, they usually are the nicest people around!

Have Fun!

I hope, you will find Org mode as ingenious as I do. It seems like an infinite large box of Lego bricks to play with. What Org mode is to you, only depends on the bricks you take out of this box and how you combine them to help you with your workflows.

The sky is the limit.

If you're kind, share your ongoing Org mode experiences with others!


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