Emacs: Choosing between Org and Planner

jaaronfarr asked me why I switched from Planner to Org. Both of them are popular personal information managers for Emacs, and both of them have practically all the features I need. They both do a good job at helping people
manage tasks, schedule, and notes. If you have a few
months to explore this, I suggest that you try both for at least a
month each. On the other hand, if you want quick results, some time
thinking about how you plan can save you more time later.

I tried out Org because I was working on a chapter about schedule
management and it wasn’t fair to just rely on the manual or the
mailing list. In the beginning, I
felt frustrated by the lack of things I’d gotten used to in Planner:
the freedom to edit anything on my day page, little conveniences like +2tue to mean two Tuesdays from now (which Carsten has just added), publishing my blog…

After two months of using Org almost every day, I’m starting to
understand it. I’ve come to appreciate the ease of working with an
outline. I love the way it clocks time. I find the daily and weekly
views really helpful. I’ve hacked stuff for it: time/load estimation,
time reporting, next action summaries, agenda publishing… I’m fairly deeply

As a geek, I have to confess—I like Planner more. Planner is more fun
to code. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent years with it, and I know my
way around the source.

Maybe it’s because we split Planner up into lots of little pieces that
can be reused and advised. Maybe the modularity of Planner is because
chunks of the code were written on a computer with a teensy screen,
which forced me to write functions that fit 80×48 characters. (See,
that limitation was there for a reason!) There are plenty of entry
points. From time to time, I still find myself copying an entire
function in order to change something in the middle, but usually I can
just get away with wrapping something around something else. With Org,
I find myself doing a lot of copy-and-paste programming. I’d fix this
by breaking the functions down into smaller bits, but I don’t have the
brainspace right now. Maybe after the book.

Org is better for my brain, though. It gives me a better overview of
both the ground-level tasks (what am I going to do right now, today,
this week) as well as the 50,000-foot view (what are my big projects)?
Planner’s good at the ground-level tasks, but the overview’s always
been a little awkward because it has to visit a number of files to get
a big picture. Org handles that easily.

And the one-place-for-data thing of Org is pretty cool, too. Org
dynamically generates reports, which could take a bit longer if you
have a large Org file. Planner copies data wherever it makes sense, so
you’d have a copy of the task on your day page and a copy of the task
on your plan page. Plan pages can get out of sync unless you’re either
religious about using planner-edit-task-description and other
functions to edit your tasks, or you use planner-id and you’re lucky.
Timeclock entries get out of sync, too. You can trust Org more than
Planner in terms of consistency.

So now I’m kinda in the middle of these two modules. I use Org for all
my work tasks, and I’m moving towards using it for all of my personal
tasks as well. But I still keep my blog entries in Planner, even
though they get mirrored into a WordPress blog on my web server.

*What would I recommend?*

It depends on the way you think. If you’re the kind of person who was
never happy with day planners because you needed more space to doodle,
write notes, move things around, add other things, try out Planner. If
you like outlines and organizing your tasks into projects, try out

Note that just because you work that way now doesn’t mean you’ll work
that way in the future. Don’t worry. Emacs will adapt. You can switch
between Planner and Org fairly easily. Just give yourself a week or so
to adjust (or a month if you’ve customized your old tool extensively
and miss lots of things about it). Use the tool every day, and you’ll
be fine.

Have you tried out both? Or have you tried out one of them and are curious about the other? I’d love to learn from your experience or answer your questions.

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  • I saw lots of activity around Org and less and less around Planner (plus, Org is in Emacs CVS), so I decided to give it a try.

    Understand I’m a poor planner, so I don’t really have a “style” of planning. I make sporadic use of the tools, but find they’re really great when I use them.

    The most important thing to me was billing time and I had already spent time setting up timeclock so that I could clock-in and -out of Planner tasks. Org has a nice time tracker, but it wasn’t obvious to me how to create a report for client X in month Y.

    In the end, I had to switch back because of the timeclock thing and because I was already used to creating tasks and moving them around between days in Planner.

  • Hey what’s wrong with a simple text file?
    I have been using that for years, and it does the job for me.
    (I don’t really need to publish, just to have a TODO file so I don’t forget stuff.)

  • Thanks for answering my question. That helps. In a month or so, I’ll probably post my own evaluation.

  • atoku

    Sacha, sorry for an emotional text: you are the best :) Really really. I would be really happy to talk to you about all that hacking stuff around.

    BTW, I started to use planner under your influence and now you are convincing people that Org-mode is better. :) What the hit!

  • Sebastian

    I set up my org to autmatically clock in/out when changing todo state. It is easy to push files to your agenda files stack and cycle your agenda files there after (just by pressing C-,). One page for each customer, one directory for all planning pages and your organized perfectly. The tasks get documented in the same file and it’s easy to get the billing stuff done.

    Just put a headline there

    * Tasks until bill from 03.14.2008

    when the bill is out. This is exactly the point where org is strong. It keeps the TODOS, the timeclock, the description of the problem and the solution all together in one place. SHIFT-TAB folds the whole thing to an overview handy overview. I have pages containing 70 or more tasks including descriptions and handle them easily with org.

    It goes:

    * Customer calling
    * C-, until I see his planning page
    * Initial view is ‘structure’, so usally I never have to move point more than a fiew lines, since I add new task at beginning of the file.
    * TAB TAB and see everything concerning the task the customers question is about.
    * C-c C-x C-d and I see an overlay summing up all subtasks of the task in question (and all the other tasks too).

    Currently I do all my writings and planing in org mode. I just love it :-)

  • kevin05jan


    thanx for the article. i am testing org-mode for the moment. in the past i used mozilla sunbird for planning but got frustrated, because all the bits of infos were spread over the days and months’ entries. one text file seriously gives the advantage and with outline view it is simple to navigate. my problem is only that i find it difficult to make schedules and dealines. in sunbird you can see the days and you mark the days/weeks/months for a particular subtask/project and you can see whether you are busy in the following weeks and therefore try to avoid overloading your schedule. but with org-mode there is no such simple graphical representation nor is it simple to adapt and clearify when using agenda-timeline mode. do you know what i mean? it would be great to have little colored boxes or whatever in emacs showing monday-friday scheduled for project xyz, and so i know whether i have still enough space to plan sth for,e.g. mon-tue. it it must also be easy to alter the dates; but most important the clear illustration. do you know how to hack around this? i am unfamiliar with lisp code.


  • Jody Klymak

    Hi Sacha,

    Any update on how this is going for you? I recently got back to using planner after I figured out how to get my messages from Mail.app (OS X) into it. Org mode sounds like you would end up with some very messy pages. I guess I also keep extensive notes on my projects. I’ve used planner throughout for that.

    Cheers, Jody

    • Hello, Jody! =)

      Org’s been working out well for me so far. I miss having all of my notes saved on my Emacs pages and seeing the notes in the context of my tasks for the day, but I suppose I can rig something up with weblogger.el and Org’s agenda mode. If you’ve got extensive notes already in Planner, then you can probably port over interesting features of Org and not miss too much. =)


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  • Mario

    Dear Sacha,
    I am like one of the other readers of this posting that followed your (and others) lead into using planner for daily activities, so the fact that you have moved on onto org-mode makes feel that I need to check org-mode. However, I have a huge back log of notes and tasks created and managed with planner. Do you know if anybody has attempted to create a converter from one system to the other?
    Also, in your opinion, how do you manage a very large number of projects to avoid having a big clutter?


  • Org or Planner ? None of them. I have switched to howm mode which is the one that works best for me.

  • ulugeyik

    I also gotten hooked up on emacs-planner based on your writings and then I had a few issues — out of sync tasks, things that disappeared when I accidentally edited one file (I like typing keywords rather than typing commands), quite inactive mailing list etc — so started looking into orgmode and switched to that. I miss the tight integration with .muse mode. rest. I am liking and still customizing.

    right now, I have to learn good practices on searching. I want it to keep track of old and new projects and search them, even archived ones.

    thanks for sharing all your thoughts, hacks etc…

  • Try creating a shell script that uses grep to search your files, give it a short name, put it in your path, and then use M-x grep. Or write a command that uses grep or something like it to search just your agenda files. =)

    Hope that helps!

  • ulugeyik

    That is roughly how I do it, sans-emacs, but I was thinking of a more structured one . thanks again :)