Why I use Emacs to manage my tasks

I’m writing a chapter on how to use Emacs to manage your tasks. I find it hard to explain why Emacs is so compelling.

I’ve tried all sorts of other task manager before. I used Lotus Organizer, Microsoft Outlook, and Lotus Notes. I’ve tried iPaqs and Palms. I’ve tried Tada List and Remember the Milk (which has an interesting Gmail plugin). I’ve seen people use Life Balance. Heck, I’ve even done the Hipster PDA, index cards, Moleskine hacks, and bits of paper (which I always ended up losing).

I keep coming back to my Emacs.

Day after day, year after year, it’s the only system I’d trust with my plans. (Yes, I trust Emacs with my life. Meep! I’ve really gone off the deep end, haven’t I?)

Why? I spent some time talking things through last night, trying to get to the bottom of the reason why Emacs works for me and why it might work for other people. (Well, I was talking to myself and using a voice recorder, as my significant other is a fan of the Other Editor.)

Why Emacs?

  • For the ease of working with text files? I hate using the mouse, and I’ve loved being able to quickly review, reorganize, and check off tasks with keyboard shortcuts. I can back up the text files and not worry about anything getting corrupted. I can put in practically anything I want.
  • For the ability to automatically pick up information, such as a hyperlink back to the source? I can create tasks that are automatically hyperlinked to e-mail, contact records, web pages, files… whatever I’m looking at. This was _really_ handy back when I did my work-related e-mail in Emacs as well, because I could jump back to the original message quickly.
  • For the customizability? It still boggles me that you can’t just redefine the keyboard shortcuts for all applications. I love customizing things to fit my idiosyncrasies.
  • For the interoperability? I love how I can pull together different modules. For example, I had the crazy idea of hooking my task manager to Twitter, just for fun. I wrote a little code to combine twit.el and org.el, and it jus worked.

Hmm. Those last two things there are interesting, because they’re _so_ difficult to demonstrate when people are looking at my computer. Or when I’m writing a book, for that matter.

It’s not just about the freedom to customize it. Many programmers’
development environments are customizable. What’s great—no,
transformational—about task management in Emacs is that each
customization encourages you to explore even more. Here’s how that works:

  • Think of a better way to do things.
  • (Look for people who have done that before. Discover several similar things. Write about your idea on the mailing list. Get other ideas from people.)
  • Make it happen in code. This frees up your brain and inspires you to think of other crazy ideas.

I think what’s really amazing is that you get _used_ to this process.
You get a crazy idea, you build it in, you’re happy about the hack,
and you’re free to think of other crazy ideas. More than that, you
give your brain permission to think of crazy ideas, because you can
actually make it happen. And you get used to thinking about how you do
things, looking for ways to do things better. And you get used to
talking about things with other people who are also looking for ways
to do things better.

How do I make this process clearer for people? How do I show people
how amazing it is to consciously work on being more effective,
together with other geeks who are doing similar things?

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Random Emacs symbol: w3m-list-buffers – Function: Return a list of buffers in which emacs-w3m sessions are open.

  • rjh

    Don’t forget platform interoperability. My initial motivation was using the same files and same tool on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. I keep postponing the work to get a full emacs operating on my Zaurus CL3000 just for the extra geek factor of using it for Emacs project management. One of these days I’ll do it.

    One of the barriers that may also help in explainations is that although we are all tool users, most of us are only interested in being tool makers in a few areas. I have no interest in making my own clothes, making furniture, fixing my own car, etc. I’ve done enough in those areas to understand that they also offer the same joy of creation and transformative control over that aspect of life. But I’ll buy clothes, pay a mechanic, etc. You may find that people understand the joy by analogy to these other activities, and it may also explain why some people remain unmoved and uninterested.