Using Org Mode to keep a process journal

I (re)started keeping a journal in Org Mode – chronologically-ordered snippets on what I’m doing, how I’m doing things, and how I’m thinking of improving. I’d mentioned the idea previously on my blog. In this post, I want to share the workflow and configuration that makes it easier for me to log entries.

When I’m on my personal computer, I use Org Mode’s org-capture command to quickly capture notes. I’ve bound org-capture to C-c r, a remnant from the way I still think of it as related to the even older org-remember and remember functions. Anyway, org-capture allows you to define several org-capture-templates, and it will display these templates in a menu so that you can choose from them when creating your note.

Here’s the template I’ve been using for my captures:

(setq org-capture-templates
      '(;; other entries
        ("j" "Journal entry" plain
         (file+datetree+prompt "~/personal/")
         "%K - %a\n%i\n%?\n")
        ;; other entries

This stores a link to the currently-clocked task and to whatever context I was looking at when I started the journal entry. It also copies the active region (if any), then positions my cursor after that text. Unlike the default template, this template does not include an Org heading. That way, I don’t have to think of a headline, and I can also just clear the buffer and close the window without adding lots of half-filled-in entries in my journal.

The file+datetree+prompt keyword means that the entries will be stored in ~/personal/ in an outline corresponding to the year, month, and day that I specify. This makes it easy to write an entry for today or for any particular date. For example, I often find myself adding more notes for the previous day (-1) because of something I remembered.

I’m thinking of making Fridays my day for reviewing what I’ve learned and writing up more notes. With the date-tree structure, it’s easy to review my notes by day and look for little things to harvest.

If I know I want to revisit something, I can also add a TODO right in the journal entries using the regular Org syntax or as a keyword that I can search for. If it’s a separate heading (ex: *** TODO Take over the world), I can use org-refile to move it to its proper project.

When I want to flesh out those rough notes into a blog post, I can copy the entry to my blog post outline, fill in the details, and then use org2blog/wp-post-subtree to post it to WordPress. Alternatively, I might edit my rough notes in-place to make them ready to post, and then post them directly from that buffer (possibly changing the heading).

Since I’m not always on my personal computer, I need to be able to pull in notes from elsewhere. I can add quick notes to Evernote on my phone. So far, I’ve been okay with copying snippets manually. If I find that I’m creating lots of notes, though, I might look into reusing the code that I have for building my weekly review list from Evernote notes.

Time-wise, I find that spending 15-30 minutes at the end of the day helps me braindump the key points. If I take little writing breaks throughout the day, that helps me capture more details (especially in terms of development or technical troubleshooting). Re-reading my notes is part of my regular weekly review process, so it’s pretty quick (plus a little more time if I’m writing longer blog posts).

That’s how Org Mode helps me keep a process journal. It’s great to be able to quickly write notes in the same thing you use to do everything else, and to tweak your workflow. Whee!

  • Bob Erb

    Thanks, Sacha. Still helpful after all these years!

  • rerb

    Why Evernote rather than Org Mobile on your phone, Sacha?

    • Oh, mainly it’s because MobileOrg for Android was still a little rough last time I checked (long time ago!), but maybe I should revisit it. =)