Org mode as exocortex: Introduction to mobile org

Introduction

I recently read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware, after it had sat on my virtual bookshelf for a while. I took a lot of notes of things to try, and generally got a lot out of it (interestingly, Amazon commenters have turned on it a bit).

This post isn’t about the book itself though, but one idea in it: out-sourcing your memory and organisation to something like a wiki or notebook that you can use as an “exocortex” (their terminology).

As an Emacs user and finding that org-mode is increasingly taking over my day-to-day organisation anyway, it seemed the obvious choice. One requirement of your exocortex was that it be always accessible, and fortunately there is a mobile client. Unfortunately it might not work the way you immediately expect it to, but this can be rectified.

Org-mode

If you’ve used Emacs for any length of time, there’s a fair chance you’ve encountered org-mode. Org-mode is a fantastic piece of software, relatively new in the Emacs scheme of things, still growing at quite a clip and already with an amazing breadth of capability.

This can be a problem though: it is massive. Try any tutorial (and there are a few) and there’s a fair risk you’ll get overwhelmed: hierarchical notes — ok; notes can have tags — fine; what are drawers and why?; tables seem cool; wait, you mean you can do spreadsheet calculations in them too?; notes can have dates associated too; you can clock in and out; column mode; time-tracking;… on it goes! Many of them also introduce it in the context of GTD, which can be a further overload if you’re not already familiar with it.

So if you have previously been overwhelmed, or you haven’t tried it yet, I would offer two pieces of advice:

1. Just start using it

Skim the most basic tutorial you find, then just start using it for notes; for heavens sake don’t try and master everything in one sitting. It was originally designed for scientific note taking, and it does this brilliantly. Get used to the hierarchy and commands for manipulating it, then maybe start adding functionality as you need it: perhaps you go back over notes and start classifying sections by adding tags, for example. Its table editing facilities are also quite intuitive, but just get used to those first if you find yourself needing a tabular display; don’t worry about formulae.

2. Trial and error

One reason the interface is so intuitive is you don’t need to remember a tonne of commands in order to be productive straight away. Org achieves this by over-loading most key combinations, with the result that you can typically achieve what you want by trying one of them, undoing if that didn’t work, and trying the next most obvious candidate.

Basically, try: M-<return>, M-<arrow key>, or <shift>-<arrow key>, or even M-<shift>-<arrow key>, and if it doesn’t do what you want: C-/ to undo! C-c C-c is always worth trying too. Org is quite context-sensitive, so if you’re in a heading you will typically operate on a heading, or if you’re on a date you can manipulate the date, and so on.

Depending on the exact context, those commands are likely to shuffle headings around or insert new ones, promote or demote them, add tags, changes dates, or change the priority. Again, if something happened that you didn’t expect, don’t worry: undo, and move on.

Mobile-org

Emacs isn’t too mobile without some effort, but fortunately there are org-mode clients for the iphone and for android. I have no experience with the iphone app, but apparently they operate similarly.

However these do not offer, out of the box, the seamless experience you might expect: changes made on the phone do not silently propagate back to your org files. This is partly because the apps have been designed to include the agenda functionality (I have alluded to dates before; the basic idea is you can create your project notes in the hierarchy that suits, add deadlines and so on, then org-mode will generate an agenda from this), and partly because you can pick from a number of different server backends.

There is confusion here too, because a common back-end is Dropbox — but this is not the same as storing your org-files themselves on dropbox so they can be accessed from several computers!

So first of all, there are a few things to understand:

A common request is to have a directory of org files on Dropbox so they are accessible from multiple computers (say, home and work), and also to use dropbox as the server for the mobile client. This is possible, but it does mean keeping two copies of the files in dropbox (for Emacs and for mobile-org). I use a sub-directory of my org directory to keep the mobile files:

;; My org files:
(setq org-directory (expand-file-name (file-name-as-directory "~/Dropbox/org")))
;; Files for mobile-org:
(setq org-mobile-directory (expand-file-name "MobileOrg" org-directory))

Next, you will need to tell org-mode what files it should treat as mobile. By default this consists of your agenda files (again, not covered here), but you can set it to anything. I do use the agenda list, plus one file of general notes:

(setq org-mobile-files (cons (expand-file-name "notes.org" org-directory)
                              org-agenda-files))

Having changed the location of the org directory, you will find you also need to change one last variable (don’t worry about what it does if you don’t mind, it’s mostly transparent):

(setq org-mobile-inbox-for-pull (expand-file-name "from-mobile.org" org-directory))

You are now mostly there; go ahead and set up mobile-org for dropbox and read the rest of the documentation.

Automation

As mentioned, if you are used to something like Catch where changes on the phone get transparently synced with a server, you might find the mobile-org operation confusing. Fortunately, there is some elisp code in the FAQ for mobile-org-android to regularly push and pull (yes, in our case this does essentially mean copying from one dropbox folder into a subdirectory, but this is not always the case!). In case it ever moves, or just if you’re lazy, here are the snippets you need to include;

Combine this with a frequent update period in the mobile client, and you will have a pretty smooth experience!

Mark Hepburn 10 February 2013
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