Agenda, and the Benfit of Having Multiple Files
I used to write all my tasks, personal and work, into one tasks.org file.
On Sunday night, this was good. I had 5 tasks on my list, and I was ready to start my work week. But it didn’t take long (two days actually) for tasks.org to become monster.org. It didn’t happen because of the number of tasks, which I kept (more or less) under control. It happened because of the size of the projects I was working on. Setting up computers, encryption, and even elementary personal stuff like paying my bills; each task naturally grew to sub-tasks, and those in turn had their own notes and lists.
My initial solution to that was to create a “Details” heading for the projects. It contained time rangers I worked on a project (entered manually), and links to other sources I needed. This kept extra information out of the way when I didn’t need it. This caused two issues. First, I now had “Details” showing on my agenda, since my time-range was directly under that header. Second, things quickly got out of control on my Android phone with Orgzly. That’s because Orgzly does not fold seondary headings. I had to deal with walls of texts which I had to scroll through before I got to the most recent ToDo items.
As I was scratching my head at this, work and life continued. My tasks list grew each day - No, each couple of hours. Interruptions kept coming in, obscure urgent new projects oppoped up while older ones from previous weeks resurfaced. My list was quickly overtaken by work stuff, while personal projects remained in the background, often pushed down the list and out of view.
Realizing that I can’t handle just viewing my tasks.org on my phone anymore (toward the end of the week, I could barely do it even in Emacs) I started using the tool I should have used more from the beginning: The agenda.
The agenda view changed everything. Opened from everywhere with a
quick key combo, it enabled me to see everything that I need to
do. This is thanks to one thing that survived through the mess was
my method of scheduling assignments I intended to work on that
day or in the next couple of hours. I picked this habit from one of
the old Org tutorials floating around, which I cannot find right
now. Scheduling means I still had a wall of ToDo items in
tasks.org, but I only scheduled up to 5 things I intended to work
on. I am only human, after all. Scheduling showed me what I wanted
to do, and ToDo keywords showed me assignments that I haven’t yet
scheduled, but need to at some point. I could view both
comfortably from the agenda view with
C-c a n.
This proved to be effective not only in Emacs, but also in Orgzly, on my phone. Thanks to the “Scheduled” search, I now also have a widget on my homescreen, an affective todo list. There’s even a check button to check off Items on this widget, which marks them as “done.” Orgzly also does a good job at creating customized searches, so that I can specifically see what is scheduled for today vs what is scheduled for the next 3 days, or week. I can have another filter showing me my unscheduled ToDos as well, in case I want to start working on them. What a wonderful thing.
Working with the agenda, I realized I’m faster than before. At
work, the first thing I do after I launch Emacs is to get into
agenda view. From there, it is much faster to “tab in” to whatever
task I need. This replaced my need for
C-x C-r, recentf,
since now I was not only in the file I need, but also in the
section I need. Even better:
C-x n s can be used then to “zoom
in” to the task at hand, blocking out the long list of other items.
In agenda, I was also able to quickly see tags and categories, edit properties, and most importantly, quickly schedule ToDos. As the agenda became my bread and butter, another small issue surfaced: the category property. Since I still used one file, I used the category property to differentiate between personal and work tasks. On the agenda, each schedule task was placed in a “Tasks” category by default, since that was the file I was using. Even when I did assigned a category from the agenda, I still had to do so for a child header (I thought these are supposed to be inharied, but this didn’t seem to work). This may sound like aesthetics, but being able to filter out all personal/work tasks can be very handy.
I was also thinking of my issue of having multiple values for one
property. This was a problem I was trying to solve for the last
several weeks. As an example, consider a task of setting up several
computers, where extra information such as serial numbers and
models is needed. Up to that point, I had a header nested inside my
task.org file, like “set up 4 computers.” I used the custom
:Serials: followed by the serial numbers for set-up
:Serials: 1111 2222 3333 4444 etc. This didnt' work well,
since Org considered the whole thing, including spaces, as the
value of the property “Serials.” I could still search, using Swiper
(Ivy is one of the first things I install), for the serial as text,
but anything that has to do with properties as functions did not
work. I asked about this in reddit and in IRC several times, but
could not find a satisfactory solution to breaking down properties
that way. Someone, at one point, offered a rather complicated
function – but I kept feeling this was a too common of an issue to
be overlooked like that. Something more fundemental was off in the
way I was working with Org, but I didn’t know what it was. So I
decided to “go back” and reflect again on how Org was meant to work
After re-reading some sections of the manual and watching Carsten Dominik’s presentation back from 2008, I was reminded of Org-modes original built-in tools. In the lecture, Carsten emphasized Column View in Org. It is something I saw in passing previously, but now that I was having a mess on my hands with properties, Column View glowed in a welcoming aura. A quick and efficient way to have a table of the computers' serial numbers (or users, or model…) right next to the header, in a comfortable layout? I needed this. I could set columns per header, if I wanted to, which meant more fiddling around with the specific laptop-setup task in my old method. Or… I could just have a set-up dedicated org file which will already have the column view for laptop-set up built in with the properties… Wait a minute.
Using Multiple Org Files
That was it. Everything I learned to this point came together in a torrent of thoughts. The solution to the properties problem was to have dedicated org files for each big project. After all, that’s exactly what the agenda was made for: to be used as the “glue” between them. This was why I was supposed to use agenda in the first place! As long as I had a task scheduled, it didn’t matter what file it was in. All I need to do is to tab in, just like I did with tasks.org. The idea of having a list of tasks in one file was so ingrained in my head from all the apps I used in the past, I was blind to see what was under my nose.
With the realization of needing to break tasks back to different files came the realization that I am probably squeezing too much data into one org file. After all, setting up laptops as a task is a project in itself. It should include a heading for each laptop, along with a checklist of steps I do for each, with a log describing different issues I am having in the process. From the agenda, this looks just like another project I do during the week. it fits inside the tasks list and on my phone just the same.
I was in for another pleasent surprise: In my agenda, since now I seperated the setups to a different file, my category problem suddenly disappeared as well. All my laptop setups were shown as “setups” as a category, because this is the file they are in. Wow. So this is what happens when you stop fighting something and start using it the way it was meant to be used.
I’ve been using the system above for almost a week now (this post has been a week in the making). Here are some ideas about what’s next.
adoptive capture template for ticketsthis was done this morning! I now have a capture template that automatically prompts me for the properties needed for each ticket I need to work on. It is then filed as a ToDo task in my weekly “tasks.org”
- Should Figure out what to use tags for: work in progress. While categories have their place, tags are more fluid. For now, it seems like I’m gravitating toward creating “mind keywords” of certain topics or terms that I’m familiar with. These, in turn, should be good for searches since I think in these terms when I’m looking for something. For example, a task flagged with my boss’s name tells me this is a task he’s viewing actively, or a “wiki” tag tells me there’s some good info stored in the notes of the tasks that I should probably store for later.
- Learn to trust the system. It’s hard to let myself create tasks in different files. I still need my weekly “mind-dump” of a place where I throw in quick captures and tasks that are not big enough for their own file, but I should stop thinking of it as my weekly list of things I’m doing, since it’s misleading. The agenda is what reflects that now.