February 12, 2020

Reining in Emacs

So far this year I’ve deleted Emacs from my Mac’s dock at least 4 times.

You know this story, but I’ll keep writing it anyway.

I’ve only been using Emacs seriously for five years or so, and in that time it has become the center of my text/information/editing/productivity/publishing universe. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

For example, I spent a couple hours one weekend setting up Elfeed for reading RSS feeds. Why? Because it’s neat to be able to read RSS feeds right in Emacs. But, it’s not pleasant. It’s janky and not pretty and a little finicky.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but reading walls of monospaced text is uncomfortable. It is for me, anyway.

What about email? Mu4e is awesome. I can fly through my inbox with it. And editing email with Emacs is great. Searching in Mu4e is super fast and flexible. But, the rest of the experience is less great. Reading most modern emails requires proper HTML support and that’s not what I get with Mu4e. I can open the HTML version of any given message in a browser, but that’s certainly not ideal. I often need to deal with multiple messages at once, and Mu4e doesn’t make that at all easy. As bad as parts of Apple’s Mail app are, it’s a significantly more pleasant, easy-to-deal-with experience for how I use email.

Let’s talk about Org mode. Oh my. For me, Org mode is the best reason to use Emacs. It’s probably the most powerful thing on my computer.

I can do pretty much anything with Org mode. I can write and post to my blog, I can create properly-typeset PDF documents, I can manage my time, tasks, habits, schedule, journal, notes, you name it. Org mode can do it all!

You know what they say, Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

It’s time to take inventory of my Emacs use once again. Last time I did this I was waffling about a lot of this as well.

And what about now? I’m still thinking about it. Part of the problem is that I’m experiencing my regular bout of text file fatigue. I’m tired of staring at plain, monospaced text all day for everything.

Another issue is keyboard fatigue. I have a fantastic keyboard, and it’s great being able to do everything without taking my hands off it. But sometimes I want to take my hands off the keyboard. Sometimes I want to lean back, grab the mouse and drive with one hand while maybe occasionally typing something. I don’t want to sit up straight with my hands on the home row and remember complex and sometimes obscure keyboard combinations for every little thing. Maybe I just want to click a tab and start typing in, say, Roam.

Speaking of Roam, what a mess it’s made of my note-taking process. Roam is so good at being an intertwingled second brain that I don’t want to take notes anywhere else. Trouble is, Roam is going to be priced at something like $30/month and it’s a third party app, and who knows how long it will be around, and so on. There’s org-roam, which is quickly becoming quite good. But it’s not Roam. Org mode can be an outliner, but it’s not a very good one. Roam is a decent outliner, along with all the other things it does well. This is hard for me, because I’d rather take my notes in Org mode, but just knowing Roam exists causes me to second guess everything.

And finally, task management. Org mode is the most sophisticated, extensible, full-featured task management option I know of. It’s built for managing tasks. Once configured to my tastes, Org’s agenda is a fantastic way to keep on top of everything. The catch there is once configured”. That process never ends. Go ahead, read the manual, I dare you.

I’m tired of thinking things like, I wonder if I could make that heading show up over here instead.” and then spending hours making it happen. Or How do I filter by category again?” Doing all this can be fun, but it’s not anything approaching productive.

You know what makes task management easy and pleasant? Things does. Things is just so very nice, you know? Hell, even OmniFocus, with it’s noisy UI and fidgety perspectives, and stupid giant round checkboxes, is way more pleasant to use in anger than Org mode. The overall superiority of Org mode is incontrovertible, but dammit it exhausts me.

So, where does this leave me? Here’s what I’m going to try using Emacs for.

Note taking second brain”: Org mode and org-roam. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to resist putting everything into Roam instead, but what I want to do is keep it all locally in neat little text files forever. At the rate that org-roam is improving, this may just work out fine.

General text editing: When I need to process a bunch of text in multiple files, BBEdit wins for me, but otherwise I’ll use Emacs.

Journaling: org-journal. My use of Diarly or Day One is waning, even though they are nice and handle images wonderfully. My daily journal is 90% text and org-journal is terrific for that.

Code: Emacs (But who’m I kidding, I almost never write code these days)

And here’s what I’m taking (or keeping) out of Emacs…

Task management: This is a tough call, but I’m sticking with OmniFocus or Things for the time being. I expect this to get sucked back into Org mode before too long, but here we are.

Email: Apple Mail. It’s always there, looks good, and mostly works. I almost wish I could continue to use Superhuman but I’m trying to move away from Gmail and I don’t want to pay $30/month for a fancy Gmail wrapper. Mu4e is cool, but too much work.

Blogging: Ghost. Ghost is pleasant, fast, reasonably lightweight, and makes managing my blog generally hassle-free. I love the idea of a static site, and Hugo is great for that, but like I said, I usually just want to click a tab, start typing, and hit Publish”.

Personal finance: I’m very tempted to restart my Ledger setup using Emacs’ ledger-mode but it’s so much work that I doubt I’ll stick with it for long so I’m back in YNAB and Banktivity for now.

So it appears that I’ve been able to rein Emacs in a little. Enough at least so that it doesn’t swallow everything I do and wear me out in the process. A little variety in apps keeps things interesting. None of this is set in stone, and who knows what moods will strike, but for now, I’ve got a plan and I can keep Emacs in my dock without it stressing me out.


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TiddlyWiki and Roam and my Daily Notes A few notes about differences between TiddlyWiki and Roam related to my daily note taking process. In October, 2018, I created a wiki at
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