Dec 19
A Quick Guide to Org-Mode TODO's
Org-mode is one of the crowning jewels of EMacs. It is, without doubt, the reigning champion of text-based organizational systems - anything you want to do with text you can do with Org.
I've been using Org for a while now and it has constantly amazed me with it's unfolding set of features - Scheduling, prioritizing, unlimited hierarchies, archives, capture inbox items, refile, hyperlinks, tables, markup formatting, exporting, tags... the list looks endless, the implementation is smooth, rock-solid, and phenomenally usable.
The fact that Org is not as popularily used is sad. I think there may be two reasons: 1. There are so many features there is no obvious place to start. 2. It works best when you know how to use EMacs and ELisp.
So, in this quick post, I will show you how to start using Org and the basics of using EMacs and ELisp to have a really useful TODO list to manage your day.
We will start from scratch, quickly build a workable todo planner system and then I will show you how to customize it by learning some (e)Lisp.
Learning Lisp is also really nice for programmers because it is so very different from our normal Java/C++ languages. Being exposed to different ideas can really help us grow into better (and more productive) programmers.
Plus Lisp is FUN and easy to get started with. You'll have a blast!
So let's dive in!
First we make sure we've got EMacs installed. It is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. The latest EMacs versions come with Org pre-installed so we should be good to go. (If not, installing org-mode is pretty easy).
Great. You should now have a screen looking like this:
(Notice the tutorial link? It's an excellent start to the basics of using EMacs which you should check out after this post. For now, I will show you what to do so you don't need it).
Use: Control-e: End of line Control-a: Start of line Control-/: Undo Control-G: Get me out of here (when stuck)
Now you know enough to let you get through this post. After that do read the EMacs tutorial.
Because EMacs is an OOOOLD editor - it has some funny naming conventions you should know:
And we're ready to go!
The first principle of productivity is:
A Blunt Pencil is worth more than a Sharp Mind
In other words - always use a todo list! To do this, we will create a new Org file and enter our todo items. Start by clicking the first icon on your EMacs toolbar and provide the filename "". The extension ".org" will tell EMacs that we want to treat this file as an Org file.
Next we enter our TODO list. Press Alt-Shift and hit the ENTER key. Voila! A new TODO item!
Add a few more TODO items to practice.
By now the Alt-Shift-ENTER combo should be giving you an idea of how EMacs works. Almost all EMacs commands are some combination of Control, Alt, and Shift and written in short form like this: Control-x : C-x Alt-x : M-x (Alt = Meta) Shift-x : S-x
Now on any TODO line, try <S-right> (Shift and right arrow key). Neat huh? The TODO marker will cycle between: TODO --> DONE --> <none>
At first, these rather odd commands will feel strange but after a short time they feel completely natural and you'll be using them without even thinking.
Now let's add some notes to the TODO's. Go to the end of any line (Control-E or C-e) hit <enter> and then the <tab> key. The <tab> key will always bring you to the right indentation level.
We can also add lists:
<S-right> cycles between different list types.
We can add hyperlinks, images, tables, and formatting to our notes.
We can also organize them better. Use M-S-<up,down,left,right> to organize headings.
We can collapse and expand these views at all levels to get a overview and detail by pressing the <tab> and <s-tab> keys
As part of our TODO's it is often helpful to list out a checklist of items that need to be completed to accomplish our objective. This is done by using a simple list and adding the `[ ]` text marker.
These checkboxes can then by toggled using C-c C-c
The last thing we will do is to schedule tasks as that is one really important way to organize our tasks. Scheduling is dead easy - C-c C-s
Org also comes with a number of detailed reports (called agenda views) which you can use. For now, though, let's build our own report and learn some ELisp on the way.
First let's figure out what report we want. I'd like a report of all the TODO's due today (and any associated checklists). Also, when we hit ENTER on a report line it should go back to the original todo.
This is a simple but very useful report. We can now keep track of multiple projects, keep things on hold (by turning off the TODO), and schedule things to do in the future so they don't show up now.
To create this report is actually pretty easy. EMacs is written entirely in a dialect of LISP called ELisp. All the editing, display, window management, and so on are done by executing ELisp. Hence all we have to do is write our own ELisp functions and bind them to some keys to extend EMacs functionality to do anything we want.
If you want to try things out as you follow along, open a new ELisp file (end with extension .el) and play around.
To understand LISP we ought to start with the origins of the name itself:
LISP-List Processing.png
We only need to understand two things about LISP: 1. Everything important is a list. 2. Everything is evaluated.
Of course we understand what it means to evaluate simple things like strings and numbers. A number evaluates to itself, strings evaluate to themselves, and so do characters etc:
A natural question we can ask is: How Are Lists Evaluated? The answer is simple: The first element is treated as a function name and the rest of the element are parameters. For example:
If any of the parameters are themselves lists, the same applies recursively:
So what happens if we want a list of data such as: (1 2 3 4) By our logic this will call a function called `1` with parameters `2`, `3`, and `4` which is hardly what we want. What we need is a way to mark expressions we do not want evaluated and we do this by quoting them: '(1 2 3 4) 'x
Example: (1 2 3 4) => Error! No function called `1` '(1 2 3 4) => '(1 2 3 4) x => value of x 'x => x
Now the ELisp for a traditional "Hello World" is
(message "Hello World!")
Type this in and, just after the ending brace type C-x C-e which evaluates the expression:
We can also try
(insert "Hello World!")
Let's try to make his into a function. The way to do this is to create a list with the first element `defun` ("define function").
(defun hw() (insert "Hello World!"))
Now when you execute this expression (C-x C-e) it will simply define a function called "hw". How do we call this function?
One way is to create a list with the first element as this function and execute that.
However, if we want to be able to call our function from anywhere we should mark it as "interactive". (defun hw() (interactive) (insert "Hello World!")) Functions marked as "interactive" can be called by users directly by either linking them to a keypress (we will see this later) or typing `M-x` (Alt-x) and the function name.
So now that we know how to create and invoke functions, to create our report all we have to do is create a function that displays the report and invoke it.
[=] What we want to do is access the TODO report anytime when we press a key (say F5). [What you need to know] In EMacs every buffer has a mapping between a keypress and a lisp function to be called. Globally this is mantained in a variable called the `global-map`. A simple way to work with such "keymaps" is to use the following function:
(define-key global-map [f5] 'todays_todos)
(This means that whenever the key F5 is pressed, call the function `todays_todos`. As described before, this function should be marked "interactive". This allows us to have many functions and only make a few available - something like an interface to our functionality). Let's take a look at how to write that function next.
[=] Show the report [+] Get all the todo's and show them [s] If no todos found or the current buffer is not an org-mode buffer, inform the user. [What you need to know] * An "if" works as follows: (if condition (do when true) (do when false)) * A "let" defines variables: (let ((var1 value1) (var2 value2)) (some-func var1) (var2 is a function) (another-func var1 var2) ...) ;; "let" ends ;; so var1,var2 no longer available You may find it a little hard to read the following function at first but if you just follow it closely it will become really simple. Trust me (or ping me if you really need help!)
(defun todays_todos() (interactive) (if (equal major-mode 'org-mode) (let ((todos (get_todays_todos))) (if todos (show_todays_todos todos) (user-error "No todo's in current file or org-agenda-files"))) (user-error "File is not an ORG-MODE file")))
[!] Get today's todo's from the current buffer [+] Get all TODO's and filter out those that have a schedule whose date is more than today [What you need to know] * In order to read from the buffer, we are going to move around in this function. Because we want to come back to the same position after the function we wrap it in a "save-excursion". This function saves the current view and restores it after executing all it's parameters. * A LISP list is constructed from nodes using the function `cons`. A list node has two slots - the first holds the element and the second holds a pointer to the next node. This is best visualized as follows:
Therefore we use the functions (car list) and (cdr list) to get the "contained element" and the "rest of the list" respectively. * "Mapping" a list is the standard way of iterating over a list (sort of like a for-loop). The `mapcar` list takes a function to be executed and passes it the first (the `car`) element of each list node.
* "org-entry-properties" is a function written by the Org mode authors that we are simply reusing to find if an entry has been scheduled. Just how did we find this function? Well EMacs has an amazing ability to show us every function available! Anything that EMacs can do - you can do too! Explore this by finding what functions are bound to your keys: C-h C-k And then examining the function: C-h C-f * A "lambda" is simply a way of naming an anonymous function. When you don't want to `defun` you `lambda` :-) Phew! Lots of weird names cons, car, cdr, mapcar, and lambda but I hope you got them all.
(defun is_todo_today(todo) (save-excursion (goto-char (car todo)) (let ((sch (assoc "SCHEDULED" (org-entry-properties)))) (if (not sch) t (org-time<= (cdr sch) (format-time-string "%Y-%m-%d 23:59")))))) (defun get_todays_todos() (let (todos) (mapcar #'(lambda (todo) (if (is_todo_today todo) (setq todos (cons todo todos)))) (get_todos)) (reverse todos)))
[!] Get all the TODO's from our buffer. [+] Locate todo items and extract them into a list. [ ] Get the todo boundaries from the todo locations [ ] Extract the todo details from these boundaries
(defun get_todos() (save-excursion (mapcar #'(lambda (x) (xtract_todo_from_location (car x) (cdr x))) (boundaries (get_todo_locations)))))
[=] Return a list of TODO locations [ ] Walk over all org headings and if they have a TODO value (that is not DONE) in their properties, add them to the list.
(defun get_todo_locations() (let (pos) (ignore-errors (org-map-entries #'(lambda () (let ((status (assoc "TODO" (org-entry-properties)))) (if (and status (not (equal (cdr status) "DONE"))) (setq pos (cons (point) pos)))))) (reverse pos))))
[=] Get todo data from the location [ ] Go to the location [ ] Get the title [ ] Look for checkboxes until next location [ ] Add each checkbox to a list [ ] Return the location, title and checkboxes [s] If there is no title, set it to "TODO". This happens in the case where we just want a 'simple' TODO list: * TODO - [ ] Do X - [ ] Do Y ... [What you need to know] * EMacs generally displays "text" in it's buffer. But this text is not just a raw string - we can have colors, formatting and so on. More generally, any text can have "properties" that are not displayed but are associated with it. Properties like it's font-face give it the formatting but we are free to save any properties with the text. We will see this comes in handy later. Right now we just use it to set some formatting for the title.
(defun xtract_todo_from_location(loc nxt) (let (title checkboxes) (goto-char loc) (setq title (org-get-heading t t)) (if (not title) (setq title (bold "TODO"))) (setq title (concat (make-string (org-outline-level) ?*) " " title)) (while (re-search-forward (org-item-re) nxt t) (if (and (org-at-item-checkbox-p) (equal "[ ]" (match-string-no-properties 1))) (setq checkboxes (cons (buffer-substring-no-properties (line-beginning-position) (line-end-position)) checkboxes)))) (cons loc (cons title (reverse checkboxes)))))
[!] Return a list of boundaries [+] The list of locations are starting locations: (l1 l2 l3 l4 ....) which represent the start of each TODO. So what is needed is to add the ending boundary. [+] Now sometimes there are sub-trees that are also marked "TODO". So we end the boundary early at this point. [+..] For example: * TODO1 ** TODO2 ** TODO3 * TODO4 ** TODO5 ... would result in: ((l1 l2) (l2 l2.end) (l3 l3.end) (l4 l5)...) [ ] Zip up the list with either the boundary end or the next TODO location.
(defun get_end_boundary(start nxt) (if nxt (save-excursion (goto-char start) (org-end-of-subtree t) (min nxt (point))))) (defun boundaries(l) (if (car l) (let ((start (car l)) (nxt (cadr l))) (cons (cons start (get_end_boundary start nxt)) (boundaries (cdr l))))))
[!] We need a nice view of the tasks to be done for the day. [+] Bring up a temporary buffer and show the tasks for the day [+] Show a header and all returned tasks [ ] Open a temporary buffer [ ] Print the header [ ] Print the tasks [ ] Make read-only and [ ] Set keybindings [What you need to know] * Remember EMacs works with buffers and windows and frames
What we need is a temporary buffer for our report which we "kill" when we're done with it.
(defun show_todays_todos(todos) (switch-to-buffer (set-buffer (get-buffer-create "TODO TODAY")) t t) (erase-buffer) (show_heading) (newline 2) (mapcar #'(lambda (todo) (let ((s (point))) (insert (cadr todo)) (newline) (mapcar #'(lambda(c) (insert c)(newline)) (cddr todo)) (set_loc (car todo) s (point)))) todos) (goto-char 0) (read-only-mode) (set-keys))
[=] Set keys to make it easier to navigate [+] On 'enter' - goto item [+] On pressing 'q' - quit [ ] Check if we are in 'evil' mode or not and use the appropriate key binding function [ ] Bind 'q' to kill the buffer and go back to (hopefully) the original buffer [ ] Bind 'ENTER' to get the saved location of the todo at the current point and return to it after the buffer is killed. TODO: Viper mode also has it's own keybindings TODO: Save and use filename instead of hoping the buffer we will return to after killing will be correct [What you need to know] * EMacs has emulation modes for those (like me) who are more comfortable using Vim. The built-in mode is called "Viper", but the most popular is called "Evil"-mode. Since Evil-mode changes the keybindings, we need to use it's special functions to set keybindings instead of the default EMacs versions. Emacs Version: (local-set-key...) Evil version: (evil-local-set-key...)
(defun set-keys() (let (set-key) (fset 'set-key (if (fboundp 'evil-local-set-key) #'(lambda (key def) (evil-local-set-key 'normal key def)) 'local-set-key)) (set-key (kbd "RET") #'(lambda() (interactive) (let ((loc (get_loc))) (kill-buffer nil) (goto-char loc)))) (set-key (kbd "q") #'(lambda()(interactive) (kill-buffer nil)))))
[=] Save and retrive the location of the todo in the text so it can be used to go back to the same location TODO: Also save filename [What you need to know] * As we discussed above, we can associate text displayed in an EMacs buffer with any properties we want. Some of these properties can be used to format the text but now we are using the properties to store the original location of the text so that we can return to it in our buffer when we hit 'ENTER' in the report.
(defun set_loc(loc start end) (put-text-property start end 'TODOLOC loc)) (defun get_loc() (get-text-property (point) 'TODOLOC))
[=] Show the TODO report heading
(defun show_heading() (let ((h (format-time-string "%A, %d-%m %Y"))) (insert "- ") (insert (underline h)) (insert " -") (center-line)))
[=] Add bold font face
(defun bold(s) (propertize s 'face 'bold))
[=] Add underline font face
(defun underline(s) (propertize s 'face 'underline))
And we're done! All we need to do to get this report working is to evaluate the functions in this file and press F5 in any org-mode TODO list.
An easy way of evaluating all the functions in a file while you are coding is to call an interactive function: `eval-buffer` (M-x eval-buffer)
Once you're done, it is best to put your file into your emacs configuration (~/.emacs) and load it using the (load-file "do_today.el") function.
Have fun playing with EMacs and see you next time!
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heikki says:
Thanks for an interesting tutorial! I tried the code but it did not work. It never finds any entries. Digging into code, I noticed that org-entry-properties is called with three arguments. In my org , version 9.0.3, it takes only two. Are you running some older version of org? Best, Heikki
theproductiveprogrammer says:
Hey Hekki, I'm really happy you like the tutorial! You're right I am using an older version of Org. It's the one that came installed by default with EMacs. I've upgraded to the latest version and fixed the issue too. It should work now for you. :-)
gaharietmelanthios says:
I'm new to this. If I understand correctly, all those bits of script should be place below one another? And then you have to add the path file to .emacs right? So you can call this function from anywhere. Thanks.
theproductiveprogrammer says:
Yes gaharietmelanthios you are absolutely right. You can also download the source code for this blog itself (available at the top of each blog post) and include it. Then, just pressing F5 will trigger the report.
JaneDonovanford says:
Hi, thanks for your video. I wonder if you could help me. How to only show specific tasks with a specific mark (like DONE, or any customized word)?
theproductiveprogrammer says:
Hi Jane, if you have an agenda view set up all you need to do is launch it with <C-c a T> instead of <C-c a t>. Emacs will prompt you for the specific keyword to show an agenda for.
JaneDonovanford says:
Thank you so much! I guess the keyword can be anything (tag, "todo" status, etc.).
theproductiveprogrammer says:
Generally the keywords are "TODO" and "DONE" but you can add any number using the "org-todo-keywords" variable. Eg: (setq org-todo-keywords '((sequence "TODO" "FEEDBACK" "VERIFY" "|" "DONE" "DELEGATED"))) The separator bar - "|" - in between distinguishes between "action needed" states and "no action needed" states.
JaneDonovanford says:
My last question pertains to timestamps. Let's say I have a meal planner, and want to record the date the recipe was DONE, but then if I do this recipe again and I mark it as TODO the previous date stamp is erased and replaced with the new DONE date. How to access all the previous DONE dates to now how many times / when I cooked this recipe? Thanks.
theproductiveprogrammer says:
You could keep track by using "notes". Set the org-log-done variable to 'note : (setq org-log-done 'note) And this will give you a history of whenever you close an item. Some people also like it because it gives them a way to drop a quick note on how it went ("it was tasty this time"...).
JaneDonovanford says:
Thanks, because I'm new in emacs, where shall I write this command? (setq org-log...), in the .emacs file? I just need it for the file, not anyother. How can I use it within the document? Sorry if my question is basic.
theproductiveprogrammer says:
There are several ways - for your specific case, just put this line on the top of -*- org-log-done: note -*-
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