It finally happened. I got hooked on Emacs Org-mode. And the worst part: I felt right at home. Though some keybindings are still mind-boggling, Emacs is going strong to become my text editor of choice for most use-cases. (Don’t worry VIM, I still love you) Org-mode on the other hand is going strong to become my PIM-tool of choice, at least for notes and todos and maybe a bit of my calendar. Thus, I now have two tools trying to fill the same void in my life: Evernote and Org. Evernote has a slick smartphone application and a polished web-interface, Org is free software, based on the glory of plain text and incredibly powerful. (And it gives more geek-cred) Let’s see if the latter can replace the former.
Currently I use Evernote for the following things:
- Storing self-written notes.
- Storing websites clipped with the Evernote web-clipper.
- Storing PDF documents.
- Storing images, either alone or as part of other notes.
Furthermore I reflected my habits and realized a few things:
- Most of my notes are clipped articles or auto-generated.
- Most of my self-written notes are more often read than written.
- Most of my notes were accessed only a couple of times. (or never)
- A lot of notes contain PDF documents.
- On my smartphone I only read notes most of the time.
Especially 1. and 3. might be a hint that Evernote was never really integrated into my daily workflow. Therefore migrating only the core of my notes to org-mode and ditching everything else would be enough.
My New Setup
Using Org only for notes would only scratch the surface and my setup quickly evolved into a holistic solution for all my personal information management needs. For now, I’ll focus on my note taking and explain my whole setup sometime else. The most important files and folders are:
|inbox.org||My inbox. Default target for new notes.|
|notes.org||Quick access notes for often needed information.|
|refernce.org||Long term storage for all notes with low access-frequency.|
|journal.org||A short diary.|
|files/||all other files, mostly documents.|
New notes are captured with
org-capture and stored in the inbox or immediately refiled. The split into quick access notes and long term storage is due to restrictions of my smartphone application and explained in the next section. For images I have an
img folder, PDFs go into a
files folder. Both images and other files are linked into the respective notes, images are additionally displayed inline using
iimage-mode. Notes in my journal (and all other notes where time is important) get timestamped and show up in my agenda view (for the non-org users: my calendar view).
Altogether this replicates my Evernote setup pretty close and surpasses it at some points. I can store notes, links, all kind of documents, have a powerful search function, and a nice calendar overview. I loose the ability to store whole websites with a click, but that’s fine for me because I never looked at them a second time. Having a lot of information stored is nice in theory, but if you don’t use it, it’s a waste of time and effort. The same is true for most of my IFTTT recipes. I used to have stuff like the daily weather forecast and calendar events being stored in Evernote automatically, but the day when this kind of information would be useful has yet to come. I’m still looking for a way to capture my Facebook and Twitter feed into org files, though.
For versioning and syncing my notes I use a private git repository hosted on bitbucket. Emacs as well as git are available for Windows too, finally a native solution for my desktop and laptop. The problem in this equation is my smartphone. There is an Emacs port for Android, but without a hardware keyboard it’s tedious to use and I would still need a git client to get access to my notes. Org has a feature to interact with a companion application named MobileOrg, but I didn’t have the time to look into it and to be honest, it looks a bit outdated. The surprising solution: DroidEdit Pro.
DroidEdit Pro is a text editor for Android with syntax highlighting for common programming languages (unfortunately not for org-files), and it has integrated a basic git client! It can pull revisions from my repository, commit my changes and push them back to bitbucket. Merges et al. are not possible, but those are few and can easily be done when I’m back at my PC. Nevertheless it’s not as beautiful as the Evernote mobile application and without syntax highlighting and folding, navigating org files is a bit diffcult. Therefore I put my most often needed information into my
notes.org so that it stays small and clear. Currently it’s only 27 lines long and contains mostly Wifi-keys an such. New notes are solely put into
inbox.org and refiled when I’m back at my PC. I tend not to write longer notes on my smartphone, thus this works surprisingly well.
files/ are synced with the help of BitTorrent Sync. My smartphone is always on and works as sort of a relay for the sync between my notebook and my PC. My whole Evernote profile currently has less than 500 MB, so space is no problem, als long as I don’t put ridiculous large files in the folders.
Unfortunately BitTorrent Sync is not free software. It works very well and due to it’s nature should be save from eavesdropping, but if you prefer free software you should have a look at git-annex. Git-annex is a file managment solution built on top of git and might be an alternative for distributing your files across your devices. I have not tried it yet, but it looks promising.
Overall my setup works very well for me, though I’m not 100% happy with my mobile solution. But as mobile access get’s less comfortable, I’m forced to remember more stuff the “old-school” way without technology, which is kind of a benefit. In the end, three major drawbacks remain:
- org-mode on smartphones is a ugly and uncomfortable
- no web-clipper
- no shared notebooks
Coping with the last two is easy, I don’t really need them. The first point is currently the flaw in my system, but as time goes on, new solutions will arise and maybe mitigate this problem. On the other hand are a couple of benefits which help soothing the pain:
- it’s not only notes but a life planning tool
- magnificent exporting capabilities
- no dubious cloud services necessary
The exporting possibilities are really sweet. Evernote can export to HTML, too, but with Org I can choose between HTML, LaTeX, Docbook or even OpenDocument text, just to name a few. There are reports of people using Evernote to write books, but with Org you can export your book print-ready to LaTeX. With Evernote you can take notes for your next presentation, but with Org you can export your presentation directly to PDF with the help of LaTeX-beamer. You see where I’m going with this?
And last but not least: I escaped another vendor lock-in. Evernote admittedly can export all notes to XML, but that’s merely a last resort if Evernote should vanish sometime. Evernote basically sells a service and to ditch it you have to replicate this service. The only service I’m using now is bitbucket and that can easily be replaced. Everything else is under my control and cannot be taken away from me. Nice.