GTD Capture With Emacs OrgMode

December 30, 2008

Ubiquitous capture is the part of GTD that I am most interested in. While I am working I’ll come up with random new ideas, find unrelated bugs in code I’m working on, or find something I need to remember later. I want to make a note of these things without causing much interruption to the task at hand. I’ve tried a number of solutions to this problem and have now got a great solution going using my favorite editor, Emacs.

Here’s a small demo screencast:




There are some basic requirements that I think any solution to the capture problem must solve.

It should be immediately accessible from any application on the computer. I want to have some key binding that immediately lets me jot down something quickly and then gets out of my way.

It needs to work everywhere I do. I currently use both OS X and Linux on different machines. I don’t want to have to capture only on one machine, and I want the capture method to the be same on both.

Why Emacs

If you use Emacs, then it makes a lot of sense to use it for capture. If you don’t use Emacs, then it probably doesn’t, although OrgMode is good enough to convert some people.

First, Emacs is everywhere. It runs well on Linux, OS X, and Windows.

Emacs is also where I do a lot of my work already. This means I always have Emacs running, and many times when I am capturing something, it relates to things I am doing in Emacs. Notable exceptions to this include Web browsing and e-mail.

Emacs comes with a remarkably useful extension called OrgMode. OrgMode can be used like an outliner, but it also has hooks for to-do lists and calendaring. OrgMode integrates with Remember which is an Emacs capture tool.

These add up to most of a great capture solution. All we need is some glue.

Capturing From Anywhere

The first requirement is that we be able to capture from anywhere. This means we will need to globally bind some combination of key presses to invoking the Remember functionality in Emacs.

Emacs has a server mode that allows other things to communicate and control it. This is a lot like AppleScript on OS X except that it is done with Emacs Lisp. All we need to do is send Emacs a command when the global hot key is pressed. This is easily accomplished with emacsclient -e '(some-command)'.

Binding the hot key is done in the window manager preferences in Linux. Since my Ubuntu machines run compiz, I added a binding for <Control><Alt>backslash to run emacsclient -n -e '(make-remember-frame)'. On OS X I used Spark to bind the same keys to a small bit of AppleScript which runs the same command as Ubuntu.

Fine Tuning Emacs

Finally, I wanted Emacs to pop up a new, small window (what it calls a frame) and let me start typing. I also wanted Emacs to get rid of the window as soon as I was finished, either by saving my note or discarding it. This took a little digging through Emacs documentation and bits of code, but turned out not to be that hard.

Here is my make-remember-frame code, along with the hooks it needs to work.

(defadvice remember-finalize (after delete-remember-frame activate)
  "Advise remember-finalize to close the frame if it is the remember frame"
  (if (equal "remember" (frame-parameter nil 'name))

(defadvice remember-destroy (after delete-remember-frame activate)
  "Advise remember-destroy to close the frame if it is the rememeber frame"
  (if (equal "remember" (frame-parameter nil 'name))

;; make the frame contain a single window. by default org-remember
;; splits the window.
(add-hook 'remember-mode-hook

(defun make-remember-frame ()
  "Create a new frame and run org-remember."
  (make-frame '((name . "remember") (width . 80) (height . 10)))
  (select-frame-by-name "remember")


GTD Capture With Emacs OrgMode - December 30, 2008 - Jack Moffitt