Configuring Emacs Org-Mode to Managing Your Tasks

Emacs Org-mode has a feature called Org-capture that makes it easy to keep track of all the to-do’s that crop up as we work on projects. With Org-capture you can make comments across all your files and projects and link to them all from one place.

Here is how to configure Emacs Org-capture so you can quickly create new tasks relevant to specific files and easily manage them all in one place. If you are not familiar with Emacs Org-mode, take a look at my article: Manage your developer life with Org-mode.

I use Emacs Live as a base configuration for Emacs, although everything here will work with any setup as Org-mode and Org-capture are both part of Emacs itself. If you are not using Emacs live, you can place the configurations in your ~/.emacs.d/init.el file rather that the locations specified here.

Using Org-capture todo file to track tasks

Org-capture creates a list of all those tasks you want to do across all the text files you are working with in a single file, by default this file is called .notes and lives in the root folder of your account. However, the file managing your tasks should really have a .org extension so that Emacs automatically puts it into org-mode when its loaded.

You should also consider creating your todo list file where it is easy to manage with Git or a synchronisation service like Dropbox.

Managing tasks using Org-mode and Org-capture

Define where your tasks are kept

Define a variable called org-gefault-notes-file to set the path and file name for the todo file.

I put this variable definition in a new file I created to hold all my Org-mode configurations:


Then I edited this file and add the following definition for the todo file:

;; Define the location of the file to hold tasks
(setq org-default-notes-file "~/")

Calling the custom org-mode settings the Emacs Live way

As I am using Emacs Live, I follow the convention of placing sets of configurations into their own file and calling that from my live-pack init.el. Editing my init.el file I added:


and added a new line to load in the configuration from the org-mode.el file:

(live-load-config-file "org-mode.el")

Adding key bindings for org-capture

I set up a keyboard binding for org-capture using C-c c (control key and c, followed by c). I opened an existing binding file I have in my live pack


and added a definition to call org-capture

(define-key global-map "C-c c" 'org-capture)

Create a file

Create the file that will hold all your tasks by either opening and saving a file of that name in Emacs or using the command:

touch ~/

Emacs is now setup to capture all your todos via Org-capture, so lets look at how we use Org-capture

Creating a task using Org-capture

Open up a source code file or other text file you want to work on. Create a comment in that file about a TODO / task you want to do. With the cursor still on your comment, use the org-capture command or the keyboard combo:

M-x org-capture
C-c c

You are prompted to choose a template for the type of entry you want to create. By default there is only one called task. Press the letter t to select the task template.

The cursor will now be in the Org-mode task file you created earlier allowing you to type in a descriptoin of the task. Updated the task list with this new task using the keyboard combo

C-c C-c

You can save the tasks file as usual with C-x C-s.

To open the file that your task links too, or open a web addresses you have added to the task, place the cursor anyware on the link and use

C-c C-o

Adding TODO’s manually

As has been mentioned previously, org-mode manages tasks using a plain text file, so its easy to add your own tasks by manually editing the file. You can indicate a task using the * notation.

* Level 1 heading
** Level 2 heading
*** Level 3 heading and so ....

By default the org-capture function has only one template, Tasks. So all todo’s created with org-capture will be level 2 headings under * Tasks…

** description of task

Navigating and using your org-mode task list

When ~/ file is in org mode, you may only see the text Tasks.... The three dots after Tasks indicates that this is a heading that contains more underneath. Using the Tab key you can expand the contents and repeatedly tabbing will cycle through different levels of expansion. To work on all headings at once, you can use the Shift-Tab key combination.

M - Enter

  • creates another line in the same style as the current one the cursor is on. If you do Alt-Enter at the end of a Task line, a new task is created. At the end of a list line, a new list item is created, etc.

Shift- left/right arrows

  • on a TODO text cycles through the states of the task workflow

M - left/right arrows

  • promotes or demotes the task, giving an quick way to create sub-tasks. A task line must start at the beginning of the line. If you indenting a task line with spaces means it is no longer recognised as a task.

M-Shift- left/right arrows

  • promotes / demotes a whole structure. For example, if there is a level 2 heading with several level 3 headings underneath, then promoting the level 2 heading to level 1 also promotes the level 3 headings to level 2.

M-Shift- up/down arrows

  • move tasks and list items up or down within the same level

Shift - up/down arrows

  • when on task ** will cycle through the priority of a tasks [A, B, C, none]

In Summary

Emacs Org-mode is a great way to organise your busy developer life - and life in general if you are that way inclined. As Org-mode is a part of Emacs already, then all you need to do is add a couple of lines of configuration and you are off.

As any Org-mode file is just a text file underneath, then you are not trapped into a format you cannt use anywhere else.

Hope you have a great time organising yourself with Org-mode.

Thank you.

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