emacs is my favourite text editor. I use it to write pretty much every word of text I write on a computer these days (since mid-2019).
Thoughts on emacs when starting out, August 2019 #
I’ve been searching for many years for a productivity system; a way to organise my thoughts and projects that reduces the load on my mind and allows me to concentrate better on the task and hand. I’ve tried pretty much every app that exists, I think: Evernote, Things, Notion, and any combination of Notes.app, Google Docs and Sheets, Numbers, iAWriter, Bear, that you can think of.
I’ve settled on a system which works reasonably well, resting on two pillars which those familiar with GTD will recognise: a text file containing a list of tasks I need to do this week, and rituals of checking the task every morning, and creating next week’s task every Saturday evening before the new week begins.
Plain text is the best format for me; it doesn’t lock you into a specific application, it’s portable and presumably forever accessible (if we can’t read plain text files then we’re in serious trouble as a society). And in my search for the perfect productivity system I have recently discovered org-mode, an emacs plugin specifically designed by a Dutch academic for the purposes of keeping track of projects and todo lists. And once again I find myself addicted to keyboard shortcuts.
Emacs is a text editor from the 1970s which feels some weird combination of archaic and modern today. The thing I most like about it, having started dabbling in it just a week ago, although I’ve been familiar with it by reputation for some time, is the ability to customise everything: most importantly, keyboard shortcuts. I love using keyboard shortcuts. The mouse is such a fiddly and error-prone device, requiring precision and time to get the click right. But your hands are always positioned above the keyboard, and combining this with the magic of human muscle memory means you keep getting better and better and faster and faster.
When I’m really in the zone working on some project; coding or writing or whatever I’m doing, the ability to be fast, to play the keyboard like a piano, feels to me like it reduces my latency: reduces the delay in the interface between my brain and the output. There’s a real thrill in working fast, of feeling yourself think like that.
emacs has a reputation, at least in the Old Internet, for being used by serious geeks. Computer science professors, basement-dwellers, other scientists and academics. There’s certainly a lot of those in the community that I’ve been delving into the last few weeks. But mostly I feel it’s just normal nerds like me, who like their computer to look exactly the way they want it to, and to respond predictably and attractively and fast.
This process of refinement and improvement: starting with a bog-standard download of a hideous text editor from the 70s, adding colour schemes and fonts and plugins and new modes until it looks and feels the way you want. You don’t adapt your process and your workflow to the tools you can find: you build the exact tool that you need.
The GTD dream is “building a second brain": getting all those to-do lists and ideas out of your head and into a secure, trusted location as soon as they come it. It reduces the mental workload we spend cycling over the things we need to do in the future. Combined with a dedicated and diligent review ritual, it can have a powerful reduction on misspent brain CPU cycles. I’m not there yet, but I’m enjoying building the way there.
Interesting emacs configurations #
- Musa al-Hassy
- Benjamin Beckwith: a fantastic literate org-mode bootstrapped emacs config
- Colin McLear on why not to use literate org-mode.
- Karl Voit (includes “memacs”)
- Dylan McDowell
Links and resources #
- emacs home page.
- A Hackernews comment quoting Michel Foucault on contemporary critics of Hegel that rings true for emacs:
We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.
- A bunch of nice tips and tricks from Karthik Chikmagalur, most of which I’d never seen before.