Bye bye iCal, welcome org-mode

I have been using Macintosh computers since 2003, and overall I have been happy with the personal information management (PIM) tools provided by Apple: AddressBook, Mail, Safari (for bookmark management). The one tool I have never liked is iCal. Its user interface is fine for consulting my agenda, but entering information is too complicated and the todo-list management is particularly clumsy. But more importantly, I regularly found myself wanting to add information for which no entry field was provided. I ended up putting it into the “notes” section, or leave it out. Another unplesant feature of iCal is that all the information is stored in a complex proprietary database, making synchronization between several computers impossible except through cloud-based server solutions such as Apple’s MobileMe (quite expensive) or fruux (much nicer in my opinion, but it still requires trusting your data to a cloud service).

Being unhappy with a tool for an important task implies looking for better options, but I didn’t find anything that I liked. Until one day I discovered, mostly by accident, the org-mode package that has been distributed with Emacs for a while. org-mode is one of those pieces of software that is so powerful that it is difficult to describe to someone who has never used it. Basically, org-mode uses plain text files with a special lightweight markup syntax for things like todo items or time stamps (but there is a lot more), and then provides sophisticated and very configurable functions for working with this data. It can be used for keeping agendas, todo lists, journals, simple databases such as bookmark lists, spreadsheets, and much more. Most importantly, all of these can coexist in a single text file if you want, and the contents of this file can be structured in any way you like. You can even add pieces of executable code and thus use org-mode for literal programming, but that’s a topic for another post.

To be more concrete, my personal information database in org-mode consists of several files at the top level: for organizing my workday, for tasks and appointments related to private life, for notes about research projects, for notes (mostly bookmarks) about software development, etc. Inside my, there is a section on research projects, one on teaching, one on my editorial work for CiSE, one for refereeing, etc. Inside each of these sections, there are agenda entries (seminars, meetings, courses etc.) and todo entries with three priority levels and optional deadlines. Any of them can be accompanied by notes of any kind, including links, references to files on my disk, and even executable shell commands. There is no limit to what you store there.

In October 2010 I started the transition from iCal to org-mode. Initially I entered all data twice, to make sure I could continue to rely on iCal. After a week I was confident enough to enter everything just once, using org-mode. I then transferred all agenda items for 2011 to org-mode and decided to stop using iCal on Januray 1, 2011. That day has arrived, and the iCal icon has disappeared from my dock. Without any regrets.

Conclusion: If you need a powerful PIM system and you don’t fear Emacs, have a look at org-mode.

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16 Comments on “Bye bye iCal, welcome org-mode”

  1. Hi there. Thank you for you recommendation. At the first glance the tool seems very useful yet IMHO it has a major drawback. It is designed only for computer nerds. You cannot share your calendars and todos with your girlfriend or wife, at least as long as they are reluctant to obtain a PhD in computer science. On the other hand I would be very glad to see org-mode import and export in OmniFocus.

    • khinsen Says:

      There are conversion tools from and to org-mode for various other programs, but since I haven’t used any of them, I can’t say much more. For example of2org imports data from OmniFocus, and iCalendar support is part of org-mode itself. There’s also the powerful export functions to HTML and PDF that org-mode provides, which even allow export to paper agendas :-)

    • Hai Nguyen Says:

      How about a tool like Priority Matrix? Using the Stephen Covey quadrants, you get more than the 1-D nature of iCal, but perhaps less complex than org-mode.

    • You don’t need a PhD in CS to read a text file. It actually takes a lot more training to use iCal than it takes to read a text file.

  2. sergio_101 Says:

    wow! what cool coincidence! i just wrote an article on this same thing today! i am also a mac user, and have been using a myriad of other tools for awhile. i made the switch to completely org-mode about a year ago.

    the ability to write a pile of intereaved documents, link everything together, and effectively drop tasks in wherever i wanted makes org-mode a total winner!

    you can see more about my usage here:

    thanks for the great article!

  3. sergio_101 Says:

    i forgot to mention that the exporting to tex/pdf, etc are great features to play with too..

    and you can export to ical, if you need to share a calendar with someone.

    for the record, i use gcal for all my appointments and things that have a set start and end time. I use org-mode’s agenda mode for all tasks and projects where the dates are a little more flexible, and part of a bigger project.

  4. I used to use org-mode for managing my todos, notes, and short documents, but now I only use it as a simple text-editor and a spreadsheet app (much better than openoffice imho, but probably because I’m used to Emacs). The reason why I stopped using it as a PIM-suite was that I was spending too much time tweaking my configuration. That’s my biggest problem with all great, Emacs-based solutions: they’re enormously powerful and complex, so the temptation to tinker with them is unbearable to me, and I end up wasting my time.

    Plus, even though there’s an iphone app for managing org-mode files, I find it uncomfortable to use and it caused me lots of problems while syncing with Emacs. And a todo/note-taking solution that doesn’t properly sync with a smartphone nowadays seems like a bad idea to me.

    Now I’m using a combo of Things+iCal for PIM, and org-mode simply for writing simple documents, and I’m good.

    But anyways: it’s nice seeing there are people tempted by org-mode and finding it appealing, because whenever I wanted to show it to anyone or advertise it in a way, people though I’m crazy:)


    • khinsen Says:

      I agree about your smartphone comment. On the other hand, I also value the protection of my personal data (and those of others – I would never put my address book on any exposed server). This means that cloud-based syncing solutions are ruled out, and then org-mode comes out ahead of the crowd because at least there is a way to share the data with a smartphone by direct connection or through a personal server.

      The real problem from my point of view are modern smartphones that are geared towards cloud storage. I hope we will see better support for old-fashioned techniques like SyncML in the future.

  5. Lang Says:

    I put an org-mode file (or two) in the git repository for my programming projects, and add all the files to the agenda. I get nice high-level documentation by the time I’m done (since I actually keep the docs synced using them this way), and the agenda keeps me updated on dates and times.

    I haven’t had the opportunity to work with many people on projects setup this way, but in theory git merging would permit a few people to take on different parts of the documentation.

    The docs also end up accurately reflecting the state of each branch of the project, which can be a pain using traditional bug tracking software.

  6. Congratulations on a very smart choice. I’ve been using org-mode to organize my whole life for the last couple of years now. Amazingly one can do almost anything in org-mode. No other PIM comes anywhere close. I also try to write som blog entries now and again on about more advanced ways of using org-mode. Just to demonstrate the power I like to “brag” about This shows how I use emacs in org-mode to do my bloging. When adding an org-mode blog entry from either emacs or conkeror it automatically gets pushed to my server via git and published automatically using jekyll. So, to update my blog I simple add and org-mode entry, hit a keypress in emacs and my blog is published. org-modes limit is basically ones own imagination.

  7. Eric Betts Says:

    I hang out in the #ledger channel on freenode and a number of the idlers there use org-mode. I’ve been intrigued by it, but I’m not a big fan of a technology that’s tied to an editor. I don’t use emacs, so I’m at a disadvantage.

    • Oliver Kappel Says:

      I have started to use emacs after discovering org-mode some years ago. Now I’m using emacs for several things, but primarily in org-mode.

      You’re right: The main features of org-mode are tied to the editor emacs. But the personal information you are managing with the editor are tied to nothing because they’re pure ASCII files.

      Most of my informations collected in several tools over several years are gone. Plattforms have changed, tools have been discontinued or upgrades couldn’t migrade “old” stuff. Since org-mode I have access to five years of projects, tasks, thoughts, logs or infos. Even on my cell phone ’cause there runs emacs too :)

  8. […] while ago I described why migrated my agendas from iCal to orgmode. To sum it up, my main motivation was to gain more freedom in managing my information: where iCal […]

  9. […] two years ago I wrote a post about why and how I abandoned Apple’s iCal for my agenda management and moved to Emacs […]

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