Org-mode at Work

If I haven’t made this clear yet, my job doesn’t let me sit down in
front of a computer for long periods of time. Even if I do, there are
constant interruptions that make long streaks of productivity rare.

Outside of the office, my mind is often wondering in different
directions. I think I have ADD. I’ve been thinking of having myself
tested several times. I can’t sit still in one place for more than 10
minutes unless I’m highly engaged in something. If I force it, the
mental exhaustion is powerful enough to knock me asleep where I
sit. The hyper focus is there too: I can work on Emacs hours at a
time, learning how to debug, then actually debug, then write about it in my
Wiki. There are other signs too: I forget or confuse dates and days
often. All are perfect reason to continue and working on my Org life.

The classic Org-mode scenario of working with one computer, one init file,
and a few org files just doesn’t cut it in my case. As a matter of
fact, the “gateway drug” that led me to Org and Emacs was Orgzly, an
Org-mode app I got for my phone. At the time, Orgzly seemed like a decent
bullet-point / task list app and nothing more.

Now, things are more complex. I have 3 main org files spread over 4
different devices: WorkMac (main work computer), DerHedwig (my home
desktop), Pigwidgeon (my pixel 2), and a nameless (for now) MacBook
Air in case I need to work for long periods away from WorkMac at work.

Sync is crucial. But so is the security of our files at work and my
own privacy. Dropbox, for example, is out of the question. Without
it, I can’t use my work iPhone for org stuff. I never liked it anyway.

Fortunately, there’s Syncthing and TRAMP. I use both. When I’m at work
and need to check my personal projects, I SSH back home with TRAMP. I
do this because I don’t want my personal stuff synced to WorkMac. Both
WorkMac and DerHedwig are connected to Pigwidgeon. Syncthing is
lightning-fast for the small, simple org files, as long as I take care of
it. I can save a file on WorkMac and grab my phone in the other room
for the details I just entered, and they’re there. Still, there’s a
lot of complexity with Syncthing that can cause a mess (partially my
fault due to VPN usage and forgetting Emacs open with my files at
home). I’m still monitoring Syncthing and its shenanigans closely.

My setup is as follows:

I have an org file called OhSnap (tradition dating back to the days of
Evernote), which is what it sounds like. Throughout my day, I dump any
thoughts I have in this little org file, easily accessible through
Orgzly. I have a widget on Pigwidgeon’s home screen that takes me
directly to to this file. I often use my phone’s dictation ability to
record what I have to say. Dictating notes on the phone alone is worth
the hassle: because of Syncthing, any thoughts can get captured as
fast as I can say them.

Then on my computers, WorkMac or DerHedwig, I open OhSnap up and
refile what needs to be refiled. I use Capture on both of these
computers, but I find that the feature is nearly useless to me at this point, since I capture almost everything on the phone where I can’t use a complicated template anyway. If I need to take a picture, which is often enough (for a picture of an error message or a note) there’s another go around.

For work, I use Office Lens  on my phone: Microsoft’s OneDrive is the only cloud service that is approved by my workplace. For personal usage, I use
Google Photos, which is somewhat more convenient. In both cases, I
create a link and share it to a note I create in OhSnap. I gave up on
attachments a while back, realizing that by the time I download and
attach an image, I might as well just quickly link to it online,
where it’s easier to share in case I need to anway. If I ever lose an
image, the file names are all basically timestamps which I can match
up with the entries I take with Orgzly, which records the time I enter
a note. This is a simple, yet pretty affective system.

OhSnap items get sorted to both my personal and work org files. On the
personal file, which is more organized, I have the following headers: quick
tasks, projects, should do, routines, and life of others. Most are
pretty self explanatory. Life of others is a place to keep events
happening in the life of, well, others, that I want to see on my
agenda. For work, which is still work in progress, I have “tickets”
header for the tickets I need to resolve, and projects. I am still
figuring out the difference since with work, almost every ticket can
quickly become a project anyway. The sheer load of the tickets make
it impossible to schedule anything because I will get overwhlemed
within an hour. As a matter of fact, I gave up on trying to capture
everything in Org, and instead decided I’m capturing only what I’m
actively working on. I can have 5 new urgent emails, 30 tickets to look at, and constant walk-ins – but only a fraction of those get into Org. These are the ones I’m really taking care of at the moment. This is a somewhat new experience, and so far, I like it.

Another key trivial feature I recently came up with is to use the same
keywords for my three main org files. This is mostly so Orgzly can
“understand” them no matter which org file I open. These keywords are
Todo, Active, Waiting, Done, and Cancelled. On my personal org file,
only Quick Tasks or broken down tasks in projects (third level
headings) get keywords. If I want to work on something from Should Do,
I refile it to Quick Tasks or Projects. If something from the life of
others requires my attention and I get involved, again, it gets
refiled as a project or a task. My routines get keywords (OK I lied)
only if they are habits. Routines are never big projects.

I try to sort through my OhSnap file at least twice a day, in the
morning and after work. I’m still working out on keeping things
simple, which is not always easy. Sometimes I forget I already opened
an item in projects, and capture it again in OhSnap, for
example. Lately, I started using categories with my personal log,
which helps when I view my agenda. This opens a new world of
organization when it comes to kind of activities I want to do, and
filter through them (for example, I have a family category to see when
it’s time to text my sister, or when my mother is planning to come
over, etc.) I just recently learned to filter my agenda and search for
these categories specifically. At work, for example, this allows me to
quickly hide personal categories while I’m still connected to my
personal files (which is crucial because of OhSnap).

My biggest challange at this point is to figure out a workflow at work
that would enabaled me to keep my head above the water and remain
oranized. This is hardly only an Org-mode task though.

Working With Emacs: First Week

My first day with OrgMode after two weeks of intense learning. Overall, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be.

<2018-06-11 Mon>

 
My first day with Org Mode after two weeks of intense learning. All things considered, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be. I was lucky not to have too much on my plate today, taking care of only four different cases.
 
Due to Dropbox syncing issues between beorg and WorkMac, I lost time trying to improvise. This was especially frustrating because it happened when I was working away from WorkMac, and I didn’t have the information I need. I am not sure if the problem is with the app or not, Emacs does save fine to Dropbox.
 
Another conclusion from today: learn how to build a template for Capture. Right now I’m typing headers manually (by typing ** since M-RTN doesn’t seem to work, not sure why). I can see this will get out of hand soon. Org-mode has Capture exactly for that: to enter a note quickly, from a template, and then continue to do other things. Templates are in LISP though, and LISP was what got me stuck this weekend. I should learn from more simple examples.
 
Finally, I should look into properties. Seems like these could be very useful, especially when I want to search later. Things like computer names, clients, the problem category, etc. could be fantastic. Again, something to use in Capture templates.
 
The weird issue of today: I changed the ellipses Org-mode comes with to down arrow. This works fine at home on Linux. But on WorkMac, there’s an underline under the arrow down symbol. Not sure why. When I change back from string to default, the ellipses do not have this problem.

<2018-06-13 Wed>

 
I have a new format and it works well. Each project I’m working on (each ticket in my work day) gets a header with a title that is meaningful to me. I then add sub-headers using a datestamp (C-u C-c .) and describe what I did in reverse chronological order. Org-mode is smart: pressing M-RTN at the end of the line (completely at the end, after the ellipses), will open a new header directly under the one I’m on. Do the same thing at the very beginning of the line, it creates a new header on top. This last thing allows me to work in reverse order as I mentioned. The newest timestamp is always the first header. It’s like a short micro-blog taking place during my workday.
 
Before Org-mode, attachments worried me. Coming from Onenote at work, I’m used to the iPhone app: snap pictures and add them into the note. In Org-mode, this is a non-issue with Dropbox and Office Lens. After “sharing” into “save to Dropbox” on the iPhone (it makes sense if you’re an iPhone user), I upload images to Dropbox. Later, it’s pretty simple to attach (C-c C-a) images to the time-stamp header I mentioned earlier. I don’t bother changing the names of the images, which is something I’ve done before. The files are named by date and hour by default, making it very easy to locate and attach in Org-mode later. The only annoyance with attachments: Emacs opens them inside a window, not the system default. I much prefer Preview on WorkMac, where I can annotate right away if I need to. The picture in the window is 100% zoomed in, which is not very convenient. A workaround, for now, is to open the folder for the attachment, and double-click the file. It works for now, even though feels somewhat “ugly.”

<2018-06-14 Thu>

 
Time to test Helm again (at home) and Ivy (at work). Immediately, I noticed a change in my ability to find commands (M-x) and looking stuff up. I spend much less time inside the browser reading through the Emacs Wiki or the Manual. Browsing through files makes more sense now. Opening recent files is my newest favorite command since I can auto-complete now thanks to Helm and Ivy.
 
As I’m writing these lines, I’m thinking to myself, this is fun. I can really get used to writing posts in Emacs. It never accrued to me how much visual clutter is in the way, even with the so-called “minimalist” apps. The problem is that there’s a particular app for every thing. Emacs is a powerhouse which I can use for many things, so the interface is the same. This helps with focus and flow in a way I didn’t think of before. It’s starting to be comforting to be in an environment I’m spending more and more time in.

<2018-06-15 Fri>

 
This is the conclusion of my first week with Emacs (and Org-mode) at work. As if by queue, today was a good example of a high-volume day. A test to see if my new system holds in place in face of improvisation and fast thinking.
 
Working in helpdesk environment means potential for constant interruptions. There are several people on the team who need my attention for different things. There are different managers who have can have conflicting instructions. There are clients (users) coming through the door asking for help. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the phone, working on a project, or trying to have lunch: the next interruption is a heart bit away.
 
Our workflow requires we use a web interface to work with tickets constantly. In a way, out entire workday depends on that single unyielding tab in a browser. With the first client coming up, I had to use the website to search for details in ticket tab. I updated a few details and made a mental note to add the information in my new Org-mode work journal. But as I was working on the laptop, a co-worker came up with questions which required my attention. That co-worker was shadowed by another client who answered one of my emails for a follow-up. All these cases required that I look into tickets and update them, away from Org-mode.
 
I didn’t like fact that I couldn’t use my new tool to do work, at least not at the moment. I had the information for some of the tickets in front of me, but not those I needed to work on at the moment. The web interface is limited both by design and lack of configurations. It’s a tool that supposed to help me stay organized, but instead, it’s another task of its own. Some manager at some point decided to get this platform. This decision, which must be at least a few years old, dictates what productivity means to me today. How odd.

<2018-06-16 Sat>

 
Finally, a couple of thoughts about how to improve my experience next week, based on notes I took at work and at home.
 
  1. Agenda: learn how to use it well, especially as a search tool to highlights tags and dates. (examples: look up everything that has to do with ticket number :###:. Look up all the different things I worked on last Tuesday.)
  2. Photos in an external program: have images open in default system app, or better yet, a specific one.
  3. “Archive” system: Copying everything I’ve done during the week + attachments to a different location, off of Dropbox. I purchased an SD and SD readers as an experiment as a cheap location to store information

Captain’s Log: 20180514.1521

At work. There was a mess this morning that turned itself into a project and I want to quickly capture some of this down to help in the future.

Last Friday, had to finish helping coworker backing up a lab  (9 devices total). Each one of these had a few terabytes of info and took between an hour to four to finish. With two My Passport Externals, we couldn’t do a whole bunch. Was late, decided to go home for the weekend (was at work 11 hours at that point).

Today, walked in to finish this work. Was a mess because turned out there were laptops involved too, not just lab desktops. Between another IT guy at their department and thinking what the hell I’m supposed to do with this project (these are their personal laptops) this quickly became a mess: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I didn’t know how to do it.

Manager helped me figure this out by defining the part he knew about. He didn’t know about the desktops or about the fact that they also used Dropbox in the middle of all of this, but he did know I need to get people and names, so he showed me how an excel sheet would look like. Standing there and thinking “how do I explain this is not the main issue I was having (Dropbox),” I got confidence in the part he did know. As he was looking people names up in his email and gathering information, a plan started forming in my head as to how to do that part – the part we were just talking about. I was able to think of it as a whole part inside of the rest of the undefinable mess.

This takes me back to a favorite, important quote:

..from somewhere back in my youth, heard Prof say, ‘Manuel, when faced with a problem you do not understand, do any part of it you do understand. Then look at it again.’

He had been teaching me something he himself didn’t understand all that well. Something in maths. But had taught me something far more important: A basic principle.

— The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Dude. That’s the motherfucking thing. If there’s is a thing, this is it. This it the tip of the knife that cuts it all. You deal with something you don’t get. what parts of it do you get first? how do you define them? OK, what does it tell you about what’s left? OK, so can you divide these into main chunks? And then you have actionable items. And when you have these, you have motivation and less mess on your hands to work with, and chances are better to solve the whole thing. If you still can’t, at least you can look for a solution for something more definable and communicate it better than just flailing your arms around in frustration running out the door. Ya.

The Return of TiddlyWiki

“The most important thing that got me back to TiddlyWiki is that it was completely mine. Eventually, the search for privacy in a world full of cloud apps became the core, the soil on which my wiki blossomed. I have never kept such a detailed, rich, and satisfying journal in my entire life.”

When I wanted to try OneNote instead of my private wiki, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to give up such an important chunk of my privacy. When the itch to switch back started poking at me, I told myself the same story. Privacy. After all, no one in Microsoft has business seeing my most personal notes. As it turned out, there was more to it than the sheer unease of the cloud. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the most important thing that got me back to TiddlyWiki is that it was completely mine.

Continue reading “The Return of TiddlyWiki”