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Org mode beginning at the basics

Org mode, as it says on the official web page is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, doing project planning, and authoring with a fast and effective plain-text system. Beginning with Emacs 22.2 and XEmacs 22.1 it has been part of Emacs. The following is a simple tutorial to help you get started using Emacs and Org mode.

The absolute minimum you need to know about Emacs

The absolute minimum you need to know about Emacs, to be able to do anything, is more then you need to know about many other applications. But, you might compare it to a regular toy and lego. Lego is harder to begin with (you start with a box with little plastic pieces), but in the long run, you can do more with it.

Emacs is heavy on shortcuts. starting out, that is rather annoying, but in time you'll notice you start to use the mouse less and less, and you actually start to work quicker.

All the basic things can be done, with the mouse, from the menu, open file, save file , etc. You will notice, however, that in time it is faster to use shortcuts, and leave your hands on the keyboard.

Emacs uses a lot of double shortcuts, so instead of Alt-F and Alt-S, like most applications, it uses Control-X Control-F and Control-X Control-S, this seems rather counter-productive in the beginning, but you'll get used to it.

Note: Key abbreviations:

  • M – Alt (used to be called Meta on ancient keyboards, that's why)
  • C – Control
  • S – Shift
  • C-x f – means holding both Control and x, release both, and press f

What version of Emacs should you choose?

If it is all the same to you, then choose Emacs over XEmacs (if you disagree then you know already enough to skip this paragraph). Here are some links to help:

On GNU/Linux, just use your package manager to install Emacs.

On Debian:

sudo apt-get install emacs


The biggest pain, when you just begin with Emacs, is the configuration. There is not really a menu for it (you might later hear there is, but they are lying, that menu is really there to trap innocent people), you need to edit a text-file. The location of that config-file (and even the name) is different on different OSes, but the text in it is mostly the same, across platforms. Many people actually use the same config-file on different OSes and even over many years, so in the long run, it is for the best!

Location of the configuration file:

Starting Org mode

New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • C-x C-s – save document
  • C-x C-f – open document

Our first Org document

By now, we know enough to start our first Org document. Start up Emacs. If you have a completely new Emacs install, then you should see the Emacs splash-screen. It has a couple of shortcuts, to the Emacs tutorial and some other documents, but for now, we don't need those.

To start a new document, use the following short-cut: C-x C-f, which will offer you to open a document (or buffer as it is called in Emacs), call it 1.org. This will give you a brand-new, empty document.

To save the document, either press the save icon, or press C-x C-s, call it 1.org.

Emacs does not actually understand you are editing an Org document, yet. To enable Org mode on your current document, type M-x org-mode which will enable the Org mode on the current document.

To make Emacs understand that this is an Org document, add the following to the top of your document:

MY PROJECT -*- mode: org -*-

Those are minuses, not underscores. MY PROJECT is the title of the document, this can be anything.

This will enable Org mode for this document, no matter what the file-ending is.

To enable Org mode to always work on all your Org files, you have to edit your Emacs configuration, we do that in the following paragraph.

Our first edit to our Emacs configuration

Open your Emacs configuration file (see Configuration), to open it in Emacs, use C-x C-f (open file), and put the following in it:

;; -*- mode: elisp -*-

;; Disable the splash screen (to enable it agin, replace the t with 0)
(setq inhibit-splash-screen t)

;; Enable transient mark mode
(transient-mark-mode 1)

;;;;Org mode configuration
;; Enable Org mode
(require 'org)
;; Make Org mode work with files ending in .org
;; (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.org$" . org-mode))
;; The above is the default in recent emacsen

Restart Emacs.

Note: The mode-line, mentioned in the previous paragraph is only needed if you (1) have files with a different file-ending then configured in your Emacs config (for example myfile.txt). (2) Don't have the auto-mode-alist line in your configuration.

Keep track of lists and notes

New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • TAB / S-TAB – (un)fold
  • M-up/down – move a headline up or down
  • M-left/right – promote or demote a headline
  • M-RET – insert a new headline
  • C-x C-s – save file
  • C-h t – Emacs tutorial

Now that we have configured Emacs to work with Org document, we can actually start using it. Let's begin with an outline that will help us get to know Org mode. Start a new document (C-x b), call it 2.org, and copy and paste the following in it:

#-*- mode: org -*-
#+STARTUP: showall

* Welcome to Org mode

  Welcome, and thanks for trying out Org mode. Making outlines in
  Org is very simple. It is just text! Just start typing.
* This is a headline, it starts with one or more stars
  A heading has one star, a sub-heading two, etc.
* Working with lists
** Moving around in our outline
** Moving around headlines

Save the file (C-x C-s) as 2.org, and you will notice that the colors change, syntax highlighting is turned on, and Emacs understands you are working in Org mode.

Now we are ready to really start working with Org mode!

Working with lists

List are great for brainstorming and to keep track of things. Also it helps keeping the big picture in mind when taking notes.

The first thing we will do is folding. Especially when you have a long document, this is very useful. In our example document, go to the first headline (just use the arrow keys), Welcome to Org mode, end press TAB, and now press S-TAB. Tab will fold and unfold parts or, using shift and tab, the whole document.

The basic idea of brainstorming is to write a list of items. Then, later, you might want to change the order of your items, for example in order of importance. To move a headline up or down, use M-up/down, try it on any of the headlines. Notice that your list folds in, showing only headings, to give a general overview of the document, and you don't get lost in the details.

Next we will promote and demote headings. For example you might make This is a headline, it starts with one or more stars, a sub-heading of Working with lists, moving it down, and then using M-right to demote it.

Finally, to add a new headline, press M-RET.

Besides headlines there are still other kind of lists, ordered and unordered lists. They look like this:

** Lord of the Rings
   My favorite scenes are (in this order)
   1. The attack of the Rohirrim
   2. Eowyn's fight with the witch king
      + this was already my favorite scene in the book
      + I really like Miranda Otto.
   3. Peter Jackson being shot by Legolas
       - on DVD only
      He makes a really funny face when it happens.
   But in the end, no individual scenes matter but the film as a whole.
   Important actors in this film are:
   - Elijah Wood :: He plays Frodo
   - Sean Austin :: He plays Sam, Frodo's friend.  I still remember
     him very well from his role as Mikey Walsh in The Goonies.

Unordered lists start with -,+,or \*. Ordered lists start with a number and a dot. Descriptions use ::.

Further information: a short screencast presenting a few features of plain lists, also look at the manual.

Working with notes

To keep notes, there is some markup to make things stand out a bit more. You can use the following markup:

You can make words *bold*, /italic/, _underlined_, =code= and ~verbatim~, and, if you must, +strike-through+.

It will look like this:

You can make words bold, italic, underlined, code and verbatim, and, if you must, strike-through.

If you like what you see so far, the it might be a good idea to do the Emacs tutorial, that comes with Emacs itself (C-h t). The tutorial will teach you some more Emacs shortcuts, used to move around in your documents.

Working with TODO items

New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • S-left/right – cycle workflow
  • C-c / t – show TODOs in current document

Basic TODO functionality

The biggest use-case of Org mode is using it to keep track of TODOs. To start working with TODOs you don't have to do anything, just add the TODO keyword in a headline:

** TODO buy airplane

To speed up working with TODO-list there is the following shortcut S-left/right which will cycle through: TODO - DONE and empty.

Imagine that you have a large document, with scattered all over the document TODO entries, C-c / t will show only your current TODOs, and folding the rest away.

Configuring TODOs

  • In the file itself

    Org mode files can be configured by adding workflow states to the beginning of the file, like so:


    The line shoud be at the top of file, there should not be any empty lines between the top and the #+TODO line.

    To activate the new workflow, either reopen the file, or go to the top of the file (any line starting with #) and press C-c C-c.

    Try copying the workflow to your test-file 1.org, seeing it helps understanding what you can do with it.

  • In the Emacs-config file

    Adding the workflow states to every org-file you create gets boring soon, so it also possible to do this in your config file. Add the following after the (require 'org) line:

    (setq org-todo-keywords
      '((sequence "TODO" "IN-PROGRESS" "WAITING" "DONE")))

    To activate the workflow states, restart Emacs.


New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • C-c a – agenda
  • C-c [ – add document to the list of agenda files
  • C-c ] – remove document from the list of agenda files
  • C-c . – add date
  • C-u C-c . – add time and date
  • C-g – stop doing what you are trying to do, escape

The basic meaning of the word agenda is things to be done, coming from the latin agendum. Org mode is very good in making different kind of agendas, or task-lists, collecting all the tasks from one or more org-documents.

Creating lists of all active TODOs

We will start with using 1.org as our basic agenda-file, later we will see how this works in the Emacs-config file.

So, again, visit 1.org. Next press C-c a, which calls the agenda. It looks like this:

Press key for an agenda command
a Agenda for the current week or day
t List of all TODO entries

and then some more.

Unfortunately, both will show just empty lists (you can try if you want). So just press C-g (the Emacs version of escape). Next we will add 1.org as agenda file, using C-c [. Now if you go to the agenda menu (C-c a), and press t you get a list off all your TODO items.

You will also notice that, if you have added a more comprehensive workflow, as explained in Working with TODO items, all items are listed, except DONE.

This can be repeated for as many documents as you want, and agenda will give you a complete list of TODOs. If you want to remove a documents from the list of agenda files, press C-c ].

Appointments and deadlines

When a task is time related, then we usually put it in our calendar. This can also be done in Org mode. And agenda can then show us a time-based list of all our TODOs. This is done in the following way.

In 1.org, add a new (sub-)heading called: Call fred (M-RET Call fred), but at the end press C-c .. This will give you, at the bottom of the screen, the date chooser. You can either type something by hand, or use S-left/right to change the date. If you want to add a time as well, use C-u C-c . instead of C-c ..

Now, if you go to the agenda (C-c a) and press a, you get an agenda entry!

Further reading:

Configuring the agenda in the Emacs configuration file

If you open up your emacs configuration file, after you have used C-c [, you will see the following:

 1: (custom-set-variables
 2:   ;; custom-set-variables was added by Custom.
 3:   ;; If you edit it by hand, you could mess it up, so be careful.
 4:   ;; Your init file should contain only one such instance.
 5:   ;; If there is more than one, they won't work right.
 6:  '(org-agenda-files (quote ("~/Documents/Projects/org4beginners/2.org"
 7:  "~/Documents/Projects/org4beginners/1.org"))))
 8: (custom-set-faces
 9:   ;; custom-set-faces was added by Custom.
10:   ;; If you edit it by hand, you could mess it up, so be careful.
11:   ;; Your init file should contain only one such instance.
12:   ;; If there is more than one, they won't work right.
13:  )

Welcome to the world of Emacs lisp. This is what it looks like if Emacs changes your config file. (Note: on Aquamacs, this is in a separate file called customizations.el)

For us, the important part is in the middle (lines 5 and 6), the line with org-agenda-files. There we see the list of files agenda uses to create its lists. For now we can just leave it there, but at least you know what it is, when you later look at your config-file.

Further reading: Custom agenda commands


New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • C-c C-c – add tag

Getting things done, is one of the most popular ways to organize oneself, with 4.3 miljon hits on Google. It is quite possible to use the same kind of setup in org mode, using tags.

Tags are used to organize different kind of TODO-entries, for example all tasks on the phone, reading, shopping, etc.

To add tags, add the following to the top your document:


Reload the document, or press C-c C-c on a line starting with #.

Now it is possible to add one or more tags, to any line in your document. If we press C-c C-c, the following will pop up:

{ [o] @OFFICE     [h] @HOME    }

These are the shortcuts we defined at the beginning of our document. The first two tags (OFFICE and HOME) are mutually exclusive, the rest can just be added.

A very good example of a GTD setup is: How I use Emacs and Org mode to implement GTD

Adding tags to the Emacs config-file

To add tags to the Emacs config-file, so it is available to all your documents, add the following.

(setq org-tag-alist '(("@work" . ?w) ("@home" . ?h) ("laptop" . ?l)))

To set mutually exclusive groups, like the previous example, see here in the manual.

It is always possible to override your settings by adding something else to the top of the document. This way every document can have its own workflow and/or tags.

An extensive example of working with tags can be found here as well.


New shortcuts in this chapter:

  • C-c C-e – export menu

Working with Org documents is usually fine, but sometimes you might want to export your documents to another format.

To export the current document to, for example, html, press C-c C-e, and then b. This will export the document and open the new document in your browser.

Further reading: HTML publishing tutorial (which goes further then just a document, you can use it to publish a complete website). And the manual which explains exporting to HTML, LaTeX, PDF and others.

Becoming proficient with Org mode

To really save time with any efficiency tool, you have to know it well. To get to know Org mode, reading and using the manual is important. Org mode is well documented. The fastest way to read the ORG mode documentation right in Emacs, in the so-called info-browser.

To call the info browser, use C-h i, and use TAB to jump from hyperlink, to hyperlink.

To move around in the info-browser use:

  • u – up
  • n – next
  • p – previous

Besides the Org mode manual, the is the worg website, which has many cool ideas and tutorials.

For quick reminders there are the Org mode cheat-sheet and the emacs cheat-sheet, both will help you to remember those pesky short-cuts.

Beyond the basics

As is often said in geek humor: "here be dragons!" From here on you are going into the die-hard section of using Org mode. Most of the following material is not really hard, but make sure to have backups of your important data. If you have questions about the following, look it up in the manual and the faq. Also irc (#orgmode on Libera) is a good place to ask questions.

TODO Quickly adding tasks with Capture

Running the latest version of Org mode

New commands in this section:

  • M-x org-reload – reload Org mode after an update
  • M-x org-version – show Org mode version

Pretty soon you will notice that the development of Org mode goes a lot faster the speed Emacs get's updated with. It is quite possible to run the development version of Org mode daily.

How do you go about that?

  1. Install git Not really part of an Org mode tutorial, but here are some places to start:

    sudo apt-get install git
  2. Decide where you will keep the Org mode code, I use ~/Build/Emacs/org-mode, but for Emacs it is really all the same, just choose something convenient, and stick with it.
  3. Download the latest version of Org mode:

    mkdir ~/Build/Emacs
    cd ~/Build/Emacs
    git clone https://git.savannah.gnu.org/git/emacs/org-mode.git
    cd org-mode && make && make doc
  4. Add to your Emacs-init file:

    (setq load-path (cons "~/Build/Emacs/org-mode/lisp" load-path))
    (setq load-path (cons "~/Build/Emacs/org-mode/contrib/lisp" load-path))

Important! If you run the regular version of Org mode, you have (require 'org) in your config-file.

  1. To keep up-to-date with Org mode in the future do:

    cd ~/Build/Emacs/org-mode
    git pull && make clean && make && make doc
  2. Reload Org mode, using: M-x org-reload, or restart Emacs.

To see what version of Org mode you are running: M-x org-version

Documentation from the orgmode.org/worg/ website (either in its HTML format or in its Org format) is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.3 or later. The code examples and css stylesheets are licensed under the GNU General Public License v3 or later.