Update: 2018-08-10

Shortly after writing this post, I switched to Spacemacs develop branch - cd ~/.spacemacs && git checkout develop This upgraded my Spacemacs to version [email protected]. This had the unexpected side effect of changing several of the key bindings below.

  • Settinm schedules and deadlines - now require a prefix of SPC m d before entering your selection (d for deadlines, s for scheduling)
  • Sparse trees - keybind moved to SPC m s s
  • Archive tree - keybind moved to SPC m s A (I didn’t cover this in my original article, but this is how I archive DONE tasks)
  • Show all TODO and deadlines - keybind moved to SPC m s s t and SPC m s s d


This is a basic overview of org-mode inside of Spacemacs.


Last month, I wrote about my discovery of Emacs as a result of my interest in the Lisp programming language. Today is exactly one month later, and the only Lisp I’ve written has been Emacs Lisp as a result of the extensive configuration of my .emacs file. In fact, I’ve spent more time customizing my Emacs install than I have actually using Emacs!

It wasn’t too far into my Emacs journey that I began to get uncomfortable with the keychords for most actions. To their credit, I was often able to keep the keychord in muscle memory after minimal exposure. I decided I liked using vim-style keybindings more than Emacs, so I quickly discovered Spacemacs. Now, not only do I need to understand how Emacs works, I need to learn the discrepancies introduced by the extensive customization added by Spacemacs.

One thing Spacemacs does extremely well is offer discoverability of features using the Spacebar leader key. This allows me to easily explore major modes of Emacs effectively. Which leads me to the reason for this post: org-mode in Spacemacs!

Org-mode can use any number of nested tasks, and you can break a task down into smaller and smaller tasks however you prefer using this method.

* This is a top-level task, such as a project
** This is a second-level task, such as a major component of a project
*** This is a third-level task, such as the constituent part of a major project component.

This is perhaps the most basic org-mode explanation you’ll come across, but I initially had a very difficult time understanding exactly what org-mode was. It really is just an interface for managing text-based tasks in text files.

Following existing guides

Perhaps the first place anyone interested in org-mode should start would be the org-mode manual.

During the past month, I’ve discovered that some of the best Emacs guides come from Sacha Chua, such as the gentle introduction to org-mode found at A Baby Steps Guide to Managing Your Tasks with Org. There are also quality guides on org-mode’s website.. Particularly this introductory tutorial I highly recommend reviewing these guides!

However, these guides are org-mode specific, not org-mode-in-spacemacs specific, so I’d like to address some of the common functionality I’ve embraced using org-mode in Spacemacs!

Managing Tasks

Marking TODO and DONE

Move to the task line in normal mode and press t to cycle between TODO , DONE , and no status

Cycle contents of tasks

In your .org file’s buffer, in normal mode, press S <tab> to quickly toggle between OVERVIEW , CONTENTS , and SHOW ALL. You can also move to a task’s line and press <tab> to cycle between these states for that task and all of its sub-tasks.

Incorporate org-capture tasks into master todo list

I may be using it wrong, but I have one .org file containing all of my tasks, broken down like so:

* Today
  ** Items for today
* This week
  ** Items that will need to be finished by the end of the week
* Soon
  ** Items that should be finished soon
* Projects < 3 months
  ** projects that need to be completed within three months
* Projects < 6 months
  ** projects that need to be completed within six months

I discovered org-capture ( SPC m c ) but found that my tasks captured this way were being written to ~/org/notes.org instead of my master todo list. To change this, I added the following in my ~/.spacemacs file:

((defun dotspacemacs/user-config ()
  (with-eval-after-load 'org
    (setq-default org-default-notes-file "~/Dropbox/Chris/org/tasks.org"))

Now, when I capture tasks with SPC m c, my tasks are appended to the bottom of my tasks.org file. I’m still exploring whether there’s a better method to quickly input tasks, but this has been the fastest method I’ve found.

Setting schedules and deadlines

To set a deadline for a task, move the cursor over the task and press SPC m d.

To set a scheduled start (i.e., the date you plan to start working on the task), move the cursor over the task and press SPC m s.

For more information, see deadlines and scheduling.

Date formats

Setting dates in org-mode is made easier thanks to the shorthand inputs it supports. For example:

  • to set tomorrow as the deadline, enter +1
  • to set one week from today as the deadline, enter +1w
  • to set one month from today as the deadline, enter +1m
  • to set the Thursday following the next, enter +2thu
  • to set the upcoming July 4, enter jul 4

For more examples, see date and time prompt.

Using a sparse trees to quickly filter TODOs and deadlines

Sparse trees can be used to rapidly filter a todo list by showing only TODO items, start/deadlines, or by any property set for a task. Access sparse tree mode with SPC m / and look at the minibuffer for options.

For example, to show all of your deadlines, enter SPC m / d

To show all of your TODOs, enter SPC m / t

Using org-agenda

Prior to using any of org-agenda’s features, your .org file needs to be added to it using SPC SPC org-agenda-file-to-front or C-c [

Once this step is complete, most org-agenda items can be accessed by pressing SPC m a. The most useful shortcut I’ve used for org mode is to bring up my agenda for the week using SPC m a a

The other options available under SPC m a will become more useful as my number of tasks tracked increases.


These four very basic task management activities are my introduction to org-mode. As with everything else Emacs related, I expect I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg, but the journey of learning this tool has been an experience I would recommend! The most difficult challenge involves forcing myself to enter all of my tasks in Emacs rather than Jira, Evernote, or Outlook, but the command and flexibility offered by org-mode appears superior at this point!