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Advent of emacs #19: How I do "note taking" in emacs

Posted on Dec 19, 2022 by Chung-hong Chan

In these final five posts, I will talk about my attitude towards emacs. But before talking about today’s topic, I also need to stress that I am a mediocre person at best. I am not a successful researcher in my field. The content of this webpage is not an investment advice and does not constitute any offer or solicitation to offer or recommendation of any investment product.

One strong culture in the emacs community is note taking. It has a lot to do with Org-mode. Some of the members prefer the Zettelkasten method. And there are several systems in the emacs ecosystem to do that: Zetteldeft and org-roam are two examples. I had in one time successful in persuading my wife to use emacs to setup her Zettelkasten system. But unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.

I am certainly not against using emacs as a note-taking device. But I just wanted to tell you I am not good at note taking and I don’t have a habit of taking notes. As the secretary of a professional association, it is pretty strange to say I am not a good note taker. For some tasks, I really need to take a lot of notes, e.g. writing meeting minutes. What I really want to say is: I don’t take notes for the sake of learning. As I said previously, I bring bread and butter on the table by writing academic papers. The academia also has a strong note-taking culture. At any conference, you probably would see some academics walking around with their notepads or iPads or whatever pads they use to take notes. Academics also need to read a lot of books and papers and they like to take notes on what they have read.

Regrettably, I don’t have this habit. And I have tried to cultivate the habit of taking notes about the conferences and workshops I have attended or papers I have read. From that experience, I have two observations: 1) I don’t read those notes ever again; 2) The note-taking process distracts me from the experience and doesn’t improve my retention. I actually have an analogy: It’s almost like taking out my phone to record a music event. Yes, I have “a copy” that I can rewatch, which I probably won’t. But the recording procedure distracts me from enjoying the event.

What works for me is, I immediately apply what I have learned. I “take notes” by citing and writing about the papers I’ve read. In this way, what I’ve read really becomes my knowledge. (And I can recall those papers by, “I cited them in my papers x and y”) Even for knowledge about programming, instead of writing notes about the programming trick I’ve learned, I rather instantly write a program to quickly apply the trick. Blog post is another medium I would use to consolidate my knowledge. But the spirit is, I don’t take notes for the sake of taking notes.

I do keep a log of all of my writings. And I have a system. And this is a note to my wife: In case I am dead, please extract the entire archive of what I wrote from this system and sell it to Sotheby’s.


I have a directory called “braindump”. Inside this directory, I have plain-text files in either Markdown or Org of blog post drafts, research ideas, paper outlines, meeting minutes, referee reports, newsletters, stories… basically all kinds of prose. I manage all these plain-text documents with deft by Jason Blevins et al. Whenever I want to do any long-form writing, I fire up deft (C-c d).

Instead of creating any graph-like structure like Zettelkasten, I just search. The search function can be slow. But it improves a lot by limiting the number of hits, i.e. deft-file-limit.

(use-package deft
  (setq deft-extensions '("qmd" "rmd" "markdown" "md" "org"))
  (setq deft-directory "~/dev/braindump")
  (setq deft-recursive t)
  (setq deft-text-mode 'org-mode)
  (setq deft-use-filename-as-title t)
  (setq deft-use-filter-string-for-filename t)
  (setq deft-auto-save-interval 30)
  (setq deft-file-limit 30)
  (global-set-key (kbd "C-c d") 'deft)


There is a file inside my “braindump” called “micro.org”. And it captures my quick thoughts which I don’t want to review in the short term. Maybe when I am 64 or something. For that, I use the Org Capture template. I can quickly capture my thoughts by pressing C-c c i.

(setq micro-journal-file "~/dev/braindump/brain/micro.org")
(setq org-capture-templates
	  '(("i" "Idea" entry (file micro-journal-file)
		 "* %? :IDEA: \n%t")
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c c") 'org-capture)

Moving on

Tomorrow will be another break.

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