Emacs Fatigue October 28, 2020 on Jonathan Bartlett's Musings Updated on March 15, 2021 Tags: emacs, editors

As users of Emacs1 and Arch linux2 will be aware, you can’t simply perfect your setup. There is almost always something that needs tweaking, or something new a like-minded FOSS-head is working on that you want to try instead. This is all good fun until you reach the point where it all feels a bit excessive and overly specific to one tool and you enter a depressive funk about your setup.

This hasn’t happened to me before, but it’s happening to me now and the following is my journey to this point and some thoughts on the issue.

From vim to VimWiki

When I first switched from Windows to Linux I started using vim to take notes. They were simple and written in Markdown. It was very pure and frankly I do miss the simplicity of it. vim is very lightweight and this approach required little to no plugins to be effective.

However as my notes started to grow in quantity and the complexity of each note evolved (I wanted LaTeX maths and code snippets), I started to look for something a little bit more. Enter VimWiki 3 , a “Personal Wiki for Vim”.

VimWiki lets you organise your notes and thoughts into a more structure knowledge base and this worked for me. I could create different files for everything and navigate through a file structure I have defined in my markup. I could also maintain to-do lists and write diary entries.

Sadly, VimWiki uses a custom markup language, and although Markdown is supported, I always felt like it just wasn’t quite right. So once again I set out to find something a little bit more. It wasn’t hard to find Emacs, but I wasn’t ready for that yet so I kept on with VimWiki until the summer, when I had far too much time on my hands and took the plunge into Spacemacs 4.

Slowly getting more EVIL (The Spacemacs Era)

The transition from vim to Emacs wasn’t particularly hard for me. EVIL5 mode and some of the easy beginner friendly features of Spacemacs like layers made it a smooth transition. I was also willing to sink time into it because I had read about the supposed benefits of org-mode and wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity.

Spacemacs had the potential to be so much more that vim but I didn’t want to overdo it and reach the stage where the quote “a great operating system, lacking only a decent editor” applied to me. I made myself somewhat of a promise that I would use it only for things I could do in something like VS-Code or Atom, that included:

I pulled this off quite easily, Spacemacs lets you drop in a list of layers and, due to its relatively wide adoption, a lot of these things already existed in a layer. Perhaps the most important thing on the list was note taking since I am mainly a student and note-taking forms a dominant portion of my week.

org-mode - your life in plain text

First off, I highly recommend org-mode 6 , it is flexible, simple and versatile and offers something for everyone if you are willing to put in the work. You can read more about it on their shiny new website.

When I first started using org-mode my setup consisted of a relatively small portion of the what was possible. I took what I was comfortable with in VimWiki and replicated it in org-mode but I also started using things like TODO keywords, scheduling and deadlines which helped me to keep track of work I had to do for Uni.

Another feature I really liked was org-babel because it let me keep bits of code in my notes, and execute them, and if necessary, export them to a source file. This was a little out of my initial scope for what a text editor needed to be, but wasn’t too far off, so I let it happen.

When you use org-mode every day, as I did and still do, you discover new things you can do and if you have the same disposition as me you will start to explore these things when you get a little time. Next I want to discuss the broader topic of Emacs and how I started to stray from the idea of a text editor.

EMACS Makes Any Computer Slow

There is a reason Emacs is more demanding than vi and that is because it can do so much more, it can become the aforementioned operating system if you make it. A few features took my fancy such as Email (mu4e) and PDF Browsing (pdf-tools).

I had been using mutt and then neomutt for a little while before I switched to Emacs, so mail in the terminal was no stranger to me. When I switched the Emacs I stuck with using a dedicated tool for mail for a couple of months, then finally caved - the first instance of wanting Emacs to do more that I had originally set out. Along comes mu4e which does everything neomutt did, it even uses the same tools in the background the sync mail, but it handles accounts in a cleaner way and I can write emails in org-mode so they are prettier, plus I can have images in my emacs buffers so all those modern emails don’t look as bad.

I felt good about my switch to mu4e because I had streamlined my workflow, I had removed an entire application from my day-to-day and replaced it with a package for emacs. I wanted more of this feeling so I started to add other little bits and pieces into my day-to-day until Emacs was more than I had agreed for it to be, but that was okay, I was streamlining my workflow, I felt more productive, I had to learn fewer specific tools, I knew Emacs.

I found that, if anything, Emacs made my computer faster because I could switch buffers in Emacs quicker than I could switch applications, or start a new application in Arch.

Social Networking for Thoughts (org-roam)

We are now at October 2020 in my story and I am using Emacs for a lot of things, I refuse to browse the internet in Emacs and a few other things, but most things happen in Emacs. A friend, @sseneca, mentioned to me that something called org-roam 7 existed, they hadn’t had the chance to explore it yet so I was the guinea pig and installed in on my setup.

org-roam is an org-mode remake of the popular Roam Research tool, which employs the Zettelkasten 8 method of note taking. Basically each note forms a node in the network of your knowledge, you can then form links between these notes and relate ideas together. Building your knowledge in this way makes it very easy to jump into your notes and find everything you have on a topic.

Since it was the start of a new year at Uni, now was the time to adopt it, so I did, I created a basic structure for all of my notes, and then started from scratch, and repeated that process probably three to four times before I got it just right. Now I am happy with the way I take notes and I feel that I am not just taking notes for a university module, I am recording my knowledge on a topic and its not just my “uni notes”, its my notes forever.

I even found something that lets you view all of you notes in a big interactive graph called org-roam-server and had that open in my browser most of the time when I was taking notes so I could see how my thoughts were building up, and get a kick of saying “wow, look at all then stuff I know!”.

We are all DOOM-ed

DOOM Emacs9 was the next thing, Spacemacs started to feel sluggish and wasn’t handling the masses of org-mode files I was accruing. So one afternoon in early October I ditched Spacemacs and said hello to DOOM, which is faster, more barebones and still lets me use vi bindings and easily manage packages.

Moving my configurations across meant I was looking into my configuration files for the first time in a little while, so a few things started to bug me and I started to go down the rabbit hole, I removed a lot of stuff, then added it back again, and then I decided to commit a weekend to making the org-agenda more useful to me, so that I could manage projects and schedule my uni work for my final year.

The Agenda Rabbit Hole

This is the last step before it all went wrong. I found some very well maintained dotfiles by a few different people 10 , 11 , 12 , 12. They had all adopted the Get Things Done way of staying organised and had really perfected the way they managed that in org-mode. One feature of org-mode that I hadn’t really spent any time on was the org-agenda and that seemed to be a focus of the Get Things Done13 way of life.

Another thing that came up was the ability to log your time against heading in org-mode, which I fancied doing after logging time for an internship all summer and finding it useful in terms of predicting what I could do in a day.

So it began, I sat down on a Saturday to setup the following things:

It took all weekend but the result was amazing, I could see all the things I had to do next in one neat little view, I could see all the projects I was working on, I could see the things I had scheduled for today, I could see my deadlines for the next 30 days, and so much more. It was … perfect?

So where did it all go wrong?

I wish I understood why I feel like I do, but I don’t, I can only guess and try to solve the problem as I always do. So my number one theory at the time of writing this is: “emacs fatigue” which to me means that I have done so much with emacs that whenever I can’t do something with emacs I feel like all that work trying to make it perfect has been for nothing. It also means that I’ve run out of the easy wins, there aren’t many more untapped sources of pristine dotfiles out there. I have started writing my own functions and learning elisp, and it means the return of my investment is diminishing.

I think the trigger for all of these feelings came from the realisation I had strayed from my goal of keeping Emacs as a text editor and nothing more. I immediately decided that switching back to vim was the only option, and going cold turkey was the only way. I quickly realised how much I would miss org-mode and scurried back to the comfort of emacs but now with the feeling that even though I loved emacs it would never be perfect and there will probably never be the perfect tool for all the things I do on a computer.

I am too invested to just ditch emacs but I also know I have gone too far, but now I don’t have the time of the energy to dig myself out of the emacs hole I have dug for myself. The best I can do is to remove the things that aren’t “supposed” to be in emacs and hope the fatigue passes and one day in the future I build up the courage to streamline even further, so emacs will be nothing more than a note-taking tool and maybe a code editor.

Closing Thoughts

I love computers, I love Linux and I love Emacs but I was exposed to too much fun and exciting stuff in a short period of time and now there isn’t anything else for me to do. I also feel like what I have done isn’t enough because I am a perfectionist, but I know I have really done too much.

Therefore my only closing thought is that people like me need to spend time actually enjoying a new thing before adding something else to the mix, the Agenda Rabbit hole might have just been one step too far or maybe it was even org-roam. I was just as happy before org-roam as I was after it, perhaps a little more organised and productive but the same level of happy, so I could have relished that longer before working org-roam into my day-to-day and maybe I wouldn’t have crashed as hard, if at all.

So, slow down and enjoy the things you make, or, like me, you will experience Emacs fatigue.

Updates

Kicking the Fatigue (2020-11-05)

I think I have now overcome the fatigue, I am a little too busy to write a whole new post so I am going to briefly explain what I did in an updates section here.

I quit! (2021-03-15)

Emacs is a thing of the past for me. It just got too complicated and tried to do too much. Back to simple tools that do one thing well!


  1. https://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/ ↩︎

  2. https://www.archlinux.org/ ↩︎

  3. https://vimwiki.github.io/ ↩︎

  4. https://www.spacemacs.org/ ↩︎

  5. Extensible VI Layer for Emacs ↩︎

  6. https://orgmode.org/ ↩︎

  7. https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam ↩︎

  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten ↩︎

  9. https://github.com/hlissner/doom-emacs ↩︎

  10. https://github.com/jethrokuan/dots/blob/master/.doom.d/config.el ↩︎

  11. https://github.com/gjstein/emacs.d ↩︎

  12. https://www.lengyueyang.com/post/tools/spacemacs/lengyueyang/ ↩︎

  13. https://gettingthingsdone.com/ ↩︎

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