A Note-taking System for Work

Posted: emacs

Keeping a code journal has been a gratifying way to measure my professional growth and keep track of esoteric information. Over the years I've experimented with tons of different methods, but code notes are trickier than word notes and are constrained to a digital environment.

Daily entries are too sparse to be useful, spreading information in a way that is irrecoverable without a tagging nightmare. Zettelkasten-style is too nit-picky, exhausting too much of my time in organization and placement. I've settled on a nice middle ground: a weekly coding scratchpad with backlinks to longer-form reference material.

Emacs is a great tool for coding notes in particular, thanks to the literate programming environment org-mode babel. The same org file that contains my todos also serves as a dynamic code environment, turning code snippets into executable scripts. Linking between notes is also easily supported with a lightweight package like denote.

Together these tools are powerful but not overwhelming. Denote handles naming conventions for my files so I don't need to think about consistency or placement; org-mode handles markup, tagging, code execution, and todos.

It's also very easy to extend. Here's the Emacs command I use to generate my weekly scratchpad, along with its template:

(require 'denote)

(defun my/denote--weekly-template ()
  (concat "* Friday"
          "- [ ] Retrospective\n"
          "* Thursday"
          "* Wednesday"
          "* Tuesday"
          "* Monday"
          "* Notes"))

(setq denote-templates `((weekly . ,(my/denote--weekly-template))))

(defun my/denote-weekly ()
  "Find or create a weekly journal entry."
  (let* ((display-time (format-time-string "%G-%U" (current-time)))
         (title (concat "week-" display-time))
         (pattern (concat ".*--" title))
         (matches (denote-directory-files-matching-regexp pattern)))
    (if matches
        (find-file (car matches))
      (denote title '("journal" "weekly") 'org nil nil 'weekly))))

Calling the command my/denote-weekly in Emacs will either (a) create a new denote file with the title "week-YYYY-ww" and the appropriate tags, or (b) open the existing denote file if one was already created.

The org files themselves end up looking something like this:

#+title:      week-2023-01
#+date:       [2023-01-02 Mon 08:02]
#+filetags:   :journal:weekly:
#+identifier: 20230101T080211

* Friday...
* TODO Thursday

- [X] Already done!
- [ ] Cool coding stuff here

** Testing scripts for something

#+begin_src elisp
  (message "I was executed with org-babel-execute-src-block!")

: I was executed with org-babel-execute-src-block!

Occasionally I'll need to convert from org to markdown to copy something from my notes into a work document or task. Calling org-md-export-as-markdown opens up a new buffer with the entire contents of my weekly note in markdown, ready for copy+paste.

Org itself is rich with features but the real game-changer for me is the ability to paste code links from disc into an org file (via org-store-link). Clicking the link will open the source file in Emacs at the line of code where the link was stored. I used to rely on a similar workflow by linking to Github (via a custom Emacs command), but linking to local files within Emacs is way better for browsing, editing, and note-taking.

As far as retrieval goes, denote timestamps notes on creation so they're neatly organized in a flat directory:


And since org files are plaintext, you can use org-mode, Emacs, or grep to search through their contents. Check out Advanced searching in the org-mode documentation to see what's possible.