Where parallels cross

Interesting bits of life

Org Agenda and Your Future, or how to keep score of your long term goals with Org Mode

Too long; didn't read

Here I show how to leverage Org mode to define long term goals and more importantly how to track your progress towards reaching your vision. In short a mix of tags, Org Agenda filters, Org Archive and org-ql.

The problem

Successful people choose daily tasks by thinking about the effect these have on their future. And effective people create a feedback loop that makes them excited about their progress.

Progress -> excitement -> more progress.

So I wondered: how can I make my Org todo lists help me with my long term goals in a structured manner?

It is a problem indeed

Well I dedicate a whole post on the importance of a vision and how to pick a good one. In the same post I also explain how planning becomes more precise the closer the tasks get to the present moment. Now Org supports task lists, supports stats via alphapapa's org-ql, and supports customizable views of headings through the Agenda. I really missed a way to transform Org from a simple todo list manager in a long-term goals manager.

And there is a solution

So I created my own approach! In a talk by John Wiegley I saw how he alters his agenda according to where he is: for example, if he cannot ping the Internet his agenda will exclude tasks that require networking. He does this through tags and agenda filters. That kick started my thinking process: what about marking tasks by their importance on my immediate, medium-term and long-term goals?

So I came up with tags that look like:

:0yr:, :5yr:, :10yr:, :20yr:

In my mind these represent the number of years I believe accomplishing this tasks will affect.

I could say that I started with writing down a vision first, but well... I am a coder! And, indeed, I just started playing with the Org Agenda customization.

My goal: seeing tasks with :20yr: appear at the top of my agenda and those with :0yr: at the bottom. Let's see how to hack it.

The variable org-agenda-sorting-strategy defines in what order the Org Agenda view displays tasks (kudos to Org developers to leave this open to extension!). So if you want to order by a tag, all you need to do is to add a org-agenda-cmp-user-defined comparison and apply it to the strategy variable. Well it is easier to show:

(defun my/org-agenda-sort-longterm-tags (el1 el2)
  "Prioritize agenda items EL1 and EL2 that contains tags in the form :[0-9]yr: relatively to the number of years."
  (let* ((regex ":\\([0-9]+\\)yr:")
         (years-el1 (progn
                      ;; this can fail because the regex is not found or there is no tag for :Xyr:, so I am handling with the zeros
                      (if (string-match regex el1)
                          (string-to-number (or (match-string 1 el1) "0"))
         (years-el2 (progn
                      (if (string-match regex el2)
                          (string-to-number (or (match-string 1 el2) "0"))
    ;; TODO I am sure there is a cleaner way to implement this comparison...
    (if (> years-el1 years-el2)
      (if (> years-el2 years-el1)

(setq org-agenda-cmp-user-defined 'my/org-agenda-sort-longterm-tags)

(setq org-agenda-sorting-strategy
      '((agenda habit-down time-up user-defined-down priority-down category-keep)
        (todo priority-down category-keep)
        (tags priority-down category-keep)
        (search category-keep)))

In the above my/org-agenda-sort-longterm-tags compares tags so that :20yr: > :10yr: and :10yr: < :20yr: and :20yr: = :20yr: (the compare operator in programming languages typically returns positive, negative and zero integers to reflect these cases). The other important bits are:

  • (setq org-agenda-cmp-user-defined 'my/org-agenda-sort-longterm-tags)

    this make my comparison operator available

  • user-defined-down

    this activates my comparison in the agenda.

At this point I needed to define my vision. This took much longer than my programming, and in part is still a work in progress. (The bit I am proud of is the statement "I am the catalyzer of sustainable improvements that include as many people as possible", because it keeps staying the same and guiding me in challenging moments.)

What I think you will find more interesting 1 is that I ended up splitting my Org files to represent the goals I want to achieve, and more importantly defining Org Capture templates that allowed me to define the kind of tag I described above (I use my templating extension to make this easy to maintain for myself).

An minimal example of Yankpad template you can use with this approach is:

\* TODO $1 :${2:$$(yas-choose-value (list "0yr" "5yr" "10yr" "20yr"))}:
See: %a

Each of these files has a category (this means that my Org file starts with a property line #+CATEGORY: Some Vision) that nicely display in the agenda: so I can quickly see both the kind of vision I am targeting (through the category) and the weight it has on my future (through the tag).

Finally some metrics for setting up a feedback loop. Because we said that we want to get excitement for our progress, right? Right. So, I looked into org-ql. That again is a mode that I always wanted to use, but I did not know for what. I found out it is great to do weekly reviews of my achievements. I have a periodic task in my agenda with source blocks that look like this:

(let ((files (concatenate 'list (org-agenda-files) (list "my.org_archive"))))
   (my/get-stats-tasks "DONE" -31 nil  nil files)
    (format "Tasks marked DONE last month (today is: %s): %s\n" (current-time-string) it)
    (format "    Tasks done last month (%s) with category\n\n" (current-time-string))
    (format "    Vision1  %s\n" (my/get-stats-tasks "DONE" -31 nil nil files "Category1"))
    (format "    Vision2  %s\n" (my/get-stats-tasks "DONE" -31 nil nil files "Category2"))))

Note: I am also using my archive for retrieving done tasks! Archiving removes clutter from my files, so they feel clean and compact when I look at them.

The my/get-stats-tasks function retrieves the necessary statistics (this is just a wrapper around the org-ql query API):

(defun my/get-stats-tasks (todo-tag from &optional tag to files category)
  "Get stats for tasks of last week with TODO-TAG TAG FROM optionally define TO date and source FILES to use."
  (let ((tasks
           :from (or files (org-agenda-files))
           `(and (todo ,todo-tag)
                 (if ,tag (tags ,tag) t)
                 (if ,category (category ,category) t)
                 (ts :from ,from :to ,(or to 'today))))))
    `((tasks . ,(length tasks))
      (tasks-per-day . ,(/ (length tasks) (abs from))))))

With this approach I am a C-c C-c away from my feedback loop, and I can monitor where I am spending more effort and adjust if needed.

By the way, I am using this system from a while and... I am totally not so precise: often I get the task category wrong or I estimate wrongly the effect of the tasks on my future. I find this effort valuable in orienting me towards keeping track of these things.

So please be forgiving with yourself if you are planning on using a similar strategy.


Focusing your energies on what you want to happen is important. Life is short so I believe we cannot run after all that is attractive, if we want to be effective. So if you take a single thing from this post: develop a vision, and let it guide you through your future. Then help yourself with your tools, Org mode and Emacs in general are amazing instruments if you tame them.

Feel free to get in touch if you want to share your approach or you have questions. I like receiving mails from the readers :)



get in touch if you want me to share more about my inner travel to find a vision for myself