Changing My Work Flow: Adding Emacs

Disclaimer: I'm new to the Emacs community so some of the following terminology may be incorrect. Please correct me if there is a more proper way to describe anything I've mentioned here.

Over the past few months I’ve realized that I am far too easily distracted from my tasks at work. After a little thinking I came to the conclusion that part of my problem was my work flow. I generally had two or three terminals up bouncing around virtual machines and servers so I could test as I worked and inevitably I would end up on my home server chatting away on IRC for large chunks of time. While most people may be able to correct this with a little discipline, I’ve decided to try something different. One of my coworkers recently made the switch to Emacs and since I’ve always been curious about the features touted by Emacs users I thought I’d give it a try too. I instantly saw a huge difference in my focus and concentration.

Because the driving force behind this change was focus, I have tried to stay away from the typical “Emacs can and should do everything” point of view. There are really only two main features that I’ve been using that go above and beyond a text editor: ansi-term and TRAMP.


As the name suggests, ansi-term is a terminal emulator that can be run inside Emacs. It works almost like any other buffer so moving between normal buffers and the terminal is virtually seamless. This is something I wanted in vim for ages, I even ranted about it here once before.

While it’s possible to open multiple instances of ansi-term, I have limited myself to only having one running at a time. This has helped me concentrate on one task because I am no longer hopping between different terminals with different ssh sessions running. One terminal, one task. Having a terminal in the editor also allows me to do all my scm tasks without leaving Emacs as well, without having to use some fancy git/svn/whatever mode. I just use the normal command line interface I’m used to.


TRAMP is a really poorly constructed acronym for “Transparent Remote (file) Access, Multiple Protocol”. Where the acronym lacks, the execution excels. For you vim users, TRAMP is what netrw really should be. I am able to “transparently” edit files on servers without being nagged about passwords or temp files every time I make a change. This is very convenient for me as I do my development almost exclusively on one of our dev servers. I no longer have to choose between opening an ssh session and editing with the remote editor or using sshfs to mount the remote filesystem locally to get a decent editing experience.

The most important part about TRAMP and ansi-term is that it’s rather easy to make them work together. Using a tip from the EmacsWiki I added a few lines to my bashrc to allow C-x C-f to automatically open up in TRAMP format in the $PWD of the remote machine I’m connected to in ansi-term. This speeds up the process of opening files considerably and is pretty much on par with how I worked with vim previously. The stripped version I use is below.

function set-eterm-dir {
    echo -e "\033AnSiTu" "$LOGNAME"
    echo -e "\033AnSiTc" "$(pwd)"
    echo -e "\033AnSiTh" "$(hostname -f)"
    history -a

if [ "$TERM" = "eterm-color" ]; then

Adding this to the remote machine’s bashrc will enable TRAMP to follow the working directory in ansi-term.

Other benefits

There are a couple of features that I would like to dive in to eventually but haven’t looked too much at yet. Having a true programming language at my disposal (elisp) when customizing my editor is very appealing after spending years of dealing with vimscript. I also would like to look in to Org-mode as it may be another tool to help keep me on track at work.

Moving forward

Adding Emacs to my work flow has been great for my development tasks but I’m not ready to move on completely. I fully intend to continue using vim when I’m logged on to a test or production machine, and really any time I’m not doing development. I have been using this work flow for the past couple of weeks and it seems pretty natural to me now other than the occasional C-x s or C-x f while in vim.

If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to ping me in the comments or in the usual places. Feel free to watch my .emacs.d grow as I continue to go through this process.

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