Make the Emacs Diary work as an Outline (outline-minor-mode)

If you are new to the topic of the Emacs Diary and the Calendar, please refer to yesterday’s video introduction:

One of the major upsides of the Emacs Diary is that it is a regular file that you can navigate using whatever tools you like: Isearch and M-x occur, Swiper or consult-line, and the like. It also is possible to extend it so that it uses the foldable headings that are familiar to users of Org mode; a feature that comes from outline-mode. We can add that to any major mode by means of outline-minor-mode.

To make the outline work, we need to specify a pattern of what constitutes a heading within the file. This is controlled by the buffer-local variable outline-regexp. The best candidate for headings is the Diary’s own comments. It feels natural for users of Elisp to set those to ;;, so we have this:

(setq diary-comment-start ";;")
(setq diary-comment-end "")

Then we need to write the pattern for the headings. I prefer that heading levels start with at least three semicolons and a space, which lets us still use comments for their intended purpose (the same way it is in elisp-mode):

;; The pattern evaluates to ";;+\\{2,\\} [^ \t\n]"
(setq outline-regexp (format "%s+\\{2,\\} [^ \t\n]" diary-comment-start))

We can test our pattern in a new buffer with M-x re-builder and some text samples:

;; A regular comment.  This should not be matched.

;;; A heading level 1
;;;; A heading level 2
;;;;; A heading level 3

Now that we got everything in order, we just need to integrate with with diary-mode:

(defun my-diary-extras-setup ()
  "Additional setup for Diary mode buffers."
  (when (derived-mode-p 'diary-mode)
    (setq outline-regexp (format "%s+\\{2,\\} [^ \t\n]" diary-comment-start))))

(add-hook 'diary-mode-hook #'my-diary-extras-setup)

Next time we access the diary-file and diary-mode gets enabled, we will get headings function the way we want. It then is up to you to specify the key bindings you want to make navigating the outline easier. For example:

(with-eval-after-load 'outline
  (let ((map outline-minor-mode-map))
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-n") 'outline-next-visible-heading)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-p") 'outline-previous-visible-heading)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-f") 'outline-forward-same-level)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-b") 'outline-backward-same-level)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-u") 'outline-up-heading)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-a") 'outline-show-all)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-v") 'outline-move-subtree-down)
    (define-key map (kbd "C-c M-v") 'outline-move-subtree-up)
    (define-key map (kbd "<C-tab>") 'outline-cycle))) ; This is from Emacs28

Finally we need to enable outline-minor-mode:

(add-hook 'diary-mode-hook #'outline-minor-mode)

Or M-x outline-minor-mode.

With those in place, we have set the foundations to make the Diary buffer very easy to navigate, all while retaining its overall simplicity. I am using Daniel Mendler’s consult library, which includes the consult-outline command (among many others): it lets you jump to a heading using minibuffer completion and requires no extra setup the way the built-in imenu does (though Imenu is also great in its own right).

Personally, I also change the fontification of the Diary buffer, but will not bother you with the technicalities. Please refer to my dotemacs instead: (specifically the section Calendar and Diary (and prot-diary.el)).