Uncommon Ground


Getting organized in 2018 – Tracking tasks

Introduction to the series

Last week I described the approach to an Everything notebook that I’m trying this year. With another week under my belt, I can report that it’s going very well. I have a few small things to add to last week’s entry:

  1. I’m using two different fountain pens in my notebook. I use the Rotring I mentioned last time when I’m working at my desk, but I use a fine-point Namiki Vanishing Point (with a blue carbonesque finish, image above from Fahrney’s Pens) when I go to meetings.1
  2. I make it a habit to review my notebook at the end of every working day so that I can transfer any notes I have to one of my electronic applications, including the task manager I’m about to describe.
  3. I use a Moleskine Classic Notebook (Black, XL) for my notebook.2

I first started tracking my tasks more than 30 years ago when I was a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley. For some reason, I received a catalog from DayTimer, and it struck me as a good way to keep track of my appointments, which were few in those days, and the things I needed to do. I used a 1-page-per-day compact planner for several years before switching to a journal-sized planner. I mention this because it shows that long before I read Getting Things Done, I was following David Allen’s advice: Write everything down in a place where it won’t be lost. As I told many people, the great thing about my DayTimer was that if it went into my DayTimer, I wouldn’t forget about it.3

When DayTimer came out with an electronic organizer in the mid-1990s, I started to use it. I even printed my own pages through the software. By the late 1990s or early 2000s, the redundancy made even less sense than it did when I started, and I stopped using paper. I’ve been through several different electronic task managers since then, and I’ve settled on OmniFocus as the best fit for me, at least for now. Here’s why:

  • I always have a complete inventory of everything I’m committed to doing,4 including dates by which projects (or components of projects) are do. It synchronizes across my MacBook, iMac, iPad, and iPhone, so no matter what device I happen to have handy, I can add an item or cross one off when it’s completed.
  • It provides a convenient way of grouping tasks into projects, and to making subtasks within tasks. As a result, it works as a lightweight project manager. For example, if I am working on a grant proposal, I’ll construct a preliminary list of all of the things that need to get done before it’s submitted with target dates for completion (e.g., outline proposal, develop budget, share initial draft with collaborators/colleagues, get letters of support, submit budget to Sponsored Programs for approval, submit final draft). The outline approach to organizing makes a lot of sense.
  • It lets me know when I haven’t completed a task by the time I said that I would. Its icon even tells me how many tasks are behind schedule, which makes me feel exceedingly guilty when I see it. My only options are: (1) finish the task, (2) decide that I can re-schedule (delay) the due date beyond what I originally planned, or (3) decide that I no longer need to complete it, so that I delete it from the list.
  • It works with Siri. If I’m walking across campus or driving somewhere and a task occurs to me, I simply say “Hey, Siri. Remind me to XXX at YYY” and a new task shows up in OmniFocus that I now won’t forget.
  • It has a nice “Review” option that I use every Sunday to review the status of all of my tasks.5

There are a lot of other electronic task lists out there, and I haven’t tried most of them. OmniFocus is moderately expensive, and it may be more complicated than you need, but if you have a smartphone or tablet and a laptop or desktop, you probably would benefit from using one of the many cross-platform task managers.

One thing I haven’t described is how my everything notebook, paper and pen, integrates with OmniFocus. It’s very simple. At the end of every day I review notes I’ve written in my everything notebook. If there are any notes that require some action, I create a task in OmniFocus. If there’s information in my everything notebook that’s relevant to the task, I use the “Notes” field in OmniFocus to make a note of how to find that information again.6

Getting organized in 2018 – Trying an everything notebook

Introduction to the series

If you know me or if you read later entries in this series, you’ll see that I’m a bit of a tech geek. Most of what I do to keep myself organized I do electronically with a series of different applications that work across the electronic platforms I use (MacBook, iMac, iPhone, iPad),1 but I am also a fountain pen afficianado. I carry 6-7 different fountain pens with me in my briefcase, even when I travel. I also find it much easier to take notes with pen and paper when I’m in a meeting. Since I’m in meetings so much as a result of serving as a Vice Provost and Dean, I use pen and paper a lot. Let’s start with how I use them, or more accurately how I am planning to use them in 2018. I’ll describe how I integrate the paper with my electronic platforms in a couple of weeks.

Last year I tried using a Bullet journal. The idea is appealing. It provides a simple way to organize to-do lists, meetings, and notes from every day into a single notebook. If I were working solely analog, I would almost certainly be using a Bullet journal. But I depend heavily on my interconnected electronic devices. I suppose I could carry my Bullet journal with me everywhere and record everything there, but it just doesn’t fit the way I work. I always have my iPhone with me, and if I’m at home or in the office, my iPad and MacBook (and iMac if I’m at the office) are never far away. I can add something to my to-do list if it occurs to me when I’m at the grocery store.2 I can even use Siri to add something if it occurs to me when I’m driving to or from work. For me a paper Bullet journal is just duplicated effort, and after a year of trying it, it’s clear that it won’t work for me.

This year I’m trying an Everything notebook. I don’t remember how I ran across the idea, but I think it’s going to work very well. There have only been 4 working days to try it out so far this year, but so far it fits my work patterns much better. There are a few differences between the way I’m setting up my Everything notebook and the way that Raul Pacheco Vega set his up.

  • My notebook will be strictly black and white. I’ll be using a Rotring fountain pen that I’ve had for a little over 20 years, because its nib is fine and inflexible, so that my notes will be as neat as they can be with my lousy handwriting. I can’t tell you the exact model of the pen, because Rotring no longer makes fountain pens so far as I can tell.
  • I will be using index pages in the front of the notebook, an idea borrowed from the Bullet journal, instead of labeled plastic tabs.

At the end of every day, I’ll quickly review my notes and transfer to my electronic platforms as needed. The only difference between this and what I’ve done in the past (ignoring the Bullet journal for the moment) is that in the past I used notepads that didn’t leave a permanent record (other than what I transferred to my electronic systems). I expect this to work well for me, and it will provide a physical backup should that become necessary. (more…)

Getting organized in 2018 – Introducing a blog series

Welcome to 2018! This post is different from others you’ve seen if you’ve been here before. Instead of comments on a recent piece of research, on science policy or science communication issues, or on issues concerning conservation, biodiversity, or the environment, this post begins a series that will share how I organize my work. Why? Off and on through my career I’ve had people ask me about how I get things done. Especially since I became Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of The Graduate School at UConn nearly 6 years ago,1 quite a few people have asked me how I can do that and continue to advise graduate students, teach (a little), and make research contributions. By writing down what I do, I’ll now have a link I can send anyone who’s interested.

Today’s post merely announces the series. The first real post will appear on Monday, January 8th and there should be another one every Monday morning after that for several weeks.2

Important disclaimer: I am not a productivity expert, and nothing you’ll read in this post or the posts that follow has been validated by empirical research.3 What I’m doing to organize myself may not work for you, and what I’m doing right now may not even be the best way I could organize myself. What you’ll read here is what I’m doing now. Adopt and modify anything that seems like it might be useful. Ignore anything that seems pointless. If you have suggestions for how I could organize myself better, please leave a comment. Not only will you help me, you’ll help other people who read this.

A note on software I’ve been a Mac user since 2009 or 2010. I also use an iPhone and an iPad. I know that some of the software I’ll mention, e.g., Evernote and Scrivener, is available on Windoze and Android. I’m pretty sure that some of it isn’t, e.g., Ulysses and OmniFocus. There are probably Windoze and Android equivalents of anything I mention, but I don’t know what they are so I can’t comment on them. When I am aware of alternatives to software I use, I’ll mention them, but I probably haven’t tried them. That doesn’t mean what I’ve chosen is best. It just means that I’ve found what I use works well for me.

I should also mention that I have no connection with any of the software products I’ll mention other than as a satisfied user. If you decide to purchase any of them, none of the companies will send me a royalty. Just as you should adopt and modify any advice you think might be useful and ignore what isn’t, you should use your own judgment about whether or not to purchase any of the products I use. (more…)