Uncommon Ground


Getting organized in 2018 – Putting it all together

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

When I started this series I didn’t think it would take me three months to finish, but it did. If you’ve been following along, you’ve read about how I keep myself organized. In this last post, I’ll put it altogether by running through the process with links to the individual steps. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this will look pretty familiar, although I discovered most of these practices on my own well before I read his book.1

It all starts on Sunday morning. I brew myself a nice cup of coffee – black, no sugar -, sit down at my laptop, and boot up OmniFocus. I move tasks that may have accumulated in my OmniFocus Inbox to the appropriate Project folder or subfolder.2Then I use the Review perspective to review all of my tasks. I’ve set different projects for different review frequencies. Some I review every week, some I review once a month, and some I review only once every 3-6 months. But everything gets reviewed at a frequency experience has taught me is appropriate. Every week the review will review tasks that need to be rescheduled (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) or dropped. And every week the review gives me ideas for new tasks or projects that get entered into the appropriate place (sometimes it’s Someday/Maybe for things that I just need to think about, sometimes it’s a new project or a new task in an existing project). With that review done, I’m confident that I’ve planned for anything I can plan for in the following week and that my complete list of projects and tasks is in good order so that I’ll be prompted about other important things when the right time arrives.

I review my calendar for the week ahead at the same time. Before I became a dean, I made appointments with myself for blocks of time that I could use for focused work. I treated those time blocks as real appointments and did my best not to let other commitments break them up. As a Dean, I can’t be that inflexible. Too many things arise that need prompt, if not immediate, attention. I’ve cut back on scheduling blocks of time for focused work. Only when I have a really important project that has a looming deadline, a grant proposal for example, will I put a “Do not disturb” block of time on my calendar with instructions to my administrative assistant to check with me before scheduling anything short of a meeting request from the President or the Provost in that time block. That’s as close as I can get to planning deep work time ahead of time. Mostly, I have to take advantage of time blocks when they appear, and they are rarely more than a couple of hours.

On any given day, my calendar and OmniFocus keep me on track. Some of my OmniFocus tasks have specific times of day associated with them, meeting preparation for example. Many have only the end of the day, 5:00pm. I review today’s task list every morning. As a result, I can often pick something to do without checking OmniFocus first, but I do check it frequently throughout the day, often because I’m entering something new that just came up.

At meetings I rarely take paper. I’ve either saved the electronic versions of documents that were sent or scanned paper versions to PDF. Either way, any documents I have before the meeting are in Dropbox, Evernote, or both. Any notes I’ve made before the meeting were probably made with Emacs using Markdown, and published to Evernote with Byword. At the meetings I use pen and paper, my everything notebook. At the end of the day, I’ll scan notes to PDF and save them to Dropbox or I’ll scan them directly to Evernote. As I wrote earlier, I don’t have a clear plan for what goes to Dropbox and what goes to Evernote, but either way I can get it from any electronic device I have handy. If there are action items I need to follow up on, I will have marked them with an arrow (==>) in my notebook, and I transfer them to OmniFocus. I also check over my everything notebook during my weekly review to make sure I haven’t missed any action items that need to be recorded.

Writing it all out like this may make it sound pretty time consuming and complicated, but it’s not. The daily task management is a natural part of the activity and it doesn’t add any time. It just uses the time differently. The weekly review takes a bit longer, but spending 15 minutes or half an hour with a nice cup of coffee looking over the week to come is a nice way to spend a quiet Sunday morning.


Getting organized in 2018 – The limits of deep work

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Last week I introduced the idea of deep work,

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

The key words there are distraction free. I picked up some useful tips from reading Deep Work, but there’s also at least one limit to be aware of.1

In Deep Work Cal Newport describes the working style of two people who have been exceptionally productive and who exemplify what he calls the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling, Adam Grant and Don Knuth. I don’t think I’d heard of Adam Grant before,2 but anyone who’s done more than a little programming has heard of Don Knuth. Not only is he the author of the monumental The Art of Computer Programming, he grew frustrated with the typesetting for TAoCP and wrote TeX and Metafont to compensate. He is also famously inaccessible by e-mail. He stopped answering e-mail in 1990. If you want to contact him, you’ll need to send him a letter to his postal mailing address. His administrative assistant will sort through them and pass along any that seem relevant. Grant isn’t quite as extreme as Knuth, but he batches his availability. He stacks all of his teaching into the fall semester, turning his attention fully to research for the rest of the year. He’ll answer e-mail, but if you happen to e-mail him during one of the 3-4 day periods when he’s focused on a research task, you’ll get an auto-response telling you that you’ll have to wait to hear back from him.

There’s no question that a monastic approach to deep work allows those who can adopt it to accomplish an enormous amount. But there’s also no question that society can continue to function only so long as there are only a few people who adopt that approach. A functioning society depends on functioning institutions, and functioning institutions depend on people to keep them functioning. If you work with a very small group of people, you might be able to agree among yourselves that interruptions are allowed only between 11:00am and 1:00pm or only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but if you work with more than four or five people you’re unlikely to be able to set aside consistent “do not interrupt” hours except relatively early in the morning or relatively late in the day.3

And it’s not just the people you work with face to face. If you’re an academic, the functioning of your scholarly community depends on your willingness to review papers and grant proposals and to serve as a leader in your scholarly society. I know a few people4 who have made many important scientific contributions, in the sense that they’ve published important papers and discovered important things, who have also made few or no contributions at all to supporting the scholarly community on which they depend. If you decide to adopt a monastic approach, you better be sure that you can make contributions large and important enough that they compensate for your lack of community spirit.

For most of us, we won’t even be able to adopt the bimodal philosophy that Jung employed – periods of intense deep work in seclusion interspersed with periods of involvement in day-to-day life and work.5 It’s most likely that we’ll have to adopt the journalistic philosophy – developing the discipline to do concentrated deep work whenever the opportunity presents itself. That’s why setting up your workspace in a way that you can avoid distraction is important. Any time you find yourself with more than 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time ask yourself,

  • How much time can I set aside right now for work that needs concentrated attention?
  • What is the most important work I can do right now that needs concentrated attention?

Then do that work, and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Close the door. Don’t answer the phone. Ignore e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.6 Turn off notifications on your cellphone. Do the work. Then take a break and reward yourself.

Your position in life will determine both how often you find yourself with those uninterrupted blocks of time and how long they are. If you ever find yourself in a position like mine, whether department head or dean or any other administrative position, you’ll soon learn something a friend of mine told me a long time ago.

It’s not that Provosts or Presidents spend that much more time working than the average faculty member. It’s that Provosts and Presidents have little control over their own time.7

That’s more true for me now as a Vice Provost and Dean than it was when I served as Interim Department Head, and it was more true for me as a faculty member than it was as a graduate student or postdoc.

One last piece of advice, if you’re a graduate student or postdoc reading this, take advantage of your relative freedom to develop good deep work habits now. The more you practice, the better you get at it, and the older you get, the more you’re going to need those good habits – no matter what career path you follow.

  1. To be fair, Cal Newport acknowledges the limit I’m about to describe, but I don’t think his discussion of depth philosophies fully captures it.
  2. It turns out he’s was the youngest person ever promoted to full professor at Wharton, and he’s the author of a New York Times bestseller (link).
  3. I say “relatively” because the meaning of early and late depend on where you work. Many businesses operate on an 8:00am-5:00pm schedule, so early might be before 8:00am and late might be after 5:00pm. I’m a morning person. I’m usually in the office before 6:30am. Since I rarely have scheduled meetings before 9:00am (except for meetings with my students), I typically have 2 1/2 hours to myself every morning.
  4. Who shall remain nameless.
  5. If you’re not familiar with Jung’s work habits, buy Deep Work or do a little web surfing. Same thing for Walter Isaacson who follows.
  6. Use new, clean workspace if you’re on your computer. Use a utility that block Internet access if you doubt your willpower.
  7. The friend who told me this is a former Provost at a major research university (not UConn).

Getting organized in 2018 – Deep work

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Cal Newport published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World in 2016.1 He defines deep work as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.2

He goes on to formulate something he calls the “deep work hypothesis”:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

I’m not going to discuss the deep work hypothesis. If you want to see the evidence Newport has for it, you’ll have to read the book. I didn’t learn anything from reading the book a couple of months ago, but I did find his four rules to be a useful framework for understanding what I already do (or try to do).

Rule #1: Work deeply: The fundamental (but not particularly new) insight is that to accomplish any significant work that requires understanding complex ideas or creating novel ideas requires large blocks of uninterrupted time. I have adopted two new insights from Newport’s book: Scheduling my blocks of uninterrupted time to ensure that more immediate, and often important, distractions don’t crowd deep time out of my work week.3 Ritualizing my deep time. When I am in deep time, I’m usually working on my MacBook or my iMac. I have both of them set up with two desktops. When I’m in deep time, I switch to a desktop that has only the applications and documents I need open. It takes some discipline, but by opening a different desktop it’s easier not to check e-mail or respond to other notifications that appear on my screen.

Rule #2: Embrace boredom: This was a new one for me, but I think the way Newport states it is misleading. The fundamental idea is that concentration is a skill. With practice and exercise, you can improve your ability to focus, and since deep work requires concentration, the more you exercise your concentration, the better you’ll get at deep work. Here the strategy is what I alluded to in the last sentence of the last paragraph: Take breaks from focused work. Allow yourself to be distracted by e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever only when you’re not engaged in deep work. Schedule your deep time, or at least commit to spending a specific amount of time in deep work before you begin, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Even if you’re not making progress on the project, force yourself to stay away from distractions until you’ve reached the end of your deep work block. You may be bored, but you’ll be training yourself to resist distraction. This is related to the pomodoro technique.4

Rule #3: Quit social media: That’s overstated, but it’s good advice. Take a careful look at how much time you spend on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Ask yourself: “How much of the time I spend on platform X advances the work I want to do?” As for me, I use Facebook only once or twice a month. I post to Twitter pretty regularly, and I look at recent posts 2-3 times a day, but I don’t have Twitter open in my browser. I think I have an Instagram account, but I haven’t used it more than once or twice, and that was 4-5 years ago. I use Twitter with some regularity (a) because I want to draw the attention of my small audience to items I’ve found interesting and (b) not infrequently the scientists I follow will post a link to an article with an interesting idea I need to follow up on. There’s a good chance, especially if you’re younger than I am, that you find Facebook a good way to stay in touch with friends and family. If so, I see no reason for you to quit using it. I do suggest, however, that you think carefully about when you use it and that you keep Facebook closed (and silence Facebook messenger) when you’ve blocked out time for deep work.

Rule #4: Drain the shallows Newport suggests scheduling every minute of your day. That might work for you, but it doesn’t work for me. What reading Deep Work did remind me to do, however, was to focus on the small number of things that are really important. Before agreeing to do anything, ask yourself “What would happen if I said ‘No’?” If the answer is “little or nothing”, say “No.” Only do things where (a) there is no one else who can make the contribution you could make, (b) making your contribution could mean the difference between success or failure (or between an excellent and a mediocre outcome), and (c) success or failure is important (in whatever way you judge importance in this context). This is clearly an ideal, and there are certain to be circumstances in which you have little choice but to do something that doesn’t fit these criteria.5 Nonetheless, you’ll thank yourself in the long run (if not before) if you depart from the ideal as little as your circumstances allow.

  1. The link takes you to the Deep Work page on Amazon.com. The book is available from many different sources. I just happen to find Amazon convenient. The link is not a sponsored link. I won’t receive any money if you click on the link, nor will I receive any if you happen to buy the book.
  2. I can’t provide a page number for the quotation, because I’m reading this on my Kindle. I rarely buy or read hard copy books.
  3. This insight isn’t entirely new, but Newport inspired me to make it more formal.
  4. Rule #1 and Rule #2 are almost redundant, but they emphasize different things. Rule #1 emphasizes what you should do – focus, concentrate. Rule #2 emphasizes what you shouldn’t do – let yourself be distracted.
  5. More about that next week.

Getting organized in 2018 – Mindmanager

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

If you’ve been following this series you know that the tools I use most frequently are: pen and paper,1 OmniFocus,2 Evernote,3, Dropbox, and Ulysses. Those are the tools I’d be lost without. Last week I introduced a tool that I could live without, but that I find very handy, Scrivener. This week I’ll briefly describe another tool I find handy. It’s one that I could live without more easily than Scrivener, but it still comes in handy. It’s a mind-mapping tool called MindManager.

Like Scrivener, MindManager is available for both Mac and Windoze. Unlike Scrivener, the features available in the Windoze version seem to be much more advanced and flexible.4Although the Mindjet site5 promises that you’ll find MindManager useful for brainstorming, visualizing data, flowcharts, and project management, I’ve only used it for brainstorming. For that it is very useful.

I am lousy at visual thinking, but I’m trying to get better, and mapping out concepts in a concept map is an easy way for someone like me who thinks very verbally to start making my ideas more visual. I’ve discovered that making my thoughts visual – admittedly just a pretty outline – makes it easier for other people to understand them. But it is more than just a pretty outline. It’s easy to move pieces of a map around. It’s easy to promote or demote them in a hierarchy, and I often find that after I’ve played with a map for a while, new ideas are occurring to me that wouldn’t have popped into my brain if I’d been trying the same thing in a Word outline or outline mode in Emacs.6

If you’re not familiar with mind mapping, visit mindmapping.com and look around. If you want to see an example of how I’ve used it, take a look at this mind map derived from a 2013 meeting of the Dimensions of Biodiversity team working on Protea and Pelargonium in South Africa. It’s written in HTML 5 and directly exported from MindManager.

Click on the little bubbles with numbers, and you’ll see details pop out. Click on the little circles with “-“, and you’ll see the details collapse. The version you’re looking at is read-only, so you can’t change the text or the structure. You can either imagine what it’s like to drag any piece of this map anywhere else, add anything you like at any lever, or delete anything you don’t want, or you can get a trial version of MindManager and try it out yourself.

If you’re interested in mind mapping, you owe it to yourself to spend a little time investigating the links you’ll find from a Google search. There are free mind mapping tools available, and there’s a good chance they’ll be plenty to satisfy your needs. I use MindManager (a) because I started with it years ago and (b) I like the export options (PDF and HTML 5), but your mileage may vary.


Getting organized in 2018 – non-Word software for writing projects (Scrivener)

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Last week I described Ulysses, which provides a simple interface for ASCII text files combined with Markdown for publishing in a variety of formats, including WordPress blogs. This week I’m going to describe a different kind of tool. It’s one I use much less frequently than Ulysses, and it’s one I could do without, but it’s one I also find handy for certain types of writing projects –Scrivener.

Scrivener is more like a traditional word processor than Ulysses. You select fonts and font sizes, insert tables and bulleted lists, use italic and bold in a way that’s more familiar than the underscore and asterisk approach Markup uses.1 It allows you to set margins, and most of the other things you’re used to doing in a traditional word processor. Unlike Ulysses (or Emacs + LaTeX) and like Word, Scrivener doesn’t separate markup from presentation.

What Scrivener does that a traditional word processor doesn’t do is to provide a single environment in which (nearly) everything you need for a writing project can live. Take a look at the screenshot above to see an example of a project that’s in a very early stage. The National Science Foundation released a “Dear Colleague” letter describing an opportunity for “International Research Coordination Networks comprised of U.S. and South African Researchers.” I’ve been in contact with several U.S. and South African colleagues about putting a proposal together, and I’m using Scrivener to keep all of the information I collect accessible. That’s the items under the “Research” tab on the left.

The “Draft” tab above that is where I’ll start writing notes when we start serious work on the joint proposal. I’ll have different documents corresponding to notes about the research plan, the management plan, the evaluation plan, and other sections of the proposal. We’ll probably use Google Docs to write the initial draft of the proposal so that each of us can work on it when it’s convenient while ensuring that all of us also have the latest version of the proposal in front of us. So how does Scrivener help?

Take a look at the second snapshot of the interface above. The split screen interface is very handy. I don’t have to boot up Firefox or open another application to look at any of the documents or resources I’ve collected. I can look at them while I’m writing, and since I don’t leave Scrivener, I’m less likely to be distracted by something that pops up when I open Firefox or to see that e-mail that just came in that’s begging for attention. Using Scrivener helps me keep my focus where it should be when I’m using it – on writing.

And if I really just need to write and I don’t need to look at any of the resources I’ve gathered, I can put myself into composition mode (illustrated above) and work with even fewer distractions.

In the IRCN project illustrated here, I will probably copy blocks of text from the “Draft” section into a shared Google Doc. When I’m working on a project by myself, I’m liable to start it in Scrivener, get the whole document into good shape, export the result to DOCX, and clean up the formatting in Word.

I don’t really need Scrivener, but it makes avoiding distraction easier. If I’m working on a project by myself, I tend to use Scrivener – unless it’s a project that involves a lot of math when I’ll use Emacs and LaTeX. Scrivener supports a Markdown -> LaTeX export, but I haven’t explored that yet because I find it easier to work directly in LaTeX. I use Scrivener when I anticipate a final export to Word for formatting clean up or when I expect to share a draft with others for comments and suggestions.

Like Ulysses Scrivener is available on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Unlike Ulysses, there is also a version for Windoze. When I last tried the Windoze version 3-4 years ago, it was much more primitive than the Mac version. I don’t know if that’s changed, and I don’t recall if there’s a version for Android, but it is at least a little less tied to the Mac ecosystem than Ulysses.

  1. Of course, Ulysses lets me use Command-I to start and end italic and Command-B to start and end bold, so the difference isn’t that great.

My thoughts on Moleskine’s new smart pen

Moleskine recently released its Pen+ Ellipse. I’ve long been intrigued by the smart pen idea, where I would simply write, doodle, or sketch and have the result automagically transferred to an electronic form for me. But I won’t be buying an Ellipse any time soon. Why?

  1. I love my fountain pens. I don’t want to give them up.
  2. I want to write on any paper I happen to have handy, whether that happens to be in my Moleskine everything notebook, a Rhodia notepad, a 3″x5″ index card, a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, or anything else. I don’t want to have to write only on one kind of paper or in only one kind of notebook.
  3. By combining pen and paper with the camera in my iPhone (whether the camera itself or the Evernote-linked app Scannable), I can easily get anything I’ve written down anywhere into Evernote or scan it to PDF and store it in Dropbox. There is a “cool” factor missing from my approach, but it works very well for me, and it seems a lot more flexible.

Getting organized in 2018 – non-Word software for writing projects (Ulysses)

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

This post is a little different from earlier ones in this series. It doesn’t directly describe how I keep myself organized.1 Rather, it describes the first of two non-Word, i.e., non-Microsoft, products I use to organize some of my writing.

Let me start by saying that I’m not going to preach the virtues of Emacs or LaTeX, although Emacs has been my text editor of choice since the late 1980s2 and I believe the world would be a better place if everyone wrote their papers in LaTeX3. It’s possible that I’ll preach the virtues of LaTeX in some other post, but today I’m going to describe Ulysses.

The first thing you need to know about Ulysses is that it’s Apple only. There are apps for Mac, iPhone, and iPad, but not for other platforms. There may be equivalent apps for Windoze, Linux, and Android, but if there are, I’m not familiar with them.4 The second thing you need to know is that it’s now available only by subscription ($4.99/month, $39.99/year with a discount for students). The third thing you need to know is that if you have a Mac, iPhone, and iPad, your subscription will let you use the app on all of your devices. The fourth thing you need to know is that it uses a flavor of Markdown to provide formatting control, which means that the files are plain text. That’s the feature I like best. It means that I can store a writing project, like this series of blog posts, in a directory on Dropbox, and if I happen to be working on code in Emacs when an idea occurs to me, I can simply open up the relevant text file in Emacs and jot down my thought before I forget it. It also means that if the folks behind Ulysses went out of business, I’d still have easy access to everything I’ve written so long as I have a text editor of any sort available.5

Screenshot of Ulysses on my MacBookWhich (finally) brings me to describing Ulysses. The interface is very simple, as you can see from the screenshot above.6On the left you see the titles of individual files, some posts that have already appeared or will appear soon,7 and some that I have planned but haven’t started writing yet.8 The big writing area is where I’m writing this post (obviously), and you can see that the interface is very simple. There’s the “Share” button, which I have set to publish this post. A “Meter” button that tells me there were 3754 characters in this post before I typed “3754”. A “Section” button that will take me back to the top of this post (or to another section if I prefixed it with an “@“ and picked it from the list). A “Markup button” that gives me a bunch of formatting options if I forget the Markdown code for a “Heading 3” or an ordered list. And a “paper clip” button that I never use, so I don’t know what it does.

Writing an individual post is as simple as clicking into one of the ones on the left that I’ve already set up or clicking on the “New” button (the button to the right of the “Search” button – the magnifying glass. Then I give the post a title (in the “@“ line that will be at the top) and start typing. That’s it.

When I’m done, I can hit the “Share” button to share it as text, HTML, PDF, ePUB, or DOCX or to publish it to a WordPress site, as I’m going to do in just a few minutes. When I publish it to WordPress, I can even publish in the future. For example, I’m writing this a little after noon on Sunday the 25th. The post will go live tomorrow morning at 8:30am.

In addition to using Ulysses for writing these entries, I use it for preparing notes for many of my meetings. It keeps all of my notes together in one place for easy reference, and I can use Byword to export my notes to a nicely formatted note in Evernote, both for reference during the meeting and as an archive for searching in the future. I could do all of this with Emacs, except that I’d need a different app on my iPhone and iPad. In fact, that’s what I did until a couple of years ago. It worked just fine, and it was cheaper. But this works even better for me, and it works enough better that I’m happy to pay the $39.99/year for a subscription.9

  1. To the extent that I am able to keep myself organized.
  2. Yes. I know that dates me. It’s before some, maybe many, of you were born. But that’s the way it is. I have to admit to myself that I am becoming an old codger. I just hope I’m not too crotchety.
  3. If they did, several good things would follow. (1) Everyone could pick their own favorite text editor for writing. We wouldn’t all have to agree on the same thing. (2) Everyone would have their writing in plain ASCII format, rather than a proprietary format. (3) Journals could develop LaTeX styles to allow them to typeset articles with minimal intervention from copyeditors. This is already commonplace in fields like mathematics, statistics, and physics where LaTeX is the standard. If that practice were to spread more broadly, then other fields could take advantage of the cost savings. Here is my big dream: Then it would be a relatively small lift for a talented team of programmers to develop a robust, open source platform for journal publishing that non-profit publishers could adopt to provide low cost, open access publishing to their authors.
  4. If you happen to know of an equivalent app for a non-Apple platform, please mention it in the comments.
  5. If I don’t have a text editor available, I have far bigger problems than getting to the text of writing that I’ve been doing.
  6. I’m writing this on my Mac.
  7. The ones where you can see some text.
  8. The ones with a title only and no text.
  9. In case you’ve forgotten what I wrote in the series introduction, I’ve purchased any software I mention in this series that requires a purchase. I have no relationship with any of the companies I’ve mentioned, other than as a satisfied customer. None of the companies I mention asked me to write anything about them. So far as I know, they are completely unaware that I’m writing about them.

Getting organized in 2018 – Getting things done

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Previous posts in this series have outlined how I combine pen and paper with OmniFocus, Evernote, and Dropbox to keep myself organized, but they didn’t describe how they all fit together. I also didn’t mention that years ago when everything was in my paper DayTimer I had already stumbled on one of the principles that David Allen preaches in Getting Things Done:

Capture what has your attention

Capture what has your attention (from gettingthingsdone.com)

Everything I need to do gets into OmniFocus. Once it’s there, it either gets done or I decide that it doesn’t need to get done, but I don’t have to think about it any more. My weekly review will remind me that it’s there until its either done or deleted. I include links to Evernote or Dropbox when necessary.

When I receive an e-mail that needs attention later, I forward it to OmniFocus. Once it’s there, it’s a task I have to deal with. I don’t like seeing red overdue tasks, so sending the e-mails to OmniFocus accomplishes two things:

  1. It helps me keep my e-mail inbox clean. I move e-mails I forward to OmniFocus into a follow up folder in Outlook (named @Follow-Up so it’s near the top of the folder list). OmniFocus contains all the details I need to be reminded of, but having the original e-mail handy means that it’s easy to reply when I need to.
  2. It ensures that I take an action on the e-mail. My first action is simply to get it into OmniFocus. My next action is triggered when I see it in my OmniFocus inbox and its moved to its final destination in OmniFocus.1 Once an item gets to its final destination, it’s in a project that gets reviewed regularly. I often assign items a due date when I putting them into a project. I hate seeing red bubbles on the app, whether on iPhone, iPad, MacBook, or iMac, so I either complete the task, reschedule it to a later date,2 or give up and decide to drop the task (meaning that I delete it from OmniFocus).

The same principle works with my Everything notebook. Usually at the end of the day I will review my Everything notebook to identify tasks that need to go into OmniFocus. Those tasks may have arisen as action items from meetings, or they may be thoughts that occurred to me when it was easier to jot them down than enter them in OmniFocus. Whatever the reason, the tasks get into OmniFocus, and I forget about them – because OmniFocus won’t, and it will remind me.

My weekly review is pretty simple. Every Sunday:

  • I empty my OmniFocus inbox by moving items to the project where they belong.
  • I review my calendar for the week and add any tasks related to meetings or events for the week.
  • I use the “Review” function in OmniFocus to review all of the tasks I’ve entered. For each task I decide whether I need to change the timing or drop it completely. Since I’ve grouped tasks into large projects and then used folders within the projects to group related tasks, it’s pretty easy to see where every task fits even though I probably have a few hundred tasks in my list at any one time.

Every morning I take a quick look at the list of tasks for that day and the overdue tasks that should have been done. For an overdue task, I decide whether to change the due date, continue to feel (increasingly) guilty about not getting it done in the hopes that I will get it done soon, or drop it because it is no longer important enough to worry about. For a task that isn’t overdue, I don’t have to worry about feeling guilty (yet), but I still sometimes I decide to postpone it if the day looks busier than I anticipated on Sunday (or if completing overdue task is more important).

  1. Emptying my OmniFocus inbox is part of my weekly review, but I sometimes check it during the week.
  2. For which I always feel guilty. The version of OmniFocus for laptop or desktop records the date when an item was created, which reminds me when I originally intended to finish. The guilt builds as the distance between what I originally intended and where I am grows.

Getting organized in 2018 – Evernote and Dropbox

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

I’ve mentioned Evernote in two previous posts (here and here). It and OmniFocus (posts here and here) are two of the three software applications I use most frequently. The third isn’t an application that I use in the traditional sense of “use.” I don’t start it up and work with it. It’s just always sitting there in the background silently doing its job. “It” is Dropbox.

Most of you are probably familiar with Dropbox. It stores files in the cloud and keeps them synchronized across computers. I have Dropbox installed on my MacBook, my iMac at work, my iMac at home, my iPhone, and my iPad.1 Any file I save to one of my Dropbox folders on one device is automatically to the same folder on other devices.2 That means when I save a document from my MacBook or anywhere else (whether PDF, Word, Excel, CSV, plain text, or Markup) it is (almost) immediately synced to every other device I have. Since I have versions of Word and Excel on my iPhone and iPad as well as on my other computers, it means I can read virtually any document I save on whatever device I’m working with at the moment.

That’s my key to going paperless to meetings. For meetings I organize, I prepare notes (in plain text or Markup – more on that in next week’s post). For regular meetings (like staff meetings in The Graduate School) that I want to have accessible and easily searchable, I’ll write in Markup and export the result to Evernote using Byword. For other meetings, I’ll write in plain text, save the result in an appropriate folder in Dropbox and open the note on my iPad directly.3

The key to all of this is that everything I do that’s related to my main duties, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of The Graduate School, finds its way into an electronic document that’s stored in my “Graduate School” folder in Dropbox. I don’t have to think about syncing. I don’t have to designate one machine or device as the “mother” device on which I work. I can work on any of my devices and have the results accessible from any of them – provided that I have Internet connectivity.

For my MacBook and iMacs, that’s not a problem. They have local copies of everything. I can work on the local copy even without an Internet connection. Dropbox will upload the results when I’m connected again. If I happen to work on the same file separately, Dropbox will notify me of the conflict and duplicate the file so that nothing is lost.4

Some of the apps I have on my mobile devices can download files from Dropbox into local storage. If I know before I go to a meeting that I’m going to need a particular document, I’ll download it ahead of time – just to make sure I have a copy if there are connectivity problems during the meeting.

Dropbox isn’t the only way to do this, of course. There’s iCloud (from Apple), OneDrive (from Microsoft), Box, and probably others I don’t know about. I’m not claiming that Dropbox is the best alternative. It’s just the one I’ve been using for 8-10 years, and it works very well for me. There’s a lot more that it can do (including Paper, which I have not investigated), but what I’ve described here are the key functions that I use more than 95% of the time.

  1. With the latest release of iOS I don’t really need to have Dropbox installed on my iPhone or iPad. The builtin Files application can connect directly to Dropbox.
  2. It’s a little more subtle than that. You can choose which folders you’d like to sync to any particular device. I’ve chosen not to sync any of my work files to my home iMac, for example.
  3. Since nearly every meeting I go to is associated with work, the Markup files that are exported to Evernote sit in one of my Dropbox folders. I end up with two copies, but that’s OK. Some times it’s easier simply to open the file from Dropbox. Other times it’s easier to open them in Evernote. Either way, I know that they’ll show up in an Evernote search if they’re relevant.
  4. Except for the time I lose reconciling the changes.

Getting organized in 2018 – Tracking tasks revisited

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

I was planning to finish my discussion of Evernote this week by describing how I use it and Dropbox to keep archives. The system I have isn’t a system at all. It’s haphazard and inconsistent. In spite of that, once I have notes or a document in one of them, I can find them wherever I am, since both sync to all of my devices. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For more on Evernote and Dropbox, you’ll have to come back next week.

Instead, I’m returning to tracking tasks and my everything notebook. Why? I happened to see a post on Cal Newport’s blog, On simple productivity systems and complex plans. Earlier he’d described his ideas for a modified Bullet Journal into a Bullet Journal Pro that fit his ideas about weekly and daily plans, time blocks, etc. In his more recent post, he reports that his Bullet Journal Pro system didn’t work. He’s returning to a system that has a notebook for daily plans, printouts of text files for weekly plans (printed multiple times per week as plans change), and a collection of e-mails to himself. His system clearly works for him, but it wouldn’t work for me.

As I described earlier, I tried a Bullet journal last year. Like Cal Newport, I like the analog flexibility of paper and pen. What I don’t like about the Bullet journal, is that it would only work for me if I always had it with me. Ideas about things I need to do or ideas I need to follow up on occur to me at all sorts of times in all sorts of places. If I’m wearing a suit jacket or sport coat, I’ll have a couple of fountain pens with me in one coat pocket and a Levenger pocket briefcase in the other pocket. I can whip out the pocket briefcase and make a note on a 3”x5” card that I transfer to OmniFocus when I have time. That’s less distracting to anyone I’m with than making the same note directly into OmniFocus on my iPhone or iPad. So why not just transfer that note to a Bullet journal instead?

Because I don’t have my Bullet journal with me all of the time.

At any one time I probably have a couple of hundred tasks, maybe more, sitting in OmniFocus waiting for my attention. They’re not all waiting for my attention right now or even today. Some of them won’t need my attention for several months, but all of the tasks I know of that I’ll need to do – ever – are in there. Since they’re there, I don’t have to worry about forgetting them.

But the only reason I can have all of my tasks stored somewhere and know that I won’t forget them is that (a) the “somewhere” is electronic and accessible from all of my electronic devices and (b) I always have one of my electronic devices with me. That means that I can always check what needs doing now (or today) wherever I am and whenever I need to. I probably lack imagination, but I can’t imagine how I could set use a Bullet journal, or an Everything notebook for that matter, to keep a record of everything that I need to do and have that record current and accessible wherever I am and whenever I want it.

What’s working well for me is a modified Everything notebook, a notebook in which I keep notes from every meeting I attend. Not only is pen and paper more flexible than my iPad, iPhone, or laptop, I find that they are less distracting, both to me and to those I’m meeting with. For me electronic devices take me away from paying full attention to the people in the room. Pen and paper don’t. To maintain the electronic advantage of accessibility and comprehensiveness, I simply transfer any to-do items to OmniFocus and scan any notes that I need ready access to into a PDF for Evernote or Dropbox.

That’s what works for me. Your mileage may vary. As I said in the introduction to this series,

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. 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.