Using Kanban boards in Todoist

I only wrote about how I use Kanban for managing research projects quite recently. Here I described a physical Kanban board as well as “Kanban-like” workflows in various apps. What I didn’t know at the time, is that Todoist was working on a boards feature, which I first used in a beta version, and which has now been released!

Todoist was kind enough to feature one of my boards in their first blog post on boards, but in this post I give a few more details on how I now use the boards feature!

Research project overview

The board that I wrote about before, and that Todoist featured, is my overview of research projects. This was a picture of my physical version from a few months ago:

And here is how the Todoist version looks like (image credit: Todoist):

todoist board feature veronika

The columns are similar to the physical version, going left to right in chronological order (i.e. ideas on the left, published papers on the right). Several cards link to the projects for those specific papers.

Blog posts / How I Fail

Other boards that I use are for my blog posts and How I Fail interviews. The How I Fail board is especially important to emphasize, since multiple people are involved. Since I do not want to reveal the names of people I haven’t interviewed yet, I cannot post a screenshot, but I have several columns here:

  • Idea
  • Invited, waiting for response
  • Accepted, plan interview
  • Schedule blog post
  • Published
  • Declined
  • Dropped

Most of these are self-explanatory – if I invite somebody they can either decline, or accept, and if all goes well the card move to the “published” section. “Dropped” is for people who accepted but then stop responding.

An important thing about such boards is that I would still like to see the topics/names that are “done” but I should not address again, so I don’t want to check-off the todo item. To deal with this, I use priorities and filters, but it is not an elegant solution.

Experience Points (XP)

I also have a board with various tasks, that just need to be done, but are not necessarily part of a project. This often includes scheduling “life admin” appointments, filling in reimbursement forms etc. As somebody on Twitter suggested, “XP” (based on games) seemed to be a more fun name for these tasks :).

Whereas the previous boards have a logical ordering to the columns, this board do not have a specific ordering. Rather, each column is a particular category (stuff to buy, invoices to pay, etc). Once a column gets too long, I try to clear it by doing several similar-type things at a time.

Wishlist

I am enjoying the boards functionality in Todoist, and imagine I will be using it more. What I am still missing is being able to define your own rules for how a board works, for example:

  • Cards in “maybe” column do not show up in as “open tasks”
  • Cards in “waiting for” remind you to check the status, at a specific time interval
  • Cards in “done” are visible, but do not show up as “open tasks”

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If you are also using Todoist boards, I’d love to see more examples!

How to share papers with your students in Evernote

Although I have only supervised a couple of students during my tenure track, I already found often saying the same thing during each meeting – in particular, what are good papers to start reading about a particular topic. Since I was already an avid Evernote (get 1 month premium for free here) user, I decided to see if shared Evernote notebooks could be the solution to share papers with students. This might be also an option if you are organizing a journal club. Read on for the solution!

Initial setup 

I was already keeping track of the papers I read in Evernote – see this post on organizing my bibliography with Evernote and Jabref, but I will recap some things here. 

Remember that Evernote is not a reference manager, but it is where I store the paper PDFs and notes about the papers. Jabref is where I store the references. The only link between the two is the Bibtex key, which is how I name the note in Evernote. 

This is my paper collection i Evernote – 864 in total – and each note is a paper (or report, etc).

Each note is at least the PDF I saved (below), and perhaps some notes I made about the paper, like this: 

And this is how it looks like in Jabref:

Since there is no direct link, I might have a paper in one place but not the other, but papers that I cited in my own research in the last few years, are definitely in both.

Sharing your paper collection with others

Since Evernote allows sharing notebooks, to have a shared collection of papers all you need is to share the notebook with the people involved. For the students I was supervising, I used the “can edit” as permissions so they could also add new notes, annotate papers etc. But you could also choose “can view” option if you prefer.

Sharing a collection of 800+ papers is probably not effective 🙂 But what helps here a lot, is the tagging system of Evernote. When I add a paper to this notebook, I add several types of tags:

  • Type (paper, thesis, etc)
  • Topics (specific types of machine learning, applications etc)
  • Projects (a specific project where I might want to cite this paper)
  • “Priority” (p1, p2, p3 or p4)

I have been using the type, topics and projects for a while, but the priority was an addition after I shared the notebook. Roughly, the priorities translate as:

  • p1 – everybody in the lab should read this
  • p2 – important paper for many projects in the lab
  • p3 – relevant to some projects
  • p4 – not related to our research but more “general interest”

With these tags, you can then do queries on topic & priority. So for example if your project is on transfer learning and you want to find all papers I might suggest, the query “tag:ml-transfer & tag:p2” gets you 43 results. Still a lot, but now it’s doable to screen the results and narrow them down. 

It’s good to mention that since the notebook is originally mine, only my tags can be used within the notebook. So somebody with edit permissions would be able to add more of the tags that I use, but not add entirely new tags. 

Pros

  • The system is easy to use, paid account only needed if you want a lot of storage
  • Saves time both for me and for students
  • Less chance to miss a relevant paper
  • Everybody can use their own reference manager if they want

Cons

  • Could limit the way students explore literature
  • Limited commenting possibilities (notes from everyone appear the same by default) 
  • No true integration with a reference manager

Conclusion

This system has been quite helpful for me with several student projects. However, there are many things I am still missing, such as creating your own fields for each paper, and interacting with the annotations through a spreadsheet. (This is possible in Notion, but that is something for another post…)

However, an important quality of any system is that you actually use it. Since I already use Evernote on a daily basis, it works for me. But I’d love to know what everybody else is using for sharing literature with others – please leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter!

Keeping track of your research projects with Kanban

Following up on the post about organizing student projects, I wanted to explain a bit about how I keep track of my own projects on a slightly higher level of abstraction.

When I started doing research, I was working on one, maybe two projects at a time. But as time went by, this number can increase quite quickly. I get easily excited about new ideas and starting projects (the “shiny object syndrome”), as well as joining projects by others. Over time this led to several situations where I had more projects than I could handle, leading to delays or abandoning the project altogether (see these 9 ways to fail a project for more on this!).

My solution has been to “just” limit the number of current projects. In this post I explain the tools I use to keep track of my projects effectively.

Visual overview of all projects

The tool that I’ve found the most helpful, is to use a Kanban board. The idea behind Kanban is to “manage work by balancing demands with available capacity” (Wikipedia) – sounds exactly like what everyone needs, right?

Here is how the Kanban board in my office looks like. A card is a project/paper, and it can belong to these categories: Idea, Incubator, Doing, Preprint/Revise, Under Review, Published.

Here is how I use the categories:

  • Ideas are just that – ideas. Perhaps I read a few papers on a topic and thought “I should do something about this”. Ideas can be good for starting student projects, since I probably won’t have time to get to this topic myself.
  • Incubator is a category for projects that are a bit further than ideas (for example, there is a preliminary experiment), but that I do not want to focus my attention on just yet.
  • Doing is a category for current projects, that you want to advance every day or week. There should be as few as possible projects in here!
  • Preprint/revise is for “mostly done” projects, but that still need a bit of time investment to complete
  • Under review are papers under review, that might return to the “Preprint/revise” category in a few months
  • Published are accepted papers!
  • (Bonus) Graveyard is for projects I decided NOT to continue, you can see it in the bottom left of the board. I thought “graveyard” sounded more dignified than “abandoned” but am open to other suggestions.

Next to these categories, I use the color of the card to indicate the type of project. Green are research papers, yellow are education projects (such as my portfolio), and red are grants. You don’t see any red right now, because this is already after I decided to leave my tenure track position :). I do not include various recurrent responsibilities on this board, but you could decide to do so.

Finally, I have a horizontal divider between projects that I’m leading, and projects I’m participating in. Overall, this gives a nice overview of all research projects I’m involved in! If you want to do the same with the board in your office, you might want to get some dry-erase magnetic cards, such as:

Project overview in apps

Although most of my systems are digital, I like this visual overview in my office (or at least, before the pandemic). But this is just one way to organize things, and it might not be sufficient for you if you get distracted easily.

Fortunately, there are various ways to implement the same idea in different apps. You can have the same type of Kanban board in apps like Trello or Notion. But even apps which are not organized like a board, are suitable.

Here is an example for Todoist which I use for getting things done. Here you can group projects under other, top-level projects. If you call your top-level projects “Idea”, “Incubator” etc, you can easily see how many projects you are handling at any one time. Similar to my board, you can use the color of the project to indicate research, education etc.

But for example, even in Overleaf assigning a tag to a paper can help you achieve the same. Here’s mine, with slightly different categories.

You can see that the board and the Overleaf are not 1-to-1, because some projects can have multiple Overleaf documents, and because I’m bad at updating tags 🙂 But, at least I’ve succeeded at not putting everything in “Doing”!

Verdict

I’m happy with this system overall, and imagine I will continue using it both for work and personal projects.

A feature I am still missing, is to have an indicator of time commitment per project, and for “what’s already there” on your calendar. For example, I could imagine having actual “slots” in the Doing category, and having larger projects take up multiple slots. And when you already have many things on your calendar, the number of slots decreases. So if you hear of an app like this, let me know 🙂

Organizing student projects with scrum

Project supervision is one of the many things you do during a tenure track. Since I was already interested in project organization, I did some research, which inspired my own lab scrum setup. I discuss why and how I used scrum to organize student projects, and my take-aways from the experience. To find out more, read on!  

Inspiration

At the start of my tenure track I did a bit of research about what others had recommended, and came across several interesting papers about project organization. This is a whole post in itself, but for today’s topic, here are a few papers that I found helpful: 

Patterns for Supervising Thesis Projects

Adapting Scrum to Managing a Research Group 

LabScrum: A Case Study For Agility in Academic Research Labs

The last two papers are about a technique called scrum, which is a type of process frequently used in software development (more background here). Traditionally in this process, a team is working on the same project. This is different with several students working on different projects. Another difference is the timing, which might be slower in a research setting. Nevertheless I was inspired by the ideas in these papers and decided to try it out.  

Setup with Kanban board

Although I was excited by the idea of trying a different type of organization, I had no previous experience with scrum, and didn’t want to introduce too many things that would be overwhelming for everyone.  What follows is the setup we (myself, 4 MSc students and 2 PhD researchers) used for 6+ months, where some things are loosely based on scrum, papers I read, etc. This setup has advantages and disadvantages, which I discuss later in this post.  

The main idea was to keep track of all projects jointly, via a shared Kanban board and two weekly meetings with everyone there. Typically we did the following meetings:

  • Tuesday – group update round, planning tasks (30 – 60 min)
  • Thursday – group update round  (< 30 min)
  • Tuesday/Thursday – individual meetings in time slots as needed (30 min each)

When planning tasks, we added “post-its” (I bought these reusable magnetic ones which are pretty awesome) to the shared scrum board. We initially used different colors for different types of tasks, but using different colors for different people might be more logical.  

 For me it was important that everybody created actionable, finite tasks. So, “literature research” is not OK, but “summarize 10 papers on topic X” is. When students had exams, they included studying as a task. We didn’t have guidelines for how small or big a task could be, although in practice they were probably things that could be done in days, rather than hours or weeks.  

New tasks always started in the backlog section of the board. On Tuesdays, tasks can be moved to the “in progress” section. The idea is not too have too many “in progress” tasks at the same time. 

Every group meeting was essentially a longer “stand-up”. Each person (including me!) would briefly say something about their “in progress” tasks. This involved saying something about what was done since last time (and if the task was completed, still in progress, or deprioritized), and any problems that came up. Suggestions from others about things to try usually followed. When it was clear that I needed to spend more time with the student, or some students could help each other, additional meetings were planned. This way this meeting was an hour at most, but usually closer to half an hour.

Everyone could plan an individual meeting with me via a shared calendar with 30 minute time slots. In practice, about 4 slots would be filled each week, so I would see each person at least once in two weeks (next to the group meetings). 

Alternative with Google Slides

While the initial setup had many positive points, there were two main things missing. The first was more of an overview of what has happened / is happening in the period of a few weeks. The second was the ability to show something, such as results (bugs, etc). 

For these reasons, we switched from the Kanban board to a Google Slides presentation, where each person had two slides, one for results, and one for a 6-8 week task planning and progress. The slides had to be prepared before the Tuesday meeting. Otherwise the meeting setup was mostly the same.  

This setup provided more overview, but I also missed the structure the Kanban board provided. In the end, I was thinking about a system that would have both features, but I didn’t get the chance.  

Here is an example of how one of my Google Slides looked like, with on the left the plan as I imagined it, and on the right an illustration of progress.

Pros

I’ve already mentioned a few advantages that this system had, but here is a recap. 

First, I think this is a great way to have a “lab feeling” if you are in a similar situation to me, and do not have funded projects with multiple students or physical lab space. Although the students all did distinct projects, it did feel like a team. Getting coffee, bringing cake etc also helped of course 🙂 

Second, I saved time by not having unnecessary meetings, but without compromising my availability. Further time is saved by less repetition when explaining something, and by identifying similarities across projects, where students might be in a better position to help each other. 

Third, I think this setup improved everybody’s planning skills, but also their awareness of how planning is hard. I also participated with my own projects, and I typically got the least done because of other responsibilities. I think this is important for students to see. Students seeing each other’s project plans likely gave them more examples to learn from, and perhaps a bit of accountability.  

Cons

The disadvantages of this system, from my point of view, mostly have to do with implementation. First, it takes a while to figure out how to do everything, if you try to adapt a system to fit a different situation. There is also time involved in figuring out how/where to meet (if you don’t have a dedicated space) and/or selecting which apps you want to use. 

Second, your adaptation may miss parts that you want to have. We did not have a clear separation of meetings (such as planning only, retrospective only) or project roles (such as scrum master). Perhaps these things might have felt silly at first, but I do think they would have been beneficial.  

It’s possible that this setup might not be the preferred setup for some students, who want to keep everything about their project private. I do not have specific advice for this situation. But ultimately different labs are organized in different ways, and it’s OK that this might not be for everybody.

Verdict

Overall I would say that doing this is a worthwhile experience! Do spend more time thinking about the exact implementation beforehand, particularly what meetings there will be, who will do what, and where all the plans/tasks/results will “live”. Once you have this in place, help people stay with the process for a least a month or two to evaluate if it’s a good idea. 

Acknowledgments

This post is inspired by a discussion on Twitter, started by Antony Caravaggi and continued by Christian Baumgartner, who also sent me several follow-up questions – thanks! I’d also like to thank everyone had first-hand experience of my lab organization ideas 🙂 – Ralf Raumanns, Ishaan Bhat, Tom van Sonsbeek, Rumjana Romanova, Colin Nieuwlaat and Britt Michels. Thanks a lot! 

Using Evernote vs Todoist as your todo list

I’ve been a happy user of both Todoist and Evernote for a few years now – see my post on using Todoist and Evernote together with Google Calendar to get things done. 

However, last year following a period of illness I’ve reconsidered the tools I use. In this post I explain why I switched from Todoist+Evernote to only using Evernote, and why I later decided to go back to my trusted system. 

Downsides of Todoist

My main problem with Todoist is that it is too easy add tasks.

That might sound a bit weird. Of course the adding tasks functionality of Todoist widgets is great, and it is easy to capture all the little things you need to do. But since all tasks have the same “weight” (even if you give them different priority), your overall task list becomes too focused on not-always-important, little tasks. Although I was regularly organizing my list, just having all the other tasks there was kind of weighing on me.

A related problem is that when you add a task, you don’t see what tasks you already have scheduled. So you can be too optimistic when adding a task for “tomorrow”  when you already have various meetings and other tasks scheduled. 

Finally, Todoist has a desktop app, but it doesn’t work if you start it when you are offline. 

Evernote as your todo-list

Evernote is not a specific todo-list app, but it is possible to use it as such. You can see notes as individual todos, and then organize them via notebooks or tags, or you can create a checklist in a single note. I decided to go with the checklist approach, and created two notes  – “Current” and “Maybe”.  “Current” was for anything that was coming up, and “Maybe” for projects that I might or might not do. 

Most of the time I worked with the “Current” list, where I made a table with one row for each week, and columns for different types of tasks. I started with “work” and “home”, but later split these up into more categories, based on priority.

This system had several advantages that I missed with Todoist. When adding a task, I had to add it to a specific row, so I would already see what other tasks I had planned for then. Also, I became more aware of the weight of the different tasks, and I feel that overall my todo list became more balanced. 

This way my todo list was also accessible offline, and it was in the same app as my other project-related notes. 

Downsides of Evernote

Unfortunately, there were a few disadvantages as well, that made me miss Todoist. 

The main thing I missed was the integration with Google Calendar – in Todoist I would enter a date and time, and an event would show up on my calendar. Now I had to create a separate “Planning” calendar, and add tasks manually – which I didn’t do consistently.

Another problem was recurrent tasks, which I did once a week or once a month. In Todoist this is basic functionality, but Evernote does not have this feature – you can set a reminder for a note, but when it’s time, you have to reset the reminder yourself. 

Back together

After 2-3 months of using Evernote only, it felt good to create a list in Todoist again. I’m more mindful of the downsides and am trying to manage them better, for example by using filters for my tasks and scheduling tasks for next week on the calendar. It’s not yet the ideal system I wish I would have, but I think using it consistently does help in the long run. 

Do you have any tips of how to create a better todo-list / calendar system? Let me know in the comments!

Checklists for productivity in academia

As I get more responsibilities and work on more projects, I find myself increasingly using checklists. Especially with things that do not occur too frequently, I have to think “how did that go again, what should I not forget?”. After reading The Checklist Manifesto, where Atul Gawande discusses checklists in airplanes and in surgery – where you really don’t want to forget anything, I decided to try it out for myself. 
So far I’ve made myself checklists for the following:

  • Student starting a project  
  • Planning a conference trip  
  • Giving a talk
  • Having a paper accepted

I keep the checklists as templates in Todoist. I’ve broken down each of these into different stages (for example, before the trip and after the trip), with various one-off tasks I need to do, such as booking travel, or filling in reimbursement forms. Sometimes I add links to the tasks, which will take me to the website or Evernote note I need to complete the task.

One of my conference travel checklists in Todoist | veronikach.com

Then as soon as one of these events comes up, I copy the template to a new project, and fill in dates for each task which are suitable (this could be automated somewhat, but I prefer to have control over this). This way I will never forget all the details that need to get done.  

I like this approach and would like to apply it to more things I do in my job. For example, I’m thinking about making teaching each class into a template. Although my materials are prepared from the year before, I still need to go over the materials, post all the details on the learning environment, grade exams etc. Since I already know all these things are coming up, I might just as well add them to my todo list (and reserve time for them!) with a few clicks. As I’m trying to improve estimating the time I need for a task, I can become more and more specific with this.

It would be great to have such a checklist for every new project. I can imagine such a checklist would contain, for example, creating a directory structure for the code. These tasks are of course much easier to estimate than actually working on the project, but perhaps some day I will get there as well. 

However, there are other things I do in my job that I can plan in advance. For example, this year I have also been documenting how long I needed to prepare for lectures and to grade assignments. I can use this information to create a checklist for each course, and just repeat the checklist every year. For activities that do not take place on fixed dates, for example reviewing papers or giving talks, I could already budget hours, and move them around as needed. This would probably also help with saying no to more things.  

Do you use any checklists? Or is this an overkill? Let me know by commenting below or on Twitter!

How I Fail in Open Science

Last week I had the pleasure of giving a talk at OpenMR Benelux event, wonderfully organized by @fmrwhy.  Although the slides and a video of the talk will be available online, for those of you who prefer reading, I thought I would write a few of the things I mentioned during my talk. 

As I mentioned in my talk, I was feeling a bit like an imposter speaking at this event, since I neither do a lot of MR, nor a lot of open science”. Nevertheless I’ve decided to be open about how open my science is and share my experiences with it so far – hence the title “How I Fail in Open Science”. 

Open science during my PhD 

My story begins in 2011 when I started my PhD. After focusing on workshop papers for two years, I realized I needed journal papers to graduate. I submitted three papers that year and followed the suggestion to post them on arXiV because the review process could be lengthy. I used public datasets and a publicly available MATLAB toolbox, and since both the data and tools were online, I didn’t think it was needed to share the rest of my code. 

In 2015 the papers were finally accepted and I finished my PhD. Because the papers were already online for two years, I was able to benefit from the preprint bump. I would also occasionally get emails about the experiments in my paper. I then decided to share my (non-version controlled) experiments code to reproduce the results table in the paper. Miraculously even after two years I was still able to run my code AND get the same results. So I shared the code with a CRAPL license, which I felt absolved me from doing any other “cleaning up of the code”.

Open science during my postdoc

After starting my postdoc in 2015 I felt like I should publish as fast as possible. Instead of investigating the best tools for my project, I decided to go with my tried and trusted method. This was not a good strategy and in retrospect, I would have been much better off investing some time into switching to Python, creating clean code and so forth. In the end I didn’t publish much at all that year.

The publishing situation became even worse in 2016 when I started searching for my next job. However, since I was updating my CV often, I did also decide to share a few more things online. I also started using social media more often, and learning more about open science in general. 

Open science now

In 2017 I found myself in a tenure track position. Inspired by everything I saw on Twitter, I wanted to do everything right – switch to Python, publish in new open access journals, share everything online. I quickly discovered that this is not feasible next to all the other responsibilities you have when starting on the tenure track.

The only thing I have been doing consistently is posting preprints on arXiV. Here and there I have a paper for which I’ve shared data or code (still not version controlled), but it’s not something that happens by default. 

Why is my science not as open as I want it to be? It’s easy to say there’s too little time, but in the end it is a question of priorities. I am still influenced by my grant reviewers who tell me “that’s nice, but you should have published more”, and the funding agency who agrees with them. And although overall my experience on Twitter has been positive, people with strong opinions about what counts as open science, can be quite intimidating. 

How can I do better? I cannot change the system, but I can at least try to create a habit out of being more open. To do so I decided to draw parallels between open science and another area of my life in which I’ve had both successes and failures – running! 

Strategy 1: Start slow and focus on process

The first strategy is to start slow and focus on process. Find a thing that’s easy to do, and do it often. For running, my thing was “go for a run three times a week”. Note that there’s no distance or time – I just had to go out of the house, and even running 10 minutes was a success. If I had set a more difficult goal than that, I would get discouraged and quit – something that has happened to me several times before.

Translating this to open science, it’s a bad idea to try to do everything at once. I started with preprints and am now slowly adding sharing things online. I do this by using templates in Todoist. For example, every time I agree to give a talk, I import a fixed set of tasks, including “Create slides”, but also “Upload slides to website”.

Todoist project for the OpenMR talk, which includes preparing the talk but also sharing the slides

Strategy 2: Find accountability and support

To motivate yourself to continue with the habit you need to find accountability and support. With running, I find accountability by signing up for 10K races and then deciding that it’s probably going to be better for me to train on a regular basis. I also have a few friends who have either been running for a long time, or are just getting into it, so we can support each other. 

With sharing data and code, I feel accountable towards my students. I want them to do things better than I did myself, so I’m helping them set up their projects on Github from the start (inspired by Kirstie Whitaker). The code might still not be clean and run out of the box, but I feel like it’s an important first step.

As for support, I’m in a Slack group with other academics where we discuss this and other issues. And of course Twitter is a great place to learn new things and find people who are trying to improve their open science too. 

Strategy 3: Reward yourself

Finally, to create a habit don’t forget to reward yourself! After a race I might get a beer and a badge in my Strava app. But of course there are also long term rewards such as overall health, and being able to socialize with others. 

For open science there are also various metrics such as the Altmetric – here’s an example for a recent preprint. There are also gamified ewards, for example badges on ImpactStory. But more important is feeling the impact of your work on others, such as a thank you email, or an invitation to talk at an OpenMR event 🙂 

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Do you struggle with sharing your work online? Or do you have any other helpful strategies? Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter!

My review of #AcWriMo 2018

One of my goals for the first three months of 2019 is to write a lot of things, and to achieve this by writing (at least) 250 words a day. This is in part inspired by #AcWriMo (academic writing month) in November 2018, where I joined the challenge and found it very helpful to do so. On several of those days, I wrote reflected on this practice. In this post I share my #AcWriMo diary with you ? 

Sunday 4th of November

After two successful days of writing 250+ words for #AcWriMo2018, I failed with writing anything on day number three. It was a Saturday, and since I didn’t take the train like on the other two days, I didn’t have a set time to do my writing. In general I don’t have a habit of working in the weekend (although I do write for my blog sometimes), so I decided not to force myself and to let it go. Plus, yesterday I picked up two Dot and Pixel – two kittens – and I’ve enjoyed watching them for several hours. I hope they will become good #AcWri assistants, same as Buffy was.



The thing that I think is working for my #AcWriMo goal is having a rather small goal of 250 words. That’s about three paragraphs for me, and that doesn’t feel daunting, so it’s easy to get started. That’s why today, on a Sunday, I did manage to do it while watching the kittens play ? 
It also helps to in advance think of the topic I’m planning to write about. Ideally, I should already prepare a list of concrete paper sections or blog posts I want to finish. I’m almost there for blog posts, as I have an Evernote notebook with blog post drafts, so I can choose something from there. For papers, it is more difficult at the moment, since the ones I plan to write next at rather early stages, so I need to do more reading and/or experiments first. 


Wednesday 14th of November

Another important thing for successful #AcWri is having a set time and place to do it. The first few days of November I was doing my usual commute to work. Since I sit in the train for an hour, it’s a good time to get some writing done. It’s kind of a nice ritual, because I try to take the same train and sit in the same place, etc. Taking out my laptop and starting up Evernote just seems to complete the ritual. It also feels great to have an important task complete early in the morning! 

The days after that were more challenging though, due to the weekend and then a week off. Since my days are less structured then, it was more difficult to keep up with writing, and I often procrastinated until the evening to get it done. Having a streak of several days, plus feeling like I have to tweet about it, definitely helped with getting it done. In these days off, I’ve been only writing for my blog since I try to not work when I have time off. 

So far I’ve written most of this blog post writing on the couch, which is a place I never usually work. I like associating the blog with the couch – it feels different than sitting down at my desk ready to work. So perhaps writing in the morning while sitting on the couch is a ritual I could try to build up for when I have time off. 

Tuesday 27th of November

This weekend was not successful from an AcWri point of view. On Friday I had a lot of things to do in a limited time, so in the end I just ran out of time. On Saturday, I just forgot. Sunday I thought about it, but it was too late in the day and I decided to let it go. It’s definitely true that it’s easier to forget a habit if you miss it twice in a row. But fortunately on Monday I was able to get back to writing, even though it was for a blog post instead of my planned paper revisions. 

Verdict

Overall I really enjoyed this challenge and am definitely not planning to wait till next November to repeat it again ? I think 250 words is still a good goal, I just need a list of prompts / things to write so it’s easy to get started each day, and rituals on when and were I write. 


I hope you enjoyed this post! Would you try a challenge of writing 250 words a day? Why / why not? 

Self-care as a habit

As readers of this blog may know, I use Habitica to keep track of habits, such as writing, exercise, eating healthy – the possibilities are endless. Habitica allows you to track what you do in three ways: habits you could do multiple times a day, dailies which you do every day (or every Monday, etc) and todos. For the writing example, a habit could be writing 500 words, a daily could be writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning, and a todo could be writing a specific section of your paper. Completing any of these gives you experience, gold, items – all ways in which you could associate the habit with a reward.

Habitica also has a fourth category you can use for motivate yourself – rewards. Some rewards are defined by Habitica, such as items you can buy with gold collected from your habits. But you can also define real-life rewards, like going to your favorite restaurant, which you can buy with gold (you do still have to pay the restaurant, though!). I have not talked about this category much before, and in this blog post I explain why.

Habitica has examples of rewards you could define for yourself here. Here are a few examples that I am uncomfortable with:

  • Leisure reading
  • Call friend/relative
  • Long hot bath
  • Time alone with favorite music
  • Take a walk

For me, these are habits, not rewards. I am perfectly capable of just doing the productive things that need to be done, and not taking time for a bath or leisure reading. Not very healthy!

So instead, I intentionally add habits that are enjoyable for me to do, do not have negative effects (other than “wasting” time and perhaps a little money), but do not necessarily HAVE to be done. Next to reading and baths, here are a few other options:

  • Listening to a podcast episode. I learn a lot from various podcasts I listen, including how to be more productive, so perhaps this isn’t even such a “time waster”
  • Trying out a new recipe
  • Going out to dinner or movies. I tend to stay in a lot so it’s a nice change of pace.
  • Organizing things around the house. I realize this is a chore for many but I find it relaxing.
  • Dressing up or doing something special with my nails or make-up
  • Having friends over
  • Playing with the cats
  • Looking at photographs or notes from your “be kind portfolio

To be honest, I had a bit of trouble coming up with a few of the things above and they were not on my list. Most things I thought of straight away, were “too productive”, which just goes to show how necessary it is to pay attention to these things. Then I remembered a thread I saw on Twitter about mental health and doing things that make you happy, which had many other ideas I could borrow them.

There is one suggestion from this thread struck me the most and I will definitely be adding it to my list: “Having a day with nothing to do”

Tips for managing email as an academic

After a conference most academics probably face a fairly full inbox. In this post I share a few tips I’ve found helpful with managing my email. I am by no means an expert, but I’m happy with some of the strategies I use, which I share below.

Inbox zero

The idea of inbox zero is exactly what it suggests – once you process your email, ideally you should have ZERO emails left in your inbox. Following the “getting things done” system, I try to either handle an email immediately (if I can delete it or if I can reply quickly), or put it on my todo list for later (if I need to look things up first, can’t take action immediately, etc). Once an email is on my todo list, I archive it, so it’s not just sitting there staring at me. I can’t imagine how stressed I would be without this strategy.

I have a few things to improve though. A few emails do not fit into either category, for example if I read my email on the phone, but need to use my laptop to reply. This is not helpful since I am revisiting this email several times, instead of once.

Send later

I try not to email on evenings and weekends. The goal of this is to enforce boundaries on my work time and manage expectations of others, both with regards to when they can expect to reach me, and what I expect of them. I appreciate that people might have different working hours. Therefore, when I do email outside of my normal hours, I usually schedule the email to be sent later. I use the Streak plugin for Gmail, but there are others, like Boomerang, and Outlook has delayed sending functionality as well.

Snippets

Some of the emails I send are very similar to each other, for example with information about student positions. To avoid typing the same information over and over, I use the Snippets feature for Streak. The same functionality is possible with Canned Responses by Gmail, but I like the user interface of Streak more.

Skip inbox

For mail that’s not urgent to read, I have filters that skip the inbox, and deliver it to a folder I call “Snooze”. For me these are typically newsletters and announcements that are not personally addressed to me.

Although this type of functionality is offered by Gmail with automatically labeling emails, I prefer to define my own rules of what is important or not. This means that there is an initial time investment, every time I receive a newsletter, to create a filter for it.

Other tips?

These are the main strategies I use, but I would love to hear more of what has worked for other people – let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

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