How to use a single .bib file with multiple ShareLateX projects

I’ve been using ShareLateX, which lets you edit your .tex documents collaboratively online, for years now. I’m happy with it, except one thing: you have to have a different bibliography file per project. In this post I explain a workaround I created for this problem. It’s not beautiful and requires that you use Windows and have ShareLateX premium, but if you have a similar problem, read on!

A better workflow

If you are like me, you generally “manage” your bibliography by the following method:

  • Copy-paste .bib file from a recent project
  • Copy-paste new references from Google scholar while writing
  • Clean up all the missing fields etc, when paper is ready for submission
  • Forget you did this, and do this all over again for the next project

Sure, it’s possible to have a single master bibliography offline, and then every time you add a reference, to export the bibliography, and import it in your current projects. But this is a bit time-consuming, so I decided to find a way to automate the process a little bit. There are four steps to this:

  1. Create a clean master bibliography in Dropbox
  2. Enable syncing between ShareLateX and Dropbox
  3. Set up script to copy master bibliography to ShareLateX folders
  4. Schedule the script

Master bibliography with Jabref

The first step to a better system is to actually have a cleaned up bibliography file that you will WANT to use. I do this in Jabref, because it is as close to “just editing .bib files” as I can get, has everything I need, and is free/open source.

To finally create a single bibliography, I copy pasted the bibliographies from my MSc thesis, my PhD thesis and my papers since my PhD into a giant .bib file. This created lots of duplicates, but these can be edited in Jabref. This was quite neat, since it allowed to me to choose the “most cleaned up” version of the reference. This was a time-consuming process, but hopefully with this system I don’t have to go through it again. My master bibliography now lives in a Dropbox folder called “Bibtex”.

 

ShareLateX – Dropbox sync

The next thing that I needed is syncing between Dropbox and ShareLateX. Unfortunately this is a premium feature at this time.

If you have the syncing enabled, each paper lives in its own Dropbox folder, under Dropbox/Apps/ShareLatex. Here are mine:

Each of these folders has a .bib file. Although locally I could ensure that the projects link to my main bibliography file in Dropbox/Bibtex, I cannot do this in the cloud.  (Or, there is a way to do this but I haven’t found it, which would render this blog post obsolete).

 

Copy bibliography to project folders with a script

My “genius” solution is to copy my master bibliography to the individual project folders. Of course I don’t want to do this manually – I want an “if this then that” solution that does it for me when the bibliography is updated.

In the end I settled for a slightly simpler solution of “copy every hour between 8 and 17” (when I’m most likely to be writing). Not as elegant, but (at least in Windows) it’s the 20% of effort that gives me 80% of results.

To copy files automatically, I used a Powershell script that says what to copy and where, and the TaskScheduler, which actually runs the script.

The Powershell script is called jobBibtex.ps1 and has the following contents (you can just create it with Notepad, but be sure to save it as “other” and not as a text file):

[sourcecode language=”plain”]

$SourcePath = "C:\Users\Veronika\Dropbox\Bibtex\refs_main.bib"
$DestinationPath1 = "C:\Users\Veronika\Dropbox\Apps\ShareLaTeX\Crowd2018"
$DestinationPath2 = "C:\Users\Veronika\Dropbox\Apps\ShareLaTeX\Survey2018"

Copy-Item –Path $SourcePath –Destination $DestinationPath1 -Recurse
Copy-Item –Path $SourcePath –Destination $DestinationPath2 -Recurse

[/sourcecode]

The script now has hard-coded in it which projects it should copy to. A better version would go through all the folders in Dropbox/Apps/ShareLatex – this is the next improvement on my list.

Schedule the copying script

The last thing is to schedule the copying script. I used this tutorial to get this done, but here is a short summary. From the start menu, search for the TaskScheduler program. Once there, go to “Actions” and “Create basic task”

 

In the menu that comes up next, you need to select a name for your task (“Copy bibliograhy”) and select a trigger, for example “Daily at 8AM”. As the action, select “start a program”.

The program that you are starting is Powershell.exe, and you need to add the following argument (replace the path with wherever you saved your .ps1 script:

[sourcecode language=”plain”]

-ExecutionPolicy Bypass C:\Users\Veronika\Dropbox\Scripts\jobBibtex.ps1

[/sourcecode]

Save the task and run it to see if your .bib files were really copied!

80/20 rule

Clearly this is not a perfect solution.

  • This is a one-way sync, so editing a copied .bib file on ShareLateX will not reflect in your master bibliography. This is problematic for collaborative projects. My solution would be to have two .bib files in each project – one with the master bibliography, one with additional files your collaborators want to add (which you could later add to the master .bib file).
  • The projects which to copy to are now hard-coded in the script – it would be better if if the script would work for any new folders in Dropbox/Apps/ShareLateX
  • Copying every hour is too much, a “when updated” copy would be more neat

But, it is the 20% solution that gives me 80% of the results I wanted, and hopefully will save me time in the future.

 

Do you have similar solutions in place? Leave a comment below!

5-minute journal with Evernote and Zapier

5 minute journal with Evernote

All the productivity resources I’ve been consuming over the past year seem to agree that journaling is an essential habit that helps with everything else. See for example this blog post by Tim Ferriss or this podcast by AsianEfficiency (both my favorites).

 

There are lots of journaling apps, such as Five Minute Journal and Day One. They remind you when it’s time to journal and offer prompts on what to write, such as “what are you grateful for?”. However, I didn’t want to add new apps to my list, so I decided to maximize the apps I was already using for this purpose.

 

Evernote

My journal simply lives in a notebook in Evernote. I currently have a single note per day, with the following template, which follows the 5 minute journal prompts:

It is possible to set a reminder in Evernote that will alert you when it’s time to journal, but I have a daily in Habitica that helps me remember.

 

Zapier

That’s great, but doesn’t this mean you have to copy and paste the template each time you want to journal?

No – that’s where Zapier comes in. Here I have a “zap” that automatically creates the note with the template each day, so on the day itself I only have to open it. Zapier takes you through the process of creating the zap, but here are the steps:

  1. Create a trigger using Schedule and set it to every day, or however often you want to journal.
  2. Create an action using Evernote and select the “append to note” action.
  3. Enter the name of the notebook (“Journal”), the name of the note (I use the date, this is provided as one of the defaults)
  4. For the content of the note, copy paste template below* Edit the text, formatting as you prefer.
  5. Test the zap and you are done! Happy journaling!

 

*I have tried to update the code so that it’s only needed to specify the border once, but this removed the formatting – let me know if you have a better/neater solution for this!

[sourcecode language=”plain”]

<table style="border: 1px solid black;">

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Morning</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
I am grateful for
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
What would make today great?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Affirmation: I am…
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Evening</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #1
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #2
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #3
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
How could today have been even better?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

</table>
[/sourcecode]

 

 

5 strategies for saying no more often

5 strategies for saying no

“I should say no more often”, I often say to myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For me the hardest part is not actually declining the request, but deciding whether to do it. There are just so many interesting opportunities and I would love it if I could accept all of them! As a result, often other projects (cough writing cough) tend to suffer. Then I start feeling anxious and guilty about all the things that I need to do, and it’s a vicious circle from there. Since the demands on my time are increasing, I have been (proactively) thinking how to approach this. This post covers a few strategies I have found helpful so far for saying no.

5 strategies for saying no

 

1. Does it help or hurt my goals?

Sounds logical, right? If you can do this well, you wouldn’t even be reading this post. But for me this is the most counterintuitive strategy. The things I say yes to always end up being helpful, perhaps even in ways I cannot imagine at the time of the request. By that logic, I should say yes to everything, which is of course not a viable strategy.

I’ve started realizing that the problem is that my goals are not defined clearly enough. I recently read “The Productive Researcher” by Mark Reed, where he gives several examples of his goals. One goal is something along the lines of “[important research thing here] while not being away from home more than 2 evenings a week”. Very specific and actionable, so I’m definitely adopting this one.

 

2. Data, data, data!

Keep track of how much you are doing already. For example, I always felt I couldn’t decline a review request – it was an interesting paper, an important journal, a nice editor, etc. Then I realized I was reviewing WAY more than my “share”, roughly defined as three times the number of papers you submit yourself. Now that I’m aware of this number, it is easier to say no.

It hasn’t been an issue yet, but I imagine that in future I might impose similar quotas on other types of activities, such as committees or travel.

3. Keep a list of things you’ve said no to

Next to my CV of Failures, this year I have also started keeping a list of opportunities I have said no to. This includes things I didn’t feel I should do (such as too many reviews), but more importantly, things I wanted to do but decided not to overschedule myself.

Just as the CV of Failures felt rewarding to put together, this list too helps me feel better about declining opportunities. Now, it is just a list of things I declined, but in the future, I might add “did I regret it”, to convince me myself it’s OK to say no.

 

4. No Committee

Get a few people together to join your own personal “no committee”. When you are doubting about something, your committee votes whether you should say yes or not! For a more in-depth explanation, see the post on Get a Life, PhD, where I first found out about this concept.

I find that it is not actually necessary to interact with your committee about decisions. You just have to imagine talking to them and think about the advice they would give.

 

5. If it’s not a hell yes, it’s no

Heard this one through Tim Ferriss (either his podcast or  “Tools of Titans”, which I highly recommend). Basically the idea is that if you are doubting already (it’s not a “hell yes!”), you should say no.

 

***

That is all I have so far – do you have any other strategies you find helpful? Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

Keeping up with habits while travelling

I just returned from MICCAI, where I had a great time, met some wonderful people and got lots of new ideas! But, other side effects include sleep deprivation and generally not feeling very healthy because I haven’t been keeping up with my habits on Habitica. In this what I’m aiming to be short post, I share some experiences of keeping up with habits while travelling.

In Habitica you can “rest in the tavern”, which pauses your daily habits. This means not doing your habits for the day will not hurt you and your party. However, you can still complete the habits if you want and get rewarded for it, but the reward only benefits you, not your party (i.e. you don’t do damage to a boss, if your party is on a quest).

I think this is the first trip since I started using Habitica, which was several days AND in a different enough timezone. On other trips, I would usually not use the tavern feature, but instead disable the 1-2 dailies that I would not complete. But with the time difference, and having to prepare things on top of the conference, I thought the tavern was the best choice.

What I noticed when filling in the habits when I would open the app, is that most habits fell into three categories:

  1. Completed, but without thinking about it, such as walking 10K steps (my average for the conference is 15K!)
  2. Did not complete, but could have done so, such as stretching
  3. Could not possibly complete, such as exercise with weights which I didn’t bring with me

Since I knew no habits were going to hurt me and others, I didn’t even really try to “check in” with myself and see if there were habits I still needed/wanted to do. That’s too bad, because several of them are really good for me, and can be done in under 10 minutes.

I think a better strategy would have been to disable habits in category 3 for a while, and still try to complete habits in category 2. It would be great if Habitica had an option to “customize” you Tavern experience, but in the absence of that, here is how I think I will implement this next:

  • Create a tag “Off during travel”
  • Add the tag to all dailies which might fall into the “could not possibly complete” category
  • Before going on a trip, filter dailies to only see “Off during travel” list
  • Go through each displayed daily, and unselect all days Monday-Sunday, so the daily is never “on”
  • Select the days again after the trip

If you use Habitica, would you use this type of method? Or do you prefer the Tavern as it’s available now, without any pressure?

How to use Todoist and Habitica together

Recently I have written a few posts about how I use Todoist and Habitica, a habit tracker (check out my posts on decision fatigue, food, and exercise).

It can easily seem that there is overlap between the two. For example, if you want to run 10K, you could schedule a recurring task “go for a run” in Todoist, or you could add “go for a run” as a habit in Habitica. Or you could try to do both, and sync the two apps by hand – the horror! In this post I describe a few alternatives I have tried to use Todoist and Habitica together, and the system that I currently use.

1. Daily Most Important Tasks

My first attempt at using the apps together was a Habitica daily, “Add 3 MITs (most important tasks) to Habitica”. These are three tasks that advance your important projects, and, if these tasks are the only things you get done, you would be satisfied with the day. So every morning, I would go through Todoist, decide my MITs, add them to Habitica, and (hopefully) complete them by the end of that day.

I think I abandoned this system because I tried to add “actions”, like “Start working on task A”, to Habitica, since I knew that “Task A” was not feasible within a day. Breaking down tasks is something I need to improve in general, so while it didn’t work for me at the time, I think it is a good way to use Todoist and Habitica together.

My Habitica avatar from June 2017 – who wouldn’t want to complete tasks to be able to buy pirate gear?

2. Use Zapier

Zapier is a service that connects different apps together. It waits for a trigger in one app – for example, a new task in Todoist, and then performs an action in another app – for example, creating a new task in Habitica. This process is called a “zap”, and with a free account, you can have five free different zaps. Another zap could be, that if you complete a task in Habitica, Zapier checks off the corresponding task in Todoist. You can read more about setting this up on the Habitica Wiki.

There are a few options available, for example only syncing a single project. This is what I did, since I have 100+ tasks in Todoist, and I didn’t want to see all of them in Habitica. I chose an important, but not urgent personal project, and for a while, it was working great. But then I made a mistake – I added sub-tasks to one of the tasks in Todoist, which all showed up as individual tasks in Habitica. I disabled the zap shortly afterwards – way too overwhelming.

Another option is not to have a one-to-one correspondence between Todoist and Habitica. For example, when you complete a task in Todoist, you could increment a “Completed Todoist task” habit in Habitica. This is something I might try net.

3. Use Todoist for “will do”, Habitica for “should (not) do”

Todoist is great for keeping track of what I need to do when. I use it for both one-time (writing a paragraph for a paper) and recurrent (cleaning the kitchen) tasks. I will probably procrastinate on these tasks, but I will do them eventually. Another way to see these tasks is that they are more outcome-oriented, i.e. in the end they add up to a written paper or a clean house.

Habitica helps me finish the “will do” tasks more effectively, for example, by rewarding me when I write for 1 pomodoro (What is this?), or by cleaning the dishes right after dinner. These things are also a bit less outcome oriented – there are obvious benefits to them, but the reward (a paper or a clean house) is further away.

Habitica also helps me to NOT do things, such as checking email the first thing in the morning. Again, not checking email in the morning has benefits – see this post for some examples – but it’s not a really a task, and simply not checking email will not add up to a finished project.

This system means that I end up never using the todos.  But, the todo feature is very motivating, so I came up with a way to use it anyway!

I use the todo feature to keep track of difficult habits that I want to do at least X times within a period of time. Let’s take reading as an example. “Read 10 pages” is a habit for me, but I don’t do it often enough. If I start reading, I never read just 10 pages by the way – but these bursts of reading should happen more often, if I want to develop the habit of “reading more”.

Habitica does have counters for habits, but these do not REALLY remind me I should do the “read 10 pages” habit more often. Instead, I create a multi-part todo “Read next book”, which I split up into five parts, based on the number of pages. Then each time I’m reading, I get a small reward for the “read 10 pages” habit, but I also have an overview of my how much I should still read. Over time, the “read next book” todo becomes red, motivating me to hurry up with the habit and get the much larger reward for the entire thing. I’m actually starting on a fresh book today:

4. Use Todoist for work, Habitica for personal

Perhaps another way to divide tasks between Todoist and Habitica is to split up work and personal projects. It is not the system I use, since there is overlap. For example, I’m reading a book that is helpful for my job, and interesting to me personally.

However, as you might have noticed from my posts, my Habitica is biased towards self-care. Not that that’s strictly “personal” – I need to be healthy & sane to be able to do my job well. But the types of habits I’m trying to build up, such as exercise, tend to be put on the back-burner a lot, especially when things are stressful at work. Adding these “should do” habits to Habitica helps me to prioritize them in a way that I wouldn’t be able to achieve with a task manager alone.

More examples?

Do you use a task manager and/or habit tracker? I would love to hear about your reasons to use only one or the other, and your approach if you are using both!

GTD with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar (Part 2)

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | https://www.veronikach.com

This is the second post about how I get things done (GTD) with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar. Now that everything is safely captured in Todoist and Evernote, what do I do? It’s time for the organize step – sorting through everything you captured and getting the important things into your agenda – Google Calendar in my case.

I do this during a weekly review, usually on Friday (at work) or Saturday (at home). I am quite strict with not doing personal projects at work and not working during the weekend, but the weekly review – which covers both types of projects – is something I can’t get around. Since my inboxes (Todoist and Evernote) are combined, it’s not logical to go through the process I describe below twice.

Evernote Inbox Zero

The first thing I do is sort through everything in the Evernote inbox, where all notes were captured. The whole structure of my notebooks looks roughly like this:

  • Inbox – notebook where everything goes by default and which will get emptied out in this section
  • Ideas  – “maybe/later” notebook
  • Work – notebook stack
  • Blog – notebook stack
  • Personal – notebook stack
  • Snooze – notebook stack
A few of my Evernote notebooks. I use numbers and dots to make sure the notebooks are sorted the way I want.

Main notebooks

Inbox and Ideas are single notebooks, while all others are are notebook stacks, containing several notebooks related to a context or area of responsibility. In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actively create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something.

In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actually create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something. In Personal, I have a “Mean plan” notebook and notebooks for different types of recipes, with drag-and-drop in between.

The Snooze stack if for notebooks that I don’t use very often. For example long-term projects, such as assembling a portfolio for my teaching qualification. This is something I need to pay attention to, but not every week.  I also have a true Reference notebook, with things like manuals for appliances.

Ideas notebook

All other notes (“maybe”) go into the giant Ideas notebook. Since this is a single notebook, I add as many tags as possible, to maximize the chance of finding the note when I might need it. A recent revelation was that I shouldn’t use only topics (academia, health, AI) but also the type of note (article, Twitter thread, website) and what I would use it for (advice to share on Twitter, example to use as inspiration). I fail to do this consistently, but I try not to think about it too much, and use too many tags rather than too few. Over time, patterns in which tags I’m using more are starting to emerge, so I can merge and delete tags as needed.

What this accomplishes is that the things I might want to, but don’t have to do, are out of sight in the Ideas notebook, and I can focus my attention on current projects. But these ideas are not lost forever! For example, if for a blog post I’m looking for content to include, I will search through the Ideas notebook, and process the relevant notes, which I will afterwards move to “Blog: shared content”.

Verdict

I’ve reorganized my Evernote structure a couple of times now and am still not entirely happy with it. Here are a few other ones I tried and why I changed things again:

  • An identical structure to Todoist. But an Incubator stack in Evernote became too complicated because I wanted to already categorize all notes I might need one day. And of course, a Reference project doesn’t really make sense in Todoist.
  • Single notebook for area of responsibility (for example just “Blog”) and using tags more. But, I quite like seeing at a glance how many posts I still want to write vs how any posts I’ve written. Also, it is faster to drag and drop posts between notebooks, rather than updating a tag from “draft” to “published”.
  • Organizing my notebook stacks into “Current” (where the drafts go) and “Reference” (where the published posts go), but this wasn’t as convenient for my drag-and-drop process. I also found myself too distracted by all the other, not-blog-related, current projects.

But, I have also decided I have already spent too much time on this, which is not productive. The idea is to use this structure, and update it as I go.

Todoist Inbox Zero

Next I move on to the Todoist inbox. Here the structure looks like this:

  • Inbox
  • Incubator (Work and Personal)
  • Current (Work and Personal)
  • Snooze (Work and Personal)

The inbox is a single task list, and all others have task lists related to different projects. Since I tried to capture only actions that fit into my projects, achieving inbox zero should be simple. For each todo, I first review whether that is indeed the case, and if not, the todo goes to Evernote. For all remaining todos, I do the following:

  • Use an action verb if it doesn’t already have one (to be a better collaborator to my future self)
  • Move it to a project in Incubator, Current or Snooze
  • Add an (approximate) date
  • (Optional) Add labels

In GTD the idea of labels is to provide context, for example, where you need to be, who you need to talk to, or how much energy you need. Then you can batch tasks from different projects by context, such as doing all low energy tasks at the end of the day. I don’t use this feature a lot, probably because I don’t have a lot of different contexts, but I’m planning to experiment with this more. The label I do use is “waiting for”, since it involves sending reminders, which lends itself well to batch processing.

Next 7 days

Now I look at what Todoist has scheduled for me in the next 7 days. I use this to decide what really needs to be done next week, and what I could postpone. The meetings I already have in Google Calendar, also influence this. I don’t want to divide my attention between too many different projects, so identify clusters / projects of focus for next week, and postpone other todos.

In Todoist, for the projects of focus (usually Current – Work projects), I go through their individual task lists and break up the tasks that I want to work on into smaller, actionable tasks. I then give these smaller tasks  a specific day and hour. I usually schedule high energy tasks like writing in the morning, and everything else in the afternoon.

My calendar after giving a few of my Todoist tasks a specific hour. Not a lot of meetings – it’s summer!

With the recent two-way integration between Todoist and Google Calendar  these tasks now appear as 1-hour events on my calendar. Now I can change the length of the tasks, drag and drop the tasks between days, etc, as I would with calendar events. Tasks which only have a day, but not an hour in Todoist, appear as all-day events in Google Calendar. I try to convert these into scheduled-by-hour tasks as much as possible, as this helps me to get a better overview of how much time I spend and how many things I actually work on.

Verdict

The integration is very recent, and it’s missing a couple of features I think would be very helpful. Ideally I would like to sync events based on the projects and tags they have. Scheduling a 5-minute task isn’t logical either as an all-day event, or as an hour-event, so I would prefer to have a label (@5min) which is excluded from syncing.

Another functionality I’m missing is the amount of information provided in the task when synced to Calendar. For example, I have a project for a class I’m teaching with high-level tasks for each lecture, like “Lecture Segmentation”, and actionable subtasks like “Outline lecture”. Google Calendar right now only shows “Outline lecture”, which could get confusing if you are responsible for several courses. It would also be helpful to be able to click on the calendar event, and directly go to the corresponding project in Todoist.

Get things done!

If I did all the steps above properly, my next week is already planned. On Monday I can just go to the office, and start on the tasks I’ve queued up for myself, without spending energy on making decisions. And now, it is time for the weekend!

If you have any examples how you or other people set up their organization system, please share below!

GTD with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | https://www.veronikach.com

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | http://www.veronikach.com

I’ve talked about the planning system I’ve recently adopted in a few of my progress reports, but I realized there wasn’t a single place I could refer people to if I wanted to explain it to somebody. Since the system is still evolving, I thought it would be helpful for myself to summarize it, as a way of figuring out where I might still need to tweak things. A lot of these ideas are based on Getting Things Done (if you haven’t read the book, see a short explanation by LifeHacker) with additional inspiration from podcasts, blog posts and conversations with others like Felienne and Noeska.

Goals

The goals of the system are to

  • keep me focused on important projects, but not forget everything else
  • give me insight into how much I’ve already done
  • not overschedule my time / say no more often
  • not get overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done
  • eliminate decisions on what to do next

Ultimately, get more important things done in less time and with less stress! A rather ambitious goal, and the system is definitely not doing all of these things for me yet, but it’s a start. Rather than the five steps of GTD, I see my system as just two steps: capture and organize. As I was writing this post I realized it’s a bit more information than I thought, so today I present only step one: capture everything!

Capture everything

I have never really had problems with forgetting to do something I promised, failing to start a project on time, or missing a deadline. So when I read GTD, the “capture everything” idea seemed a bit unnecessary. But it has been a life changer!

My rule is: as soon as I think of something I (might) need or want to do in the future, no matter how vague it is, I have to capture it in Todoist or Evernote immediately. I tend to use Todoist for actions I’m quite sure I will do, like:

  • send a reminder to a collaborator
  • upload my recent paper to arXiV
  • buy printer paper

Evernote, on the other hand, is for ideas and “maybe” actions:

  • idea for a project around the house
  • an article I want to read
  • a piece of advice I want to remember

The most important thing, however, is to just choose one of the two and not spend too long thinking about it. The capturing must happen as soon as possible, so I tend to only add a keyword or two, and then organize later (this is what part 2 of this post is about).  The capturing happens in several ways below.

Quick access widgets on my phone

Both Todoist and Evernote have awesome widgets for your phone (Android in my case, but I’m sure there are other versions too). When I drag the top bar which houses all the tiny icons like battery downwards, I see the following:

So within two clicks (dragging the bar downwards and then tapping the “Add task” or “Add note” widgets), I can start capturing!

I use these widgets extensively when I’m walking somewhere, doing things around the house, and in conversations where I wouldn’t normally be taking notes. For example, I’ve started doing this with all sorts of recommendations from others, for example for podcasts. In work meetings I actually tend to use pen and paper because I write faster and I don’t want to use my phone the whole time. Then I transfer everything into Todoist/Evernote as soon as I’m in my office again.

Todoist plugin for Gmail

A trap that’s easy to fall into is to let your email dictate your day. Most emails have some todos associated with them, and it’s tempting to handle these first, before starting “real work”. Not anymore with Todoist plugin for Gmail. This plugin adds a button which lets you create a todo from an email. I do this for two types of emails – emails that will need time to respond to, and emails I need to follow up on.

As an example of emails that need time to respond to, I’m using a reminder email to complete my reviews for a conference (I had returned the reviews already at that point). Since I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do this when I received the email, I would create a todo out of it by clicking the Todoist button (right of the Labels button).

This opens up a Todoist window, which already has the email’s subject (as description) filled in, and possibly dates that might be involved. For example, here is  reminder email (I returned my reviews already, but as an example) about returning reviews where I have already pressed the Todoist button:

The subject is automatically used as a description, and July 16th is highlighted, because Todoist extracted this from the email’s subject. Since this date is now in the past, Todoist suggests today – July 22th, instead. From here, you can edit the date and description, add any projects or labels associated with the todo, and click “Add Task”. I tend to only adjust the date to when I intend to do the task,  and the description.

This description is quite good already, but I would still probably adjust it to something with an action verb, like “Complete last NIPS review”. Once I add the todo, I archive the email! This way the email is out of my inbox (inbox zero is awesome!) and I don’t have to worry about it until later when Todoist will remind me about it. In the meanwhile, I can focus on important projects. This archiving was scary at first, but this goes away with time.

Another way I use this plugin is for emails I need to follow-up on.  These are typically emails where somebody promises to do something I need by a certain date, or emails where I’m asking for something I need first.  Then I add it to Todoist with a “Send reminder about X” description, and a date at which the reminder feels appropriate.

This part of the system isn’t as smooth, since it can only be done on existing emails. If you are sending the first email of a thread, you will have to go to “Sent” and add the email to Todoist from there. Another issue is what to do after an unsuccessful reminder. Now I just reschedule the todo, so I can send another reminder later, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what I actually did. Any ideas on how to handle this are welcome!

Email forwarding to Evernote

If an email contains some information I might want to use, but I’m not sure exactly when I will need it, I forward it to Evernote. Some examples:

  • Procedures on how to do something, e.g. filling in reimbursement forms
  • Newsletters with great content which I might want to use as inspiration someday
  • Happy emails, e.g. “thank you” emails or papers getting accepted.

Share to Evernote

Evernote offers more ways to save to it, such as the Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome desktop, and “Share via” option that many Android apps have, and where Evernote comes up as an option if you have it installed. Some examples:

  • A website I like the layout or structure of and want to use as inspiration
  • A website of a person I might want to contact
  • An article I might want to read
  • An article I already read, but want to share with others
  • A Twitter thread with good advice or opinions
  • Opening times of a store I always forget the name of
  • A picture of an item I might want to buy
  • A picture of an event poster, that I might want to attend

Perhaps I should mention here that another rule I have for capturing is that I HAVE to use Todoist or Evernote. Not “leave it on the table where I will see it”, “I’ll just write it down over here” or “I’ll just add it to my favorites”. This part isn’t always perfect, but I’m improving, and writing this post actually helped me identify problem areas (leaving things on the table).  Thanks! 🙂

What’s next?

Phew! Now all the thoughts that might bother me when I should be writing, are safely stored in Todoist or Evernote. But, it’s all bit messy at the moment – two inboxes full of random todos, ideas, articles and whatnot. In the next post  I will about the organizing part of the story, and where Google Calendar finally comes into play.

Why playing computer games is easy but writing a paper is hard

This post contains some thoughts about a recent conversation I’ve had with my fellow Habitica group members @AidanBudd and Valerie about why it’s enjoyable to play computer games, but not so enjoyable to write a paper.

Games

I think many games are engineered to be enjoyable in a way that it’s easy to lose track of time. This is a function of several features that many games have a common:

  • receiving an immediate reward
  • continuous feedback that allows to adjust actions
  • being able to see improvement over time

For example, many games start out with an level where it’s easy to learn how the game works and earn points or collect items, so the activity starts out with a reward. During the game you are continuously aware of how well you are doing, for example based on a score, or because you can predict the outcome of your actions based on previous experience with the game. Lastly, the game continuously gets more difficult, but as you are often practicing by playing it, you can handle more and more challenging situations.

[The above is more true of recent games like Candy Crush than for example the quest games I’ve played in the 90’s. These often gave you zero direction where to start or could end up in a “dead end” situation where you can never solve the game due to an earlier decision. While this could be a very frustrating game for a beginner, I think with more experience it’s still enjoyable to solve these type of challenges.]

 

Flow

In other words, games have a good “challenge-skill” balance that contributes to the feeling that time is going so quickly. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, people with more complicated last names than mine exist) calls this balance one of the components of “flow” – being completely immersed in an activity or “in the zone”.


You can probably think of other enjoyable activities you call hobbies which fit this definition. I’m always fascinated by people for whom running is a hobby – you get to do something fun AND become healthier at the same time! But if you are like me, you can’t “just” take up running is a hobby because of the challenge-skill balance. The immediate feedback is discomfort. Then you are likely to avoid going running because of this discomfort, and once you do get to it again, you probably won’t see enough improvement that will motivate you to continue. And that’s not a way to develop a hobby!

Writing a paper, in many cases, also doesn’t have this balance. You might already fear that the task is too big, so if you sit down to start writing, but nothing comes out, you get demotivated, so there is no immediate reward. The task becomes only more daunting, and every time you get stuck you feel like you have not improved at all. Since you are not enjoying the task, it will be easy to get distracted and procrastinate, making it even less likely that you will produce a result you are happy with.

The features will be there, but over a longer scale of time, for example, if your paper gets published, or you start noticing that after several papers, it takes you less time to finish one. But since this reward/feedback/improvement is not immediate, so you might not be too excited to start, or to continue writing.

 

Flow through habits?

If you want an activity you SHOULD be doing, be it running or writing, to be easier, you need to find ways to:

  • get a reward for the activity
  • get feedback
  • do it long enough until you see improvement

This will help to improve the challenge-skill balance, and hopefully help in turning the activity from an “ugh” to something you genuinely look forward to.

 

Habitica

For me this is where Habitica comes in. First, I define habits – activities that I know are relatively easy to accomplish, such as writing for 1 pomodoro (rather than finishing a paper), or just going out for a run (regardless of how quickly I do it). I get an immediate reward in Habitica each time I accomplish one of these items.

Habitica also keeps track of how often I do each habits – habits I’m keeping up with are shown in green, OK habits in yellow and poor habits in red. For habits, there is a counter which tracks how often you did a habit, which resets every day, week or month. This shows at a glance how well I’m doing. If there is too much red, maybe I need to reduce the number of goals I’m trying to accomplish and/or make it easier for myself to earn a reward. If everything is green, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty level!

For dailies (habit that you set to do every X days), Habitica keeps track of streaks – how many times in a row you have successfully completed your habit. Longer streaks are quite encouraging, and motivating not to break Together with the immediate reward, this encourages me to keep up with the habit, even if I’m not yet noticing results “in real life”.

 

A few of my avatars, November 2016 to June 2017

 

Results!

Maybe it sounds a bit magical, but after using Habitica for a few months I AM noticing results in real life. For writing this post, I even checked my Fitbit, and decided to share some results with running, from early May and end of June. The round is the same, but I can run it without stopping and a few minutes faster (although I wasn’t specifically targeting either of these things, just showing up).

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
My usual round, early May

 

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
Same round, end of June

With writing, I’m noticing that it happens more and more often that I don’t realize the Pomodoro is over, and just continue – which is great for moving projects along.

But it’s not just writing or running. I’m enjoying the overall challenge of translating a goal into habits, thinking of different parallels between activities like writing and running, and thinking of how I can improve further.

An extra benefit is, although your goals may not seem related, tackling several problems this way exercises the same muscles of not forgetting what you *should* be doing, focusing more, and getting things done even if you don’t have the motivation. For example, stretching every morning motivates me to work on an important writing project every day.

And now that this blog post is finished… I’m afraid I have no excuse for going on that run! 🙂

5 more apps to improve your productivity

Just a quick post today – I share 5 more apps that I recently discovered that are helping me be more productive.

Twilight

Twilight reduces the blue light from your phone that keeps you awake at night, and turns it into red light, while dimming the screen. You can control when you want this to happen (following the sunset and sunrise at your location, or at a fixed time) and how strong the effect is. I have mine set pretty high, so I immediately notice it’s time to put the phone away and wind down.

Bonus: An alternative is f.lux, which exists for multiple platforms including your desktop (thanks to @rebeccalinnett for the tip!)

 

Fitbit

I recently bought a Fitbit Alta HR with the goal of improving my step count (exercise is great for your productivity!). But an expected benefit of the Fitbit and the related app was that it gave me more insight into my sleep. I thought I was doing pretty well by going to bed around 22:00 and waking up at 6:00 – that’s 8 hours, right? Fitbit knows better, because it tracks your sleep stages, including the time you spend awake when just going to bed, or when waking up during the night. Here’s one of my reports:

Turns out I might be sleeping a whole hour less than I thought (and waking up 34 times apparently?). Oops! Now that I know this I try to go to bed earlier to get at least 7.5 hours of actual sleep, which feels awesome the next day.

 

Coffitivity

Ever feel very productive in a cafe? Well, Coffitivity now brings the cafe to your desk! It’s just a radio channel with cafe background sounds. It is a bit similar to focus@will, which I wrote about in my previous post, but focus@will has different channels and costs around $10 after 1 month – unlike Coffitivity, which is free.

Side note: although I was previously promoting focus@will, I recently unsubscribed. First, the pricing wasn’t very transparent – I had to log out of my account to see what plans cost. Once logged out, I saw that the plans have been lowered in price with respect to what I was still paying – with no notification to me. Not endorsed.

 

Forest

Forest is based on the idea of the Pomodoro technique – working without distractions for a period of time (say, 25 minutes) and then taking a break. Only now, while you are working, the app is growing a virtual tree. However, if you get distracted (for example if you pick up your phone and use a different app), the tree dies. The app also exists for Chrome and can help to block websites you find distracting. If you buy the app for EUR 2.19, you can link your phone and browser and sync your progress. Here’s my tiny forest so far:

 

 

Bonus: Forest is also growing real trees

 

Rescuetime

Rescuetime gives you insight into where you are spending the time you are using your computer and phone and whether it’s productive or not. It works out of the box, with default settings for what is considered productive or not, but you can adjust these if you like. Each week, you get a productivity like this:

For example, I can see that I managed to spend 7 hours in total using Twitter, which is more than I spent on using email. You can also set goals for how much (or how little) you use different apps or categories. Above you see I have a goal of “Geography Time”, which is a quiz app I’m using to improve my geography trivia.

Rescuetime has both a free and a paid version, which offers extra features like notifications about your progress. For me, the free version already feel sufficient because of other habits I have in place (such as uninstalling Twitter from my phone unless I’m at a conference) are helping me to stay focused.

For an in-depth review of the possibilities of Rescuetime, check out this blog post. It’s written by TimeDoctor – another app to track your time, which I haven’t had the chance to try yet – but maybe that’s something for my next post about apps!

 

Do you have any apps that you use and that are helping you to be productive during the day? 

 

How I use Habitica to improve my diet

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – specifically, to improve my diet. See also an earlier post how I use Habitica to improve my exercise.

I don’t follow a special diet, but I already eat relatively healthy – an inheritance from some earlier dieting years. But a side effect is that food is often my mind, because I’m always busy with optimizing between satisfying a craving, eating on time (so I don’t get too hungry), eating healthy, not wasting food etc.

Here is a typical example. I decide what I feel like for dinner while coming home from work. Already a bit hungry, I stop by the store, and look through their recipe suggestions or what’s on sale. In my mind I match what I feel like having and what’s available to a recipe that I know. I start collecting the groceries. Then I see something interesting in the store, and consider changing my plan. Or I remember I still have this ingredient at home. During this process, I get hungrier and hungrier… In the end, I might give up and get a pizza instead – and probably feel bad afterwards.

This is all way too much unproductive thinking – therefore perfect for building habits and eliminating decision fatigue! I achieve this by just two habits: meal planning and bringing lunch to work.

Meal plan

I have a daily that repeats only on Saturday, that involves selecting 4 dinner recipes and doing groceries. This seemed like a big change to implement for me, but the benefits were so obvious that I didn’t have to wait long for this to become a habit. The catalyst was probably Evernote – as I was clipping recipes, I realized I finally had ONE place with all my recipe ideas. It was easy to see a recipe and say “oh, I haven’t had this in a while – I should get the ingredients next time I’m at the store!”. Multiply that times 4, and you have a meal plan! Here are some of my favorites:
I move the selected recipes to a different notebook, so it’s easy for me to find them once I’m cooking. I then add all the ingredients I don’t have yet to Todoist. In the store, I actually check off the ingredients I put in my basket as I collect them. Perhaps there are specialized apps that streamline this process (i.e. add the ingredients once you select a recipe), but for me this works because I already use Evernote and Todoist often.

Home-made lunch

This is a daily that repeats on all work days. Since I leave the house pretty early, to achieve this I need to prepare my lunch the day before. To simplify things, I just double the amount I prepare for dinner, and bring it with me the next day. Hooray for microwaves!
Notice that I have 4 dinners, but 5 lunches. This is because from time to time dinners with friends, lunches at work, etc come up.  Some leftovers therefore get postponed to other days.

Result

By batching my decision-making into one day, I have 5 days worth of (relatively) healthy meals, that use ingredients I already have at home, and that save me money. During the week, I still have to cook, but since I often prepare the same dishes, this becomes less demanding. All of this frees up my brain to do more interesting things 🙂

Are you considering trying out a meal plan, or maybe you are already an expert at this and have some advice for others? Leave a comment below!

 

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