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!
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 – 913 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. 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 900+ 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.
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
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
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!
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.
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!
One of the new things I had to do during my first year on the tenure track was to design a course. I have not designed entire courses before, but this was a great experience that I learned a lot from, and even managed to integrate my research with my teaching. As I am writing about this in my teaching portfolio, I thought I could share some of the insights in a blog post as well, that could be helpful to others in a similar situation.
The goal was to design a project course on image analysis for first year students. As most courses at my university, this would be a 5 ECTS course and run for 8 weeks (+2 weeks for evaluation/exams). A project course meant that many of the learning goals focused on (already defined) project skills. My job was to create an assignment on which students could work together. A first year course meant that I could not assume a lot of prior knowledge of the students. I also had to align my course with the other existing project courses, connecting theory, modeling and experiments. And of course, I wanted to create a course that was fun.
I started designing the course early on – as I started my job in February 2017, while the course would only start in November 2017. I used the other project courses in our department, and other courses I could find online as inspiration. I also searched for information about how to organize group projects, and what aspects of projects students like or dislike. I saved all of this Evernote and later used these notes during brainstorming.
During brainstorming, it became clear I wanted to add real-world components to the course, such as having a client for the assignment and gathering data. I also wanted to design the course in such a way that success was not too dependent on programming skills. So, I needed an idea which had all these components, and somehow involved analyzing medical images.
The project I settled on was extracting visual properties, like “asymmetry”, from images of skin lesions. Dermatologists look at such properties when making a diagnosis, and by automatically measuring such properties, we can design machine learning algorithms (which students will come across later in their studies).
I found a client for the assignment – the developers of the app Oddspot, which asks the user questions about the lesion, and then calculates a risk score. The developers could be interested in extending the app with imaging, and the students’ assignment was to investigate the possibilities. This way I had the basics for the theory – which features to measure in images, the model – an algorithm that actually does this, and the experiment – testing whether the measurements were effective.
I thought that another real-life component would be for the students to gather data. My first idea was to gather images of skin lesions with smartphones. But my own phone was not good enough to produce good quality images so I doubted this would work. Instead, I decided to use a public dataset from the ISIC melanoma detection challenge.
To still have a data gathering process, I asked each group of students to visually assess the features they were planning to measure with the algorithms. This way, even if a group would not be able to get their algorithms to work, they could still perform experiments – for example, by looking at interobserver agreement.
The project courses are assessed with a final report and a presentation. I decided to replace this traditional presentation with a Youtube video, aimed at a more general audience, such as prospective students. I thought this would allow for more creativity than a traditional presentation, but also build in some accountability, since the presentation could in fact be watched by other people.
As I was thinking of all these things, I was writing the guide that the students would get from me, to try to understand if any important information was missing, and filling in required documents related to the design of the course – for example, which learning goal would be assessed in which assignment.
During the course
Since this was a project course, I actually gave only one lecture to the students, where I talked about image analysis, measuring features in images, and of course explaining the assignment. After that, the students met in groups, together with teaching assistants (TAs). The role of the TAs in this case is to oversee the project skills part is going well – they are not required to have any background in image analysis and are not supposed to help the students with the content of the assignment. During these weeks, I would meet with the TAs and the study coordinator, who took care of all the logistics of these project courses, to discuss the progress of the groups. I made notes during these meetings, to take into account when updating the course next year.
After having read lots of “advice for tenure trackers” types of blog posts, I was afraid that teaching a large course would leave me overwhelmed with email. So, both in materials I gave to students and during the lecture, I asked the students to ask all questions related to the course content via discussions on Canvas. Of course I still got emails, but I redirected those students to Canvas and then answered their questions there, so that the answers would be visible to everyone.
What this system achieved was that (i) I didn’t get any repeat questions (ii) all students had the same information, so it was more fair and (iii) students could learn from each others questions/answers. Another advantage for me was that I would get a digest from all new questions in Canvas at the end of the day, so I could schedule times I would go through them, rather than multi-tasking during the day, as happens with email.
Another thing I have to emphasize is that a lot of the logistics were handled by the study coordinator, who found the TAs, checked which students were absent too often etc. Meanwhile, I could just focus on the content of course, which takes a lot of stress away from the experience of teaching for the first time. So, hats off to my department for setting it up this way.
After the course
The course grade consisted of project skills, which were assessed by the TAs, and the content part, based on the report and the Youtube videos. Although I gave general criteria for how I was going to assess these and made an “assessment matrix”, in the process I decided I needed a more detailed rubric to keep grades fair, so grading and then re-grading took quite a bit of time.
The students really surprised me with their Youtube videos (in Dutch), which were all very well done. I even tweeted this:
So I’m grading the assignments of the undergrads (freshmen) who did an image analysis project I designed, and I just realized it made me cry because they did such an awesome job!
At the end I had a short meeting with each of the groups to give them feedback on their assignments and get more input for the course. For example, I asked them what they found the most surprising and the most difficult (of course, recording this in Evernote). I also brainstormed a bit with them how to update the assignment next year.
I’m happy to report that overall I got good feedback about the project. The students said they particularly enjoyed that it was a real assignment and not something that was already done many times. This is great, but of course also means that I will need to update the assignment each year, so that the students are building upon each other’s work, and not doing exactly the same things.
I worried about the programming part being too difficult. During the course, the students did find programming challenging, but at the same time it was clear they were figuring things out. And all groups did submit code which was of sufficient quality. Most students indeed complained about the level of difficulty in the course evaluations, although a few students commented that they liked having to figure it all out themselves. This is definitely something I will address next year.
Finally, I of course also received course ratings. I know I should take these as a grain of salt, since group projects probably get higher ratings overall, student evaluations are not correlated with learning, but… it still feels pretty great to have a success in the middle of all my rejected grants and unfinished papers.
Integrating research and teaching
Remember all those visual ratings the students had to do? I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but in fact, I had just crowdsourced a lot of annotations for medical images. I am now using these results in my current research, and recently I submitted a paper about it, where I acknowledge the students who took the course. Another real-world component?
My take-aways from this experience would be:
Take a lot of time for brainstorming
Find examples of other courses
Evernote is great for keeping track of ideas, feedback, etc.
Use the learning environment to reduce your email load
Think how large classes of undergraduates can still participate in your research
Having teaching support is absolutely the best and made this potentially stressful experience very enjoyable
I’d like to thank Josien Pluim for brainstorming about the course, Chris Snijders for participating with Oddspot, Rob van der Heijden for coordinating a LOT of things, Nicole Garcia, Jose Janssen and Nilam Khalil for administrative support, Maite van der Knaap, Femke Vaassen, Nienke Bakx and Tim van Loon for supervising the student groups, and last but not least, students who followed 8QA01 in 2017-2018.
If you are a reader of this blog, it’s probably no surprise that I love Evernote. In this post I summarize all my favorite ways to use Evernote – a few that I have written about before, and a few that still need to become blog posts. Enjoy!
I write my blog posts in Evernote before transferring them to WordPress. I like this because I can use Evernote online, so I can write when I don’t have Wi-Fi, and I get less distracted in general.
2. Weekly review
I use Evernote in my Getting Things Done system, which I’ve blogged about here. During the weekly review, I use Evernote to write down a summary of what I have done each week for different goals, such as writing or exercise.
3. No list
Also during the weekly review, I write down what opporunities I have said yes to, and what opportunities I have said no to. This has made me more aware of how many request I get and accept, and easier to say no.
For the things I did say yes to, I might forward the invitation to Evernote and tag it with “my_CV”. When I need to update my CV, I can add all these items based on the tag. I do the same for any media that mentions me, just in case I need this for an annual review or a grant application.
5. Read later
The first thing I started using Evernote for was to save blog posts or articles to read later. I wrote about this in the “capture’ part of the GTD process. The saved posts go to my Evernote inbox. During the weekly review, I briefly look at the posts and either delete them, or add tags and move them to my ideas notebook. When I need information on a specific topic, I just search the ideas notebook for that tag.
6. Organizing literature
Evernote is great for saving PDFs, so I use it to organize the papers that I’m reading. I find the tags very helpful in finding the exact paper that I need. Read more about my system here.
7. Organizing travel
When travelling for a conference, I keep all the reservations and other important information in a notebook for that specific trip. Read more in this post.
8. Happy thoughts
I forward emails with that made me happy to Evernote and tag them with “happy”. This could be anything from getting a paper accepted, to a comment from a blog reader that my posts have helped them. The idea is similar to the “jar of happy” – review these notes when you are feeling down. Similarly, you could add photos, drawings, handwritten notes – anything that can remind you to appreciate life.
I have used Evernote as my 5-minute journal, although I have now switched to paper so that I don’t use my phone just before bedtime.
10. Text snippets
I have several notes where I store pieces of code I often use for my blog, such as:
hiding an image (great for attaching Pinterest graphics to the post)
shortcodes for WordPress
embedding newsletter sign-up forms
Of course I can always find these snippets from within WordPress, but I find it easier to keep these snippets in a single note.
11. How-to guides
I have started writing guides for myself, on how to do things that I have to do from time to time, but not often enough to remember all the steps. For example:
Installing essential WordPress plugins for a new website
Installing and configuring software if my laptop dies
Creating a yearly financial report
12. Meal planning
Evernote is great for keeping track of your favorite recipes! I have two notebooks (both shared with my partner) to plan my meals – one with recipe ideas, and one with recipes where we drag and drop recipes for the upcoming week. This way it becomes really easy to create a shopping list!
I do not really use Evernote as an address book, but I might keep important information about people I know, like food they don’t eat, their favorite beer, what gift I gave them last year, etc.
When people recommend me books or podcasts, I tend to add a short note to Evernote about it. This way if I check out and enjoy the recommendation, I can thank the person later!
14. Buy later
When I think I might want to buy something online, I often save the item to Evernote first and tag it with “buy”. From time to time, I go through this tag. Often I’m able to delete a lot of items – a few that I bought, but most that I decided I didn’t need. Great for keeping your place uncluttered AND saving money.
15. Gift ideas
No “best ways to use Evernote” list is complete without gift ideas! Similar to the “buy later” section, I save items that could be good gifts to Evernote, and tag them with “gifts”. The difference is that I don’t delete the note once I’ve bought the gift. Instead, I can edit the note to include who I gave the gift to.
If you like these ways to use Evernote, check out my Pinterest board where I’m always collecting more ideas:
As an academic I get to travel to different places for conferences or to give talks. It’s a great part of this job, but it can also be stressful sometimes. In this post I explain how I simplify the travel process and plan my conference trips with Todoist and Evernote.
Create a project
The first thing that helps me stay on top of everything, is to see a trip as a project. Each time I decide I’m going somewhere, I create a project in Todoist and a notebook in Evernote. The Todoist project is for actions I need to take, and Evernote is for information.
As soon as I know I am going, I already have a few tasks I can add to Todoist, such as:
Register for conference
Book flight or train
Submit reimbursement forms
Although I usually add these tasks by hand each time, I now decided I can automate the process a bit more. I created a Todoist template! Here’s what I started with:
Now I can import this template anytime I’m going to travel! If you are a Todoist user and want the full template, I will be sharing it through my newsletter – sign up here if you don’t want to miss it! (Mailchimp, no spam, you can always unsubscribe).
Preparing the trip
The next part happens in Evernote. When I book my flight or hotel (I use booking.com, which for the same hotel, can still be cheaper than the “special rate” via the conference website) etc, I email the confirmations to my Evernote, so I have all the documents in one place.
I also use the notebook to write an outline for my talk and store other information I might need for my trip.
Just before the trip
A few days before the trip, I always do the following:
Make the Evernote notebook available offline, so I can access all the information without using internet
Print the most important documents*
Share the notebook with my partner in case of an emergency
*At one point I decided to stop doing this and save trees, but then my phone died completely just as I got off the plane… I didn’t get lost thanks to skills such as “following the people with the poster tubes”, but it would be more relaxing to just have the directions printed out.
If I’m going away for longer than a few nights, I might also create a packing list in Evernote – of course for travel with a carry-on.
During the trip
I use the Evernote notebook to make notes about the talks, or to add business cards I receive.
If you need to provide receipts for food etc to receive reimbursement, you could also take pictures of the receipts and store them here.
After the trip
Once I am home again and I want to submit my reimbursement form, all the documents are already there in my Evernote, so this has become a painless process, rather than searching for everything in my email.
The final thing is to archive the Todoist project and “archive” the Evernote notebook. Evernote doesn’t have such a function, so what I do is:
Tag all the notes with a name that describes the trip, like “London 2018”
Move notes to a general “Archive” notebook
Delete the original notebook
I’m curious to hear how you plan for travel – is it different each time or do you have a process? Let me know in the comments below.
Today I’m staying with the theme of managing bibliographies (see my previous post on syncing .bib files). Now I describe the process of how I actually add papers to my bibliography, and keep track of my bibliography with Evernote. This process is fairly recent so this post is rather an exercise in me thinking out all the steps, but perhaps it might be useful to somebody else.
Most of my ideas for which papers I should read come from Google Scholar Alerts or Twitter. When I think “this might be interesting”, I immediately save the PDF (if I can access it) or the link to my Evernote inbox.
As part of my weekly review, I go through all the notes in my Evernote inbox. When the note is a paper, I decide whether it’s really something I want to read, and if yes, I now definitely get the PDF and put it into the note. I also rename the note by its Bibtex key, for example “cheplygina2017transfer” for a recent paper of mine where the first word in the title is “transfer”. Then I tag the notes with different keywords, which tell me what topics the paper could be relevant for.
I then move the paper to either “Literature Inbox” or “NextPaper Inbox” notebooks, where NextPaper is the “codename” of the paper I’m going to submit next.
OK, so now the papers are collecting in these two literature inboxes – what next? I need to actually read some papers. Recently I’ve been scheduling tasks like “Process 5 papers” on my calendar to get this done. When I do this I usually select papers which have similar tags, which I would write about in the same section of my paper.
Then I go through the paper and type notes in Evernote, in the same note that already has the PDF. This (the note writing) is inspired by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s “PDF to memo” method.
This should give me an idea of what I want to say about the paper, if I reference it later. I might also add or remove tags as needed. I can also add Evernote links to other related papers, although I don’t do this very often.
Once this is done, I move the note to “Literature Processed”. This is also when I get the bibliographic details of the paper (by searching the title on Google scholar), and add them to Jabref (by copying and pasting the .bib details). It is also possible to add a link to Jabref that will open the corresponding Evernote note, but unfortunately this uses the URL field, so you wouldn’t be able to have links to both Evernote and the online source of the paper.
I also schedule tasks like “Literature Processed to 0” which means I have to actually include the processed papers in the paper I’m writing. I go to the section where I want to reference the paper and write something about it, based on the notes I made before. This is also a good check to see if I really have the biliographic details – if I don’t, ShareLateX will not suggest me the reference.
Finally, I tag the note with “NextPaper” since that’s where I referenced it, and move it to the “Literature Reference” notebook. I should review these tags upon publication of the paper (I haven’t gotten to that part yet since I started using the system). But if the tag stays, I could even include a short snippet of what it is that I said about the paper.
In a next project I might want to reference some of the same papers that are in Reference, and do not go through the process above. However, once I’m working on “NextPaper2”, I can just go to my Reference notebook, do a search for the relevant tags, and then tag those papers with “NextPaper2”.
This is not a perfect system, since several things to be updated manually. Perhaps Mendeley or Zotero sort out these things for you – I’ve tried both in the past and was never quite satisfied, but this was before I had this process in place.
The process – not the tools – is probably what is helping me the most. But another advantage is that I’m using tools I already use a lot. Since I have Evernote open all the time, it’s easy to decide to read a paper, when I have a bit of time before my next meeting, for example. It also gives me a overview of how much reading/writing I need to do, based on the number of notes in each notebook, and it’s rewarding to see the “Inbox” numbers go down. I think I’ve got the ingredients to successful habit adoption right here – now hoping these will in fact translate to written AND published papers.
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.
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.
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:
Create a trigger using Schedule and set it to every day, or however often you want to journal.
Create an action using Evernote and select the “append to note” action.
Enter the name of the notebook (“Journal”), the name of the note (I use the date, this is provided as one of the defaults)
For the content of the note, copy paste template below* Edit the text, formatting as you prefer.
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!
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
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.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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! 🙂
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.
Less than a year ago, my “How I work” setup only included Gmail, Google Calendar and Wunderlist. After reading Getting Things Done, I started listening to podcasts that focus on productivity, like The 5 AM Miracle and Beyond the To Do List. In the process, I started discovering apps and trying them out. In this post I present the 5 apps that improved my productivity and that are staying in my “How I work” process.
1. Podcast Addict
Of course I used Podcast Addict to listen to the podcasts above. This helped me not only by teaching me things about productivity, but by motivating me to walk more (so that I could listen to the podcasts). Although I was spending more time on getting to places, the exercise + fresh air helped me to focus afterwards.
OK, I had Evernote before listening to the podcasts, but I didn’t know how to organize it and therefore didn’t use it. One example of how I use it now is for writing these blog posts! I have a stack of five notebooks for this:
In “Online: pin or tweet” and “Online: write about” I keep all the articles, threads on Twitter etc that I saved with the Evernote web clipper, and I think might be interesting to share with others. Once I pin, tweet or write, I move the note to “Online: done”. In “Writing: drafts” I keep blog posts ideas, which eventually grow into blog posts. Then I move these to the “Writing: done” notebook.
Given my difficult relationship with blogging and weekly posts for the last two months – a personal record – I’d say it’s working!
Streak is an app that integrates seamlessly with Gmail and has lots of awesome functionality. I use it to (1) achieve inbox zero (2) keep track of your contacts.
For (1), I use Streak to “snooze” emails. This means that I archive the email, but it’s moved to the inbox again at a later date. For example, I snooze emails to register for events. If it’s December, but the event is March, and the deadline to register is in February, I will snooze the email to late January.
For (2), I use Streak to keep track of people I have contacted, or might want to contact at some point. Currently I do this for people who have emailed me with questions about my papers. If I have an important update on the project (for example an error in my code), I can simply send an email to the whole group.
4. Focus @ Will
Focus @ will is a radio you can listen to, but with music (or sounds) that are supposed to help you focus. There are a few channels with different types of music/sound, and you can just press play and pause, or set a timer so that it stops playing after X minutes. I usually use it with the timer, Pomodoro-style. I can’t say if it’s really doing something to my brain or if it’s the placebo effect, but it’s been pretty effective so far!
Habitica is a habit-tracking app, a bit like a todo list for things you’d like to do regularly, like exercising every day. I tried to create daily tasks for these activities in Wunderlist, but I didn’t like this approach. The main reason was that I didn’t know how to deal with doing the activity more, or less than I am supposed to.
For example, if I missed a day or two of exercising, I had two choices. The first is leaving the tasks unchecked, i.e. doing doubling/tripling the amount of exercise on another day, which is not very realistic. The second is checking the skipped tasks off, which is incorrect. The same goes for doing extra exercise: did that mean I could skip exercise the day after? Not great if you are trying to develop an “exercise every day” habit.
In Habitica, instead of done/not done, you have a character with overall statistics like health. Here’s mine:
And here are some of the habits I’m tracking:
They are all green, because I did them today! By doing habits, the character gains experience and coins. If you don’t do a habit for too long, the character’s health goes down. To be honest I don’t know the details of how this works yet, but I like the layout and the habit-tracking part!
Any other apps?
I like trying out apps, so if you have some that have helped you out, please let me know!