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?

7 things I wish I had done during my PhD

Every so often there are threads on Twitter about what people wish they would have would have known before starting their PhD, or would have done differently in retrospect. Here is a thread with lots of great advice by David Schoppik and another one by Jennifer Polk. I haven’t responded to either question, because there is so much to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters. However, I have already been keeping a “wishlist” of sorts, so I thought this was a good opportunity to finally turn them into a blog post. Here they are, the things I wish I had done during my PhD.

1. Having a lab journal

I somehow managed to miss out on this concept completely. Maybe I had heard about it, but dismissed the idea because I didn’t work in a lab. I only really found out about it when I was about to start my tenure track position, and was reading “At the Helm” in preparation.

Sure, I had a notebook. I would use it to make notes in meetings, draw toy datasets, write down tasks as they came up… anything, really! But none of these things were intended for anybody else, including the future me, to read.

In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have a central place to record ideas, different (failed) experiments, and where I ended up storing my data and code.

2. Having a todo list

This might be a surprise to many, but I didn’t have really have a todo list during my PhD. I would write down tasks as they would come up – for example “prepare presentation for lab meeting” – in my notebook. If I didn’t get a task done 2-3 pages later, I would copy it over to the current page I was on.

I don’t remember forgetting to do anything important and I didn’t miss any deadlines, which probably gave others (and myself) an impression that I was an organized person. But the 2017 me is overwhelmed by the idea of this “organization system”.

3. Spending more time with other PhD students

I don’t mean with this point that I didn’t spend any time with friends or colleagues. I did my PhD in in the same city as where I got my other degrees, so there were lots of friends around. And I was in a great lab, where we would often do social activities together, and would see each other as friends. I realize that I’m very lucky to be in this situation.

But most of friends were not doing PhDs, and with my colleagues, often it was more relaxing to talk about topics outside of work. So it was great to meet other PhD students, for example during courses, and share experiences about writing, teaching… anything that might have been challenging. I should have done that a lot more! Maybe I would have learned about “lab notebooks” and “todo lists” ūüôā

4. Seeking out more mentors

As I wrote above, I was in a great (though perhaps small) lab. My supervisors were both inspiring scientists, and very kind people. But even despite these favorable circumstances, I didn’t always dare to tell them what was on my mind. How was I doing with my research? Was my CV maybe good enough to apply for this scholarsip? Did I have good chances of getting an academic position? Questions I was too scared to ask, because I thought I would be laughed at, even though I logically knew that wouldn’t happen!

But things changed a bit when I did an internship, and met two very different mentors. They were closer to me in age and career step – both postdocs at the time – and were women. They saw right through my self-esteem issues, and made me a bit more confident that I wasn’t entirely delusional about my aspirations.

 

5. Applying for all the things

In the Netherlands, as a PhD researcher you are an employee, not a student. I had a salary and my travel expenses were reimbursed. Therefore I never felt the need to apply for any financial support.

As for awards, most of the time it either didn’t cross my mind I should apply, and if it did, my imposter syndrome didn’t let me. It didn’t help of course, that the one scholarship I really thought was a good fit (Anita Borg Memorial scholarship) was rejected three times in a row.

In retrospect, I think applying for more things would have made the applications I really wanted, like the Anita Borg one, a lot better. Not to mention the benefits for applying for larger grants later on.

 

6. Joining Twitter

Although I had an account for years, I didn’t start using it until half-way through my postdoc. Maybe a funny story is that this all happened because of a grant I applied for. The best submissions would be advertised via Twitter, so I thought I should at least see what people are saying about my submission (not much). But since I was now checking Twitter every day, I also started following more accounts, engaging in conversations etc – and never left.

Being part of the (academic) community on Twitter has been pretty awesome. From excellent advice about applying for jobs, to thoughtful threads about academic culture, to cat pictures (#academicswithcats), there’s always something to motivate me or cheer me up. Through Twitter I found many friends, role models, and from time to time, even people who were somehow inspired by me. I cannot stress how essential this has been in times of existential crises almost inevitably associated with being a postdoc.

 

7. Blogging

I had a blog on and off during my PhD (see My relationship with blogging), but I didn’t really dare to write anything, let alone tell other people that I have a blog. I had a blog, but I wasn’t blogging.

And that’s too bad. Because since I really started writing and sharing posts (although I still find I’m often outside my comfort zone), lots of interesting things happened. Next to improving my writing and getting me invitations to give talks, blogging has given me a bigger sense of purpose. Related to the Twitter point above, this has been essential for dealing with setbacks.

 

I hope these are useful whether you are doing a PhD or are already done – it’s not too late to start! If you have any other advice you’d like to share with others, please leave a comment below!

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 РWork 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! ūüôā

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! ūüôā

My goals for 2017: progress report 2 of 4

I just realized it’s the middle of June, so it’s almost the end of the second quarter of 2017. This means it’s time for another quarterly review of my goals for 2017. You can find the first quarter review here.

Start my new job

Perhaps a better way to name this goal would be “develop a system for working in my new job”. The system I wrote about last time, with Current/Incubator and Snoozed projects, is definitely staying. Here’s how my Todoist list of project now looks like:

Incubator lists are “later” lists, with new projects that I have not started yet (but am going to once I finish something else). Current lists are projects I should be working on every week, so I’m not allowed to have too many projects here. Snoozed projects are projects are started but don’t need action at the moment, such as papers under review, or administrative tasks that I have to do periodically.

I have a Work and Personal in each category. When I’m in the office or my home office, I have the work list open. I also now actively schedule tasks from the current list ahead, so they show up as items on my agenda. When it’s evening/weekend, I only have the personal list open. This is helping to get things like blogging done ūüôā

 

Submit. All. The. Papers.

Last time I submitted two nearly-done our of the six total papers I wanted to submit, and had four not-done papers left. ¬†I had also forgotten which exact papers are these four papers I wanted to submit. I remembered it briefly, but since I didn’t write it down in the blog post, I forgot again.

To remember it this time, I count three more papers:¬†a survey I’ve been thinking about for a while, a journal paper to follow-up on a paper from my PhD, and a journal paper to follow up on a recent crowdsourcing paper. I think given that only half a year is left of 2017, I will keep it at these three. I¬†didn’t submit any of these remaining papers, but am finally making some progress on one of them!

Progress has been slower because I already had to resubmit one of the two initial papers, as well as do a bit of revisions for other (not first author) papers which I wasn’t counting here.

 

I give myself a 6/10 for this one.

 

Write a blog post every week

Still going well, which is motivating me only further to keep it up!

I still am struggling with what the main topics are that are best for me to write about. So for this, I set up a 5 minute survey for the blog readers! Please help me make this blog better by filling it out here.

 

Organize how I read papers

The system I described with using Evernote (each paper has its own note) is helping a lot. I have an inbox with papers I want to read. From here papers go into a physical inbox when I print them out. I read the papers when I’m on the train, and enter a summary into Evernote. I then move the Evernote note to a Reference folder.

I still would like to set a goal of how many papers I read a week, because although I’m reading papers, the inboxes are getting fuller rather than emptier. Maybe a 7/10?

 

Read at least 1 book per month

Done! I read “On writing well”, “Writing down the bones” and “What the best college teachers do”. ¬†After all this productive reading I’m now reading some fiction, “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson.

More goals

Last time I already felt like I was playing in “Easy” mode by only sharing a few goals. Inspired by Raghav’s post about habits and running,¬†(with what to me are very impressive 5K times) I decided to share another personal goal and how it developed over the year.

I like the idea of running and am always impressed by people who are really into it (i.e. do it regularly and/or maybe even enjoy it). I’ve had some brief periods of running in the past but these were a bit like my previous blogging attempts, so, not very effective. Since I was more confident about my blogging than about my running, I didn’t have any goal that this year I will start running “for real”. Instead, I just decided to walk 10K steps a day.

This wasn’t a major challenge, but just something I had to remember to do, so I started tracking my steps in Habitica. If I wasn’t yet at 10K, I would sometimes go outside for half an hour and listen to a podcast episode. Of course I’ve had a few days when I wasn’t anywhere near 10K, but my weekly average is always above this number.

Since this walking goal was going quite well, a few months into 2017 I thought about running again. But this time I had to have a quantifiable goal – I would go for a round around the park (maybe 3 km, so nothing impressive) 3 times a week. No time, no distance ¬†– just showing up. For the first time ever I also made a spreadsheet where I log my runs, and added “Go for a run” to my agenda.

It’s been 7 weeks since then and although I don’t always go on the days that I plan to, I did complete the goal every week. Running feels less terrible and now my plan is to do an extra lap when I run during the weekend. Maybe I’ll even sign up for a 10K later this year? Find out in the next progress report ūüôā

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 to avoid decision fatigue

Procrastination

I have to admit that for the first time since my good blogging streak started last November, I procrastinated with writing a blog post.¬†I briefly thought about not posting anything – we’re all allowed to have an off day after all!¬†But the accountability I’ve built up, both to myself and (hopefully) a couple of readers who are used weekly posts, removed the choice for me. Posting weekly just became a habit.

[As I wrote that sentence, my brain made a connection with the number 21. I quickly checked the calendar and to my amusement discovered that last November was approximately 21 weeks ago! But then I realized that the popular saying is that it takes 21 days to build a habit, which is actually false].

I thought about why I was procrastinating more than the other times. I still had an Evernote notebook with lots of ideas on what to write about. Perhaps the problem was the opposite – I had¬†too many ideas and I couldn’t choose between them!

Decision fatigue

I learnt recently that not being able to choose, procrastinating and being unproductive is a result, is something called “decision fatigue” (Wikipedia). This applies to several other areas of my life as well, for example:

  • Handling email and trivial tasks first, and procrastinating on big projects, because I can’t decide where to start
  • Having a vague goal of “exercising more”, but having too many choices (weights? run? in the morning? in the evening? tomorrow? … )
  • Deciding what’s for dinner when it’s dinner time, being unable to choose due to already being too hungry and getting take-out in the end

Habits

To reverse this process and be more productive, the secret seems to be to eliminate decisions. Then you can spend less time deciding, and more time doing! Or, as Doctor_PMS recommends,¬†“set up your personal habits and goals in a way that prevents you from having to take a decision on a daily basis“.

That is essentially what me, @Doctor_PMS, ¬†@TheNewPI, @rebeccalinnett, @AidanBudd and a few others are doing on Habitica – eliminating decisions. I briefly wrote about Habitica before, but to summarize, it’s a habit tracker with game elements. Here is how I’m trying to tackle procrastination on important projects:

  • I have a “daily” (a habit you can complete at most once a day) called “Add most important task (MIT) of the day as a to-do to Habitica”. My MITs are tasks that move big projects forward, like¬†writing papers or¬†blog posts.¬†Of course, adding a task as a to-do is trivial, but I get a little reward from it, so I complete it every day. But what makes it more effective, is that having to define task forces me to break up projects into parts that I can actually get done.
  • I have another daily, with a bigger reward, called “Spend 1 Pomodoro on MIT”. I put my headphones on, set focus@will to 25 minutes, and start working.
  • Often once I get this first Pomodoro done, I don’t want to stop there, and continue. To encourage this behavior more, I have a “habit” (something you can do multiple times per day) called “Extra Pomodoro”.
  • To top it off, I have the MIT to-do I added in the first place! The to-dos give me the most rewards and are very satisfying to check off. Here’s how this looks in Habitica:

Since I enjoy the in-game rewards, I use this system on most days, gaining gold and experience, and levelling up! This is me, in one of the many outfits you can collect in the game:

Conclusion

Once I decided my post would be about decision fatigue, the post practically wrote itself. To avoid procrastination on future posts, the solution seems simple. I need to have specific blog posts on my to-do list, rather than a “blog weekly” to-do with a long list of ideas.

For extra accountability, I’ll share the two upcoming blog posts! Next week, of course, will feature another “How I Fail” guest post! And in two weeks time, since I quite enjoyed writing this post, I will write more about how I’m using Habitica to improve other areas of life, such as food and exercise.

My goals for 2017: progress report 1 of 4

It’s almost the end of March, so we’re a quarter into 2017! Inspired by several productivity podcasts I’ve been listening to, I thought I’d spend this blog post doing a quarterly review of my goals for 2017.

Start my new job

As I said before, “start my new job” isn’t a very quantifiable goal, but I think I did it ūüôā Now that the “logistics” (email account, office, laptop etc) are mostly done, I’m focusing on developing a system with a lot more planning, goal-setting and evaluating than I’ve ever done.

One part of the system is to have three types of projects, similar to the Kanban system (Wikipedia).

  • Current, with current projects. There cannot be too many projects here at the same time. Every day I try to move along one or more of these projects.
  • Incubator, with projects that are coming up. These are concrete projects I know I will do, not “maybe” ideas – I keep those off my todo list to avoid getting distracted. To “hatch” an incubator project, I first need to finish a current project.
  • Snoozed, with projects that are started, but I don’t need to take action on right now, such as a paper under review.

I’m still optimizing this process, but I hope to blog about it at some point.

Submit. All. The. Papers.

My goal was to submit six papers – two which were almost done and four which I started. I’m happy to report that I’ve submitted the two nearly-done ones! They are now also on arXiV, here and here.
I expect that I will need to revise these after review, but for now, they are in my “Snoozed” project folder and I can work on the other papers.

The bad news is that, I spent two months (January was officially a month off for me) submitting two nearly-done papers. This means I have a bit over two months for each of the not-nearly-done papers, so this goal is looking too ambitious at the moment.

A complicating factor is that of the not-nearly-done papers, I’m having trouble deciding which one I will work on next. Ironically, when I sat down to write this post, I could not remember which four not-nearly-done papers I meant – meaning there are a few other “maybe” papers in the back of my mind.

I AM¬†aware of the problem and I have my Current/Incubator/Snoozed folders to remind me what I should be focusing on. It doesn’t always work, so it’s something to keep track of in the rest of 2017 as well.

 

Write a blog post every week

This is going well! Given my relationship with blogging, I have to say I’m proud of sticking to this goal. The accountability of setting that goal publicly and the responses I get via Twitter have definitely been very motivating for me. And it’s been helpful to see it as a non-negotiable habit and to have a list/schedule of future blog posts.

I do have to confess it’s been a bit easier since I started the How I Fail series, and I haven’t actually been writing my own posts every week. But given how well the How I Fail posts are doing, maybe that’s not a bad thing ūüôā

 

Organize how I read papers

Not a lot of progress on this one. I did create a system, which I hope will prove to be useful. Given how helpful Evernote has been, I decided to try it organize reading papers in Evernote as well.

Each paper is a note, which has the PDF and my own text notes in one place. I have two notebooks: Literature Inbox and Literature Reference.¬†I spent several hours getting all the papers that I’ve saved somewhere on my hard drive, or printed out, into the inbox.

I’m only allowed to move a paper to Literature Reference once I’ve processed it. This means making notes (in the same Evernote note), tagging¬†the note with “cite in paper X”, ¬†adding the bibtex to Jabref, where I keep the bibliographic information, and renaming the note to its bibtex key. It’s not a 100% automatic process, but I’m getting more out of this system than out of Mendeley or Zotero.

I haven’t made a lot of progress actually going through the Inbox and moving the papers to Reference, so making this a habit is something to work on in the other three quarters of 2017.

 

Read at least 1 book per month

Done! I read “Flow”, “The No Asshole Rule”, “Advice for New Faculty Members” and “At the Helm”

Advice for New Faculty Members (can’t get the image to work?)

The last two books are both for new assistant professors. I wanted to read these ASAP, to make the most of the advice. Although I’m not 100% happy with either of these, they are both helpful and the advice in them is complementary. But I probably would not recommend reading the books cover-to-cover, and using a more selective, as-needed approach.

 

Conclusion

Based on this review, things are looking pretty good! I think this is in part due to posting my goals online, both because of the accountability, and the fact that I shared only a few of my own goals, which I felt reasonably confident (and not embarrassed) about. Next year I might increase the level of difficulty.

In any case, I am enjoying this process and writing about it, so I’m looking forward to writing more¬†progress reports to reflect on my goals for¬†2017!

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