5 apps that improved my productivity in 2016

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.

2. Evernote

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:

My Evernote notebooks for writing blog posts

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!

3. Streak

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!

5. Habitica

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!

My relationship with “save for later”

Just like blogging, using “save for later” is another thing I have trouble with. I come across a lot of awesome things online, from articles to interesting blogs to cat furniture ideas. Despite having access to several tools to organize such gems (from “Like” on Twitter, to Evernote to Pinterest), I am not really happy with my current setup. I do save things “to read later” in various ways, but the “later” part almost never happens.

Perhaps the only exception to this rule is how I deal with research papers relevant to my projects. When I come across a relevant paper, usually through a Google scholar alert, I immediately include it in the ShareLateX project on that topic. Perhaps that part by itself requires some explanation: I start a ShareLateX project very early on for each topic I am working on, and eventually that document grows into a paper. Here is a screenshot of my most recent projects:
sharelatex_projects

For me this is a foolproof way to remember these relevant papers. I do not forget my projects, and when I pick one of them, either to brainstorm what to do next or to write parts up, I WILL scan, then possibly print and read those papers.

I’ve thought about the differences between this system, and what I do with all the other articles, blogs, etc that I save for later (and that I’m too embarrassed to make a screenshot of). There are really only two that I could think of:

  • The place. For other types of content (anything that is not an article not related to my research) I use the bookmarks folder, Evernote (if related to research in general, academia, personal development), Pinterest (if related to food, exercise, travel). As you can guess, none of these places are places I review every so often.
  • The purpose. The research articles have a clear purpose: “read, summarize and reference in this paper”. Most of the other content I save could probably be labeled as “might be interesting once I get around to it”, which is not really a purpose. The current way I try to organize all those items is by topic, such as “machine learning” or “productivity”. Each topic will include items I’ve already reviewed and saved for some reason, or those I still want to read. Perhaps categories such as “read if bored on the train”, “use as reference in grant proposal”, “write about in blog post” would be more effective.

And those categories are actually something I will try to implement this year! The last one in particular should be interesting: I really dread organizing my favorites, and I find it difficult to decide on blog post topics — so, why not try an approach that has already worked for me elsewhere and kill two birds with one stone? I just need to decide on the place – ShareLateX does not seem really appropriate this time. Don’t forget to check in later to see the results!

Writing papers online with ShareLateX

I’m working on a paper together with a PhD student who is technically in my lab, but geographically in Cuba. For some reason, neither SVN nor Dropbox were working, and I was afraid we would have to resort to emailing the paper to each other (the horror!). Then during lunch I thought that we could just use GoogleDocs for the LateX file, or maybe that GoogleDocs even supported LateX. It’s such a simple idea somebody had to already have thought about this!

And indeed, ShareLateX has! You can sign up and create LateX projects and invite others to collaborate with you. Then you have your main file, any other files you want to add, and a button that compiles the .tex file into .pdf (and you can even choose whether you want the latex or pdftex version).

Again, the idea might seem very simple, but I’m still somewhat in awe… You can work on the same LateX file real-time, without waiting for somebody to save, commit or upload a new version. This is very motivating because you see the paper changing so quickly. It is also much easier to decide things together, such as adding that new section, because you already see how it would change the paper. Last but not least, you are all using the same compiler, so you can’t mess up the tex file for each other 🙂

There is  a down side, of course. The free version only supports 2 collaborators and there is no version control. As soon as you want an upgrade, you get the “Collaborator” account which allows 10 collaborators per project but also costs you $15 a month. Not a lot if the only thing you do is write papers with people overseas, but too much if that only happens once or twice a year. I only hope that universities realize how service is great for the researchers’ productivity, and offer it to employees free of charge 🙂

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