How I stay (kind of) sane as an academic

TL/DR; I find the following tools extremely helpful in dealing with what I used to feel was an overwhelming amount of information and responsibilities. The tools work very well together, and help to collect, sort, store, and share information without undue effort.

  • Evernote – For notes, documents, lists, etc.
  • Dropbox – For other working files, datasets, etc.
  • Pocket – For capturing new articles, videos, podcasts, etc.
  • Buffer – For automating social media posts
  • Bullet Journal – For my day-to-day organization, calendars, etc.
  • Pomodoro Technique – For actually getting shit done.

Basically, everything that I want to keep or need to reference later goes directly into Evernote.  Anything that I come across that looks like it may be interesting gets thrown into Pocket to review later. Anything worth sharing gets pushed to Buffer. I use the Bullet Journal to plan my weeks, and I move individual projects forward using the Pomodoro technique. Make sure you install the web clippers and the phone/tablet apps.

The Problem(s) with Academic Work

I am a very lazy person.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to do very many things. I have a lot of ambitions and goals, and I have so far done alright in reaching them (e.g. I had a cheesecake for breakfast today). But really I want to achieve my goals AND not have to get out of bed before noon.  I want to be successful in my career while also having a lot of time to goof off, travel, go to concerts, and learn things I want to learn.  The only way to do that is to find a way to excel at my job in the most efficient and least stressful way possible.  I want my work to be on auto-pilot as much as possible so I can spend my spare time reading China Miéville, not reviewing journal articles.

The main problem is that academic work is overwhelming, and the great blessing of academia – that every day is a Saturday and that you do what you love – means that you what you love is also work, and you work on Saturdays.

As an academic, we face several major problems that can lead to being overwhelmed.  Here’s how I see it, and the system that I have come up with to better deal with them.

Too much information

It can be overwhelming.  Not only are there the key journals to keep up with, but also there’s stuff that’s tangentially related (or just interesting), and still there’s stuff in the non-academic world that is interesting that we want to keep track of and read eventually.

One particular issue is that there is a divide between when we find an article and when we have time to read it. So we tend to just keep open tabs, or have piles of print-outs, or some other version of an extremely cluttered desk.

What is needed here is a way of capturing interesting articles for evaluation and reading (and maybe filing) later.

Too many priorities

There are so many things that we need to do to keep on top of our work, that we often neglect the important things that would help us do better work because there is no sense of urgency to them.  So we come across articles or books that are important and interesting but not urgent (like that Foucault that’s been sitting on your desk for the past three years…), and we don’t know what to do with them. Foucault stares at you for a few years from the pile on your desk, you feel guilty (as you should), and then you just bury him under other pieces of paper or put him back on the shelf.

But we also don’t want to slip Foucault into a pile of grading, because that shit needs to get done today – it’s urgent and important. So what’s the solution? What we need here is a way to capture those things that are important and interesting, but not urgent, and work through it.  We need to somehow make the important urgent.

Too many projects

I must have something like 30 open projects at the moment, ranging in size and scope from a book to a blog post.  And I want to do all of them, but with so many it’s almost impossible to figure out what needs to be done and when. In short it’s hard to prioritize projects, so most of the time they will sit there, and most of us respond to external prompts – e-mails from co-authors, or journals, or requests from students for letters.  These external prompts take what is important and make it urgent, which is why we respond.  So again, we need to find a way to make these important projects urgent.

Too much information, again

Not only is there too much information out there that we need to process, but we also hold onto a lot of information that is relevant to our projects and our work, and there’s no standard way of keeping track of all this.  We will often simply dump everything in one folder, or conversely spend an excessive amount of time trying to organize folders to put things in the most logical place so we can find it later. Neither of these methods are particularly effective.

What we need is to organize files and notes about projects in a way that makes sense to how your brain works with the information.

Too many hats

We are expected to be teachers, researchers, mentors, community members, and in a lot of fields, we’re also expected to be at least somewhat publicly engaged.  And while it might not be critical in all fields, there’s definitely an advantage to being active on social media, and that takes time and effort.  I know like one person who can sit on Facebook and Twitter all day long and has a successful career. The rest of us are screwed. So what we normal people need is a way to have an active professional social media presence with the minimal amount of work.

 

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There are other issues we face, like imposter syndrome and horrible fashion choices, but I’ll start with the above.

So here are the tools that I use.

  • Evernote – For notes, documents, lists, etc.
  • Dropbox – For other working files, datasets, etc.
  • Pocket – For capturing new articles, videos, podcasts, etc.
  • Buffer – For automating social media posts
  • Bullet Journal – For my day-to-day organization, calendars, etc.
  • Pomodoro Technique – For actually getting shit done.

Evernote

You should use Evernote to capture everything.  EVERYTHING.  You won’t realize how valuable it is until you dive in fully.  So you will want to install the Evernote web clipper, and you will want Evernote apps on your phone and tablet, if you have those things. You will also get an e-mail address so you can e-mail things directly to Evernote (useful to BCC this address on important discussions you’d like to archive). There are also great apps for scanning receipts, documents and business cards directly into Evernote, and it is simple to pull PDFs straight in. Anytime you want to remember or keep anything, put it in Evernote and then forget about it until you sort your inbox.

Evernote has an incredible search function.  It will search through the text of PDFs you add, and other documents, and has the ability to search hand written notes. Which is fucking crazy, but yes, you can write your notes by hand, scan them to Evernote and they become searchable.  So this is why you should put everything in here, because once it’s captured in Evernote it is actually retrievable.  My old handwritten notes from my undergrad are not.  They are scattered in various notebooks, and I can’t search for “Plato” and get my notes from those lectures.  If I scanned them to Evernote, I could.

Capturing isn’t quite enough, you’re going to want to do a minimal amount of organizing – nothing ridiculous, but you will want to put notes into a notebook that represents one of your projects. That’s about it.  You want to have one notebook per project (a project being loosely defined, it can also be an area of interest or responsibility, or a person, whatever the situation calls for), and then you want anything to do with that project gets put into that notebook.  It sounds stupid and simplistic, and it is, but it’s horribly effective. Every meeting note, every interesting related webpage, every academic article related to the project are in one notebook, so when you open the notebook all of the important information is there for you.

To make this a little more powerful, each notebook that I have has a “next-steps” note which outlines the next steps that I need to take if I want to move this project forward.  I try to always have a list of the smallest possible tasks that need to be done for all projects.  Because you can schedule reminders, you can tell Evernote to remind you about this project one month before the deadline, or whatever you want.

The trick here is that you want each note to fit nicely into one notebook. Do you keep putting notes into multiple notebooks? Maybe there’s a new notebook that should be made to hold those notes.  For example, instead of putting articles about teaching strategies in each of the notebooks for the classes that you teach, try having a notebook called “teaching-strategies”.  You want the notebook choice to be completely brainless and obvious.  Filing should not employ any of your brain power.

Part of this is for easy retrieval – Evernote has an excellent search function, but you often don’t know what you need to be searching for.  If you file relevant material together, it becomes more useful to you when you are working on that project.

The other powerful thing about Evernote is that it is accessible across all of your devices.  So you can enter notes on your phone, read articles on your tablet, and everything is synced and organized.  You can share notes with other people – which is great for collaborative projects and trip planning.

Of course you can organize your notebooks however you want, but after trying a few different systems, I have settled on every project getting its own notebook, some people getting their own notebook (e.g. interns, students I write letters for, etc.), and some reference material getting its own notebook (e.g. my master bibliography). These notebooks will normally resolve themselves into stacks by themselves, so organization becomes pretty easy.  Here’s how Evernote looks for me, maybe something similar will work for you:

  • _inbox – all new notes start here before being processed
  • admin – includes notebooks for general life admin stuff, receipts and tax info, etc.
  • bib – all of my pdfs for my master bibliography go in here (more on this below)
  • classes – each class I am designing / teaching / have taught gets its own notebook
  • hobbies – I actually have time for some now, so I have notebooks on each of them
  • projects – this is the largest stack – each project gets a notebook, regardless of how major or minor the project is.  A short blog post I’m working on? Notebook.  An article? Notebook.  The idea is to keep all of the relevant information in the right place so you can pick up on any project at any time.
  • projects-finished – I move finished projects here so I still have access to them but they do not clutter my projects stack
  • students – I keep notebooks on students I write letters for or supervise – everything just gets dropped in here and it makes letter writing so much easier
  • to-do – I keep a lot of lists, so this is where I keep them.  An important one is my articles notebook, which stores PDFs of articles that I have not read yet.  More on this below.
  • service – technically could be in the projects stack, but I like to keep them separate
  • someday – these are ideas for projects, or info on things that I will look into later.
  • travel – also could be in the projects stack

So now the big trick is to just put things into the right folders, and that’s about it.  When your intern sends a draft of their paper, save it to their notebook – then it’s there and you can work on it within Evernote and have a record of the steps that happened in a project.

Capturing everything in Evernote goes a long way to dealing with the amount of information we are faced with, but it doesn’t solve all of our problems.  Fortunately, when Evernote is combined with a few other tools, things become even easier.

Dropbox (or Google Drive)

I need this less and less the more I put things into Evernote (and the more I move to Git), but there are still things that don’t make sense to be stored in Evernote (e.g. my Lexicoder development environment or a series of datasets for a consultancy project).  For things like this I simply have Dropbox mirror my Evernote notebooks.  So while the Lexicoder notebook stores my notes on what features I want to add, and what bugs I need to address, the Dropbox folder stores all of the actual files for the project (it’s also on GitHub, but that’s a different post).

Mirroring is important. It means I don’t need to think “where’s that dataset?” when I’m working on my sick-leave-coverage project.  I know it’s in the folder “Dropbox/projects/sick-leave-coverage/”  This is much better than having a folder of datasets, or whatever you usually do.

One of the most valuable things about using Dropbox and Evernote together is that they sync and store things in the background.  You do not need to worry about manually backing up your work – these services will do it for you, so you can get on with actually doing whatever it is you do.

It’s not all roses though, and the big negative here is privacy.  Neither service is perfectly secure.  Yes, your work is password protected (and Dropbox provides two-step verification), but that doesn’t mean that Dropbox and Evernote are locked out of your work.  If you want an added layer of security Evernote allows you to encrypt notes that you add to it (though they may still have cached versions of earlier notes).  The better option is to encrypt sensitive notes using GPG before adding them to Evernote, if you are so inclined.  There are also tools that allow you to encrypt files before they enter your Dropbox, which may be a good solution if you are storing sensitive data.

One final tip here is to set Dropbox to automatically upload your photos from your phone. Your phone will break or get lost and you will lose your photos because you never back them up, just let Dropbox handle it for you. (You may notice that I am really focused on automating as much as I can so I can focus my actual attention on other things.  I don’t want to have to think about backing up my photos, I just want to know that when my phone explodes, that everything was backed up.)

Pocket

It’s just a read-it-later app, but it’s amazing how much of an impact Pocket has had on me.  I use Pocket to capture anything that looks interesting from the internet (including videos and podcasts) to read later.  This is really important, since most of the time when I find an article that seems interesting, it’s not the best time to actually read it.  So I would just let these tabs open up and I would constantly be staring at all the articles I wanted to read, which isn’t particularly useful, and just distracted me.

Pocket grabs the article, syncs it across all of your devices, and keeps an archive of all the articles you’ve read.  So you don’t lose anything that you thought might be interesting, and if you ever want to go back to some article you read before, it’s in your archive.  It’s also really easy to share articles from within Pocket, which is important.

On occasion, something I read in Pocket will be relevant to my work life, maybe a long-form New Yorker article will be perfect for a class or something.  In this case, Pocket’s not the best solution for storing it – but fortunately we already have a system for these things in Evernote, so I just share the article to Evernote with a click and we’re done.

I’ve actually gone one step further and made it easier to move things to Evernote.  I have implemented an IFTTT script to make sure that any time I favourite anything in Pocket it automatically shares it on social media and pushes it to Evernote.  So if something is especially interesting, I can share it and move it into long-term storage with one click.  More on this over at LifeHacker.

Buffer

Pocket solves the problem of the disconnect between input and processing of information, but if we sit down to read 10 articles and then post them all to social media all at once, we’re not really doing ourselves or anyone else any favours.  Instead of sharing to social media directly, we can use Buffer to fix the disconnect between the processing and the output of information.  In other words, while we may want to read things all on a Sunday, we want to be posting social media somewhat more consistently if we want to build up a professional profile.

Buffer will automatically schedule your posts for ideal times, and spread them across the week. So you can just keep adding to your list, and buffer will post them at appropriate times, spaced out for you without you worrying about it.  It also works across multiple accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and can be incredibly useful in maintaining a consistent and professional online presence.

This is also an incredibly good tool if you are in charge of a professional account, such as your department’s account.  You can spend one hour at the beginning of the week scheduling your social media posts and then forget about it.  Of course you will probably spend much more time on social media, and go nuts.  But with Buffer, anything else you do is gravy – you already have a strong basis in place for a consistent presence.

With Pocket and Buffer, nothing really changes in your day to day life.  You are still reading articles and sharing them on social media, but these apps allow you to gather from many sources into one place, parse things once, and share to many places – all with no real additional work. The benefits are many: a consistent social media presence, an archive of articles you’ve read, the ability to schedule tweets and facebook posts in the future, and the ability to capture articles and interesting things you encounter on the internet without having to divert your attention away from what you’re doing when you first find them.

 

Bullet Journal

All of this falls apart without an actual system to work with it, and for me I use a bullet journal  to keep track of everything.  The beauty of a bullet journal is that it is flexible and structure-free, that you basically create the modules that you need and tweak them to reflect your work habits.  Once you get into it, it’s a perfect system (because you create it for yourself). I have since ditched my digital calendar and to-do lists for the paper-based journal.

Part of what makes the bullet journal appealing is that it takes time, and you need to write things down.  This means that if you keep on writing “clean the bathroom” every day because you just don’t get around to cleaning the bathroom, eventually you will get sick of writing it and either a) clean the bathroom or b) decide that it’s not important to clean the bathroom and stop writing it down. Writing also helps you remember things, and most important for me, there’s something really satisfying about physically crossing something off a to-do list.

Important in my bullet journal are monthly logs, monthly goals, and daily logs.  You should read up about the bullet journal  here if you want more info on the basic system, but the way I use it is rather straightforward.

I have monthly project goals, which are translated to weekly goals, and then daily to-do items by looking through my Evernote next-steps notes. This allows me to have a very reasonable number of items in my to-do list every day.  Importantly, for reasons discussed below, I try to ensure that each task takes about 20-25 minutes to complete.

I have a monthly log, which has a list of all the things that are important to me (like exercise, reading academic articles that are not associated to a particular project, writing something, etc.)  These things all get an entry on my daily to-do list as well, and importantly, they are tracked.  Every time I do one of these things, I add an X to the log and start to build a chain.  This was Jerry Seinfeld’s method too: your only job – be it with writing, generating new comedy material, or whatever – is to not break the chain.  Tracking it this way is what helps convert an important but not urgent task into something that is important and urgent.

So for example, I have an Evernote notebook of articles – these are academic articles that I want to read that aren’t necessarily related to any particular project, but are interesting or important for me to keep up with.  Every day I have an item in my daily log that says “Read article.”  It doesn’t matter which one, I just have to read one from this list.  When I read it, I enter the bibliography information into BibDesk, and I take short notes directly into the file.  Twenty minutes a day, not a lot of effort, and after a year I will have added 260 additional references to my bibliography – and that’s on top of anything I’ve done for other projects.  Now, also let’s say that I add “Write one page” to my daily log.  That’s a novel. And this is how these super productive academics produce so much. Consistent minimal effort, not week-long whiskey fueled binge writing.  Though I guess you could do both.

At the beginning of the week, I look at my monthly log and see which projects I need to work on. I then consult the next steps in Evernote and schedule these during the week, breaking these tasks down into the smallest possible chunk.  “Write article” is useless, “read for literature review revision is better,” “Read Hall & Taylor” is best. Ideally, this is how they have been recorded in the next-steps note. The result is that my daily logs have all my work that I want to do, all of the important-but-not-urgent things that I want to do, and any appointments or other obligations. And for the most part they are all broken down into tasks that will require 25 minutes or less.

The Pomodoro Technique

All of the above is for nothing if you don’t actually do anything. And it’s easy enough to procrastinate and neglect things, no matter how focused you are.  But this system actually makes not working kind of difficult.

First, I find that my daily to-do lists will generally have about 8 concrete tasks on it – which is about four hours of focused work.  That’s really not that onerous to think about.  And it feels great to check all of these off – especially when you can blitz through your work so quickly.

Second, you’ve chunked things into 20-25 minute tasks. And guess what? You can do ANYTHING for 20-25 minutes.  So set a timer and go. Even if you don’t want to read that article, it’s only 20 minutes. Don’t feel like looking at that dataset? It’s just twenty minutes, stop your whining. This is where the Pomodoro technique comes in. The Pomodoro technique involves doing a task for 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break.  Then after four of these sessions, you take a longer break. Your work day is now two-hours followed by a break followed by two more hours.  You will move forward eight separate projects or things that are important to you, and then you can get on with doing whatever you want to do with the rest of your day.

This makes it really easy to consistently read outside of my “urgent” list, it makes it easy to write things that have nothing to do with projects on deadline, it makes it easier to learn new skills and methods because, really, 25-minutes of anything is really easy to do. The trick is to just prioritize what you want to spend those 25 minutes on, and then just do them.  You actually have to do some work eventually. Sorry.

What’s crucial here is that you can obviously spend more than 25 minutes on something, and sometimes you will want to, and sometimes you should – but you don’t have to, just be consistent and do this shit every day and you will push it all forward. So what I generally try to do is put those things that I have a tendency to work more on at the end of my list – it may take me 25 minutes to get into working on a dataset or to start coding, but once my brain is there, I will likely want to keep going – so I give myself the opportunity to do that by doing the other things on my list first.

Again, nobody is saying you can’t keep working on your projects later or for much more time if you want to.  Go for it if you want to. But remember that you don’t have to.  You’ve done all the things that you need to in order for your work to progress, so anything else you do you can actually see as doing it for sheer enjoyment, which is (I think) why we all got into this game to begin with, no? The system I’ve set up here is all pretty straightforward and mechanical, as it should be.  The idea here is to move the stuff forward that needs to be done with the minimal amount of effort, stress, and attention so you can get on to more important things, like reading outside of your field, socializing, or god forbid, having a relationship. Hell, work more if you want to – but now you get to do so out of choice instead of stress, pressure, or obligation.

 

Concluding Thoughts

So that’s my current system.  It’s still being tweaked, but I find that I am doing a lot less work and moving a lot more things forward.  I am not as stressed as I used to be, and I have no worries about missing articles or books, and no compulsion to read them immediately.  I know they’ve been safely stored, and I know where to find them, so when I have time to read for pleasure (which I have much more of now), I don’t waste that time clicking around the internet – I have already gathered the things I’m interested in.

My weeks are really manageable, I’ve automated as much as I can, and I am much less worried about stagnant projects because I’ve got a way now to easily push them all forward.  This system also gives me much more time to react to fires and other peoples’ deadlines.

Most important to me is that 20 hours of my day is mine to do whatever I want with, and I know that even if I spend all that time playing video games, as long as I’ve worked through my daily log, all the important things to me have been handled.  No stress.  And there’s no need to keep that number pegged at 4 hours per day – the amount that you want to commit to focused work is up to you.  Personally, at this moment (as I don’t have any classes to teach), four hours is great. But I also know that I will be able to scale this up on days/weeks/months when necessary, and my other projects and responsibilities will not be neglected.

This combination of tools for dealing with large amounts of information, and the strategy of chunking things into 25 minute tasks, has been incredibly useful for me. The micro-work adds up quickly, and then you can sit around later watching The Expanse without feeling guilty. Which is what you most definitely should be doing.

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I wrote this as a response to a friend’s request to describe my system of keeping on top of projects. Clearly, I think too much about this stuff, but I am actually really interested in other peoples’ systems and approaches. So if you have any of your own preferred methods and systems, I’d love to hear about them.  I’m on twitter and other stuff @markdaku