Friday, April 3, 2015

Using Evernote for Academic Work

It's been a while since I've written about workflow, but since I'm in a transition point between graduate student and assistant professor and thinking about adapting to my new position, I thought I'd jot a few things down, especially retrospectively in terms of managing graduate student life.

I'm fairly convinced that the tools you decide to use are less important than having--and sticking to--a system. However, I've gotten hooked on Evernote as a way of managing a lot of projects and daily tasks, so what follows is my system via Evernote (and Google Calendar).

Basic Principles
The principles I follow are outlined in the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) process. Now, some people are religious about this program, but as I said, I think it's not necessarily which process you use, but that you have one. I like this one for its simplicity. My goal is to spend more time working and less time organizing. To that end my process has five steps:

  1. Capture—collect what has your attention;
  2. Clarify—process what it means;
  3. Organize—put it where it belongs;
  4. Reflect—review frequently;
  5. Engage—simply do.
Evernote is how I collect everything. I use it to clip articles on the web for later use, store PDFs (though not all of them--I'll get to that in a minute), sketch out project ideas, make to-do-lists, and even draft papers. I use an "in-box zero" principle which means that if I get an email, it goes into Evernote as a task or I do it (if I can manage it in 2 minutes or less).

There are lots of ways you can use Evernote as an academic, and its flexibility (you can tag things and assign them to folders as well as set up reminders) means you can figure out how to use it best yourself. I found it to be incredibly helpful as I was managing my dissertation, which was the biggest writing project I'd ever taken on. While I was writing it in XeLaTeX, I was getting feedback from multiple committee members (five) and also trying to excerpt pieces for publications. I needed a way to keep track of all of the comments I was getting, as well as set up a timeline.

Evernote for Dissertation Management

The image below shows my "Dissertation" notebook which has lots of individual notes. The notes might be scans from meetings, my own notes to myself, checklists of things to do, and so on. I set up a table of contents where I could easily navigate to each notebook (Evernote does this automatically for you). If I set up a reminder for a note, when the date arrives, I get included in a morning email a link to that note. So each morning, Evernote emails me what I've assigned for myself to do.

While Evernote started as a way to help me with my dissertation, I quickly developed it into a system for all of my projects. To understand this, I'll take a step back and briefly explain Evernote's structure.
Notes. Individual notes can include attachments, checklists, numerical lists, audio files, video files, hyperlinks--basically any content you want.
Tags. Notes can be tagged and your tags can be organized hierarchically. (I have only a handful of major tags and organize using sub-tags.)
Reminders. Reminders attach to individual notes and can be set for date and time. (No recurring reminders though, which is a bummer.)
Notebooks. Notes are collected into notebooks. Notes can only be in one notebook at a time. Tags are a way for you to assign multiple categories to a single note.
Stacks. Notebooks are collected into stacks. Notebooks can only be in a one stack at a time.
Evernote for Time Management
I have the following stacks, which correspond to the major kinds of projects I have:
  • Inbox Stack (an exception to the project-type which I'll explain in a moment)
  • Finances & Career
  • Reading Stack
  • Teaching Stack
  • Writing Stack
Thus, my dissertation is a notebook in my "Writing Stack," as are any other active writing projects I have. Since Evernote syncs across all of my IOS platforms (iPhone, iPad, Macbook), I can access my work at any place I have the Internet (and a hard copy is on my laptop). Further, I can clip articles right from my browser into my Teaching Stack for later use (into my General Pedagogy notebook, tagged with subjects). This may not seem that much better than organizing your folders on a laptop, but Evernote lets me not only assign reminders but merge notes, sort by tags, and search inside of PDFs/scanned documents using OCR. It's like browser bookmarks plus cloud storage plus Google docs.

Finally, the Inbox Stack lets me ensure that all of my projects are taking place in one place, and I'm not mentally scattered---checking email and my calendar and a to-do list and so on. Using the Zero Inbox policy, when I get an email that I need to act on, I set up a note in my Inbox Notebook. By default, new notes go into a notebook called "Inbox Assign Reminder" since I want all of my notes to have a date on them. Once I've completed the note, I can archive it into "Archived To Do Notes" or merge it into a project. Below you can see the structure of the Inbox.

The last step in my process is to assign items in my inbox to actual times/dates on my Google calendar. Why is this important? Well, it's very easy to say I'll do something on April 4, set the deadline, then get to that day, get caught up in other work, and then just change my deadline to April 5. The cycle can repeat ad infinitum. So I use a program called Event Noted which syncs my inbox items to Google Calendar when I tag them with "event" and enter a date/time in the title.

Graduate School and Organization 
As a result of this process, I managed to stay on top of my deadlines throughout graduate school. Oh, and writing drafts in notes on Evernote rather than in LaTeX allowed me to set things up in rough chunks and do less fussing with code and more getting ideas on paper. (I'm still torn between multiple methods for composing papers at this point, in part due to different journals having different requirements for submission.)

Thinking back over the last seven years at UT-Austin (and the years before that juggling full-time work and a master's degree at UMSL), I did my best work when I was (1) very busy but not overwhelmed and (2) had tasks broken down into discrete sections. Both of these might seem obvious, but I find that a lot of students, myself included, can lose track of the dividing line between "busy" and "overwhelmed." Having a good organizational system can help ensure that you know whether taking on another committee or another conference paper will push you over the line.

Most of the time in my program, though not always, I stuck to a 9-to-5 schedule for work, allowing myself a weekend day off. I was able to do this only because of organization, since at every moment, despite having my projects carefully planned, I still felt the weight of unfinished work on my psyche. If I hadn't meticulously thought about my deadlines and time management, I imagine I would have been working frantically (and ineffectively) for longer hours or collapsed under the psychological weight of all I had to do.

Another thing I saw was that a lot of students struggled with scheduling their projects in time for deadlines. So, for instance, while there are some guidelines for making your way through a program, there's some flexibility regarding when you can defend your prospectus or your dissertation. It's really up to you to either seek out mentors who will set firm deadlines and hold your feet to the fire, or to set them for yourself, and stick to them. The students I saw who succeeded---at least in the sense of finishing tasks, as I'm not here claiming organization will make you a good philosopher---were able to break projects into bite-size pieces and keep track of all the moving parts.

There is also a danger in focusing on organization. Fetishizing organization in the form of apps, systems, and so on can lead to a paralysis that often accompanies the perfectionism to which many academics are prone. "If I can just find the right system for organizing my PDFs....then I can start research on this project," is the refrain of the perfectionist afraid to begin. I'm still searching for the best way to organize PDFs and I have yet to fix the filenames which aren't subject to my naming convention. I've decided, though, that my goal is to get things done, not get things done perfectly.

I am optimistic that this approach will be flexible enough to meet my needs as an assistant professor where I'll be juggling even more, including committee work and the tenure process. Only time will tell, though, and rather than focus on getting just the right system, I'll continue to adapt the tools I have with the aim of getting things done.