How I (try to) get things done
I need to be more productive when it comes to my research. I look at some of my peers and wonder how they can produce so much quality science — all while writing grant proposals, mentoring students, teaching classes, building/maintaining labs, reviewing papers, going to conferences, serving on committees, attending workshops, interacting with sponsors, writing other papers, and much more.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity as a researcher. The thoughts here are specific to my job, but I hope it’s relevant and useful to students, post-docs, and other researchers in government or industry. There are definitely some technology-related ideas in here, but this isn’t meant to be a list of the latest gizmos, gadgets, or web apps; nor is it a summary of how the internet will revolutionize science. There are a gazillion web posts out there focused on that stuff — I’m interested in approaches and tools that can help me be productive in my work whether they are digital or analog, collaborative or solitary. I’m interested in the end, not the means.
Write It Down
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past decade of doing this it’s to write everything down. I have at least two notebooks with me at all times that I use to capture random ideas, questions, to-do lists, or other thoughts related to my work. During grad school several years ago I started to carry around a spiral notebook. Over the years I’ve grown to love the minimalist design of Moleskine notebooks. These are popular for a reason, they are a quality product. I even like how the paper feels. I can easily carry one of these around almost anywhere I go and when I fill one up it is archived on the bookcase in my office. But it need not be a fancy-schmancy hard-cover book, great ideas can be written down in a $2 notebook as well.
The other notebook I have with me all the time is digital. I’ve been using Evernote for about two years now and love it. Evernote has a whole bunch of functionality for archiving digital information, but the functionality I like best is the ability to sync across all the computers/devices I use. For example, if I’m standing in line at the market and an idea pops into my head I can quickly jot it down using the mobile app. Then when I launch the desktop app on the computer in my office or on my laptop at home it’s all there. It’s a virtual notebook that is simple to use and that works. (My plea to Evernote is to keep it simple; don’t try to fix what isn’t broke as you grow.)
Writing things down isn’t merely a reminder. The act of writing (or speaking, teaching, sketching, etc.) forces you to formalize thoughts. I’m sure you’ve had that experience where you think you know how to describe the research problem you are working on, but when the time comes to put it into words you realize how nebulous that thought was. Even if you never go back and read what you wrote in that notebook, you’ve likely helped solidify an idea.
Writing/Editing Papers or Proposals
Right now I have several manuscripts/proposals in the ‘in preparation’ stage, occupying various positions along a continuum between vague idea and ready-to-submit. I mostly use Microsoft Word to write. Yes, I realize that Word has issues and I realize there are other word processing methods (e.g., LaTeX) out there that people will argue are far superior. I realize it’s not techie-fashionable to use Word. Whatever. Word is what I know and, more importantly, what the vast majority of my collaborators use. The ‘track changes’ feature on Word works pretty well when there are three or more authors. I’ve tried to use GoogleDocs for collaborating a few times but have found it clunky.
When it comes down to getting a paper or proposal done it’s a waste of time to try and convince five co-authors that they need to sign up for some web app or get some software that promises to change the way we collaborate. But, I am open to new ideas and always like to hear how others write collaboratively.
A lot of my work involves creating figures that combine various types of data to be used in talks and publications. I use Adobe Illustrator to integrate images, line art, and text annotation into a single illustration. I’m certainly no artist, but can now create diagrams with Illustrator’s drafting functionality with some efficiency (example below from a paper I published a few years ago).
For graphs/plots I typically use Excel and then make them ‘pretty’ in Illustrator. This is a waste of my time so I’m in the process of learning how to make graphs/plots in the statistical package R and matplotlib in Python. I’m still a newbie when it comes to these code-driven tools, but the little I know motivates me to get better. Never stop learning.
Reading/Reviewing Papers or Proposals
I keep track of the latest articles in my discipline with journal RSS feeds aggregated by GoogleReader. I also get asked to referee papers for journals regularly and end up reviewing about 4-8 a year. It’s a lot of work to review a paper, but I’m happy to do it because this is how peer review works. Plus, reviewing papers keeps me updated on the latest work in my field. (While I’m thinking of it, please include line numbers on the manuscripts you submit. This makes reviewing so much easier.)
So there is always a lot of reading to be done. Nowadays, I do nearly all my literature reading and paper reviewing on my iPad. I print papers out every once in a while, but I’d say that >80% of my reading is digital now. There are a bunch of iPad apps out there these days, but I use the iAnnotate app. It syncs up with Dropbox and has easy-to-use markup tools. I especially like the zoom-in text annotation feature that shrinks the stubby text that results from finger/stylus writing down to fit into the small margins of modern PDFs.
At some point in the past year Dropbox transitioned from convenient to necessary. I have shared folders with several collaborators and with my graduate students. E-mail remains the primary means of communication, but now it’s to say ‘I added a revised version of the proposal’ or ‘Check out the new paper by so-and-so’ in Dropbox instead of attaching the file to the email. I don’t have to search my email for that attachment if I forgot or didn’t take the time to download it and put somewhere.
The other tool that is quite useful is the telephone! E-mail is great for keeping correspondence documented and laying out specific tasks and such, but there are times where picking up the phone and talking to a collaborator is far more productive. I’m also realizing how valuable a short trip to visit with collaborators can be. I recently spent three days with two collaborators where we essentially sequestered ourselves in a room and worked like maniacs to finish up a proposal. We got more accomplished in that focused three days of work than the previous nine months combined.
Personal Productivity: Ride the Wave
I’m one of those people for which significant productivity comes in short spurts. I’ll toil for several hours (even days) on some text for a paper or proposal and then, all of the sudden, I’ll produce a few pages of words I’m quite happy with in less than an hour. Or, at longer time scales, I’ll have a string of 3 to 4 days where I make tangible progress within a couple weeks of effort. I’ve learned to recognize when this is happening and try to take advantage of it. Like a surfer waiting for that perfect wave, sometimes I just need to spend some time paddling around out there waiting for it. When I was in grad school this productivity wave came in the evening or late night. Nowadays, it tends to come in the early morning. Whenever the wave comes, learn to recognize it and ride it.
I’ve also learned to that if I’m not being productive with one task that I might as well make progress on something else (productive procrastination?). For example, if I’m trying to get some writing done and the words are just not flowing, I’ll spend that time working on drafting a figure instead. However, it’s easy to fall into a trap of jumping from one thing to another and not getting much of anything accomplished. Thus, there are times when I do force myself to work on a task that is screaming for attention.
Learning Tips and Tricks From Others
I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting ideas from others about how they maximize their productivity. This may be from collaborators, peers in my field, researchers in different disciplines, mentors, or students. I’m willing to learn from everyone. I don’t think any one person has the ultimate recipe, so I try to collect ideas from all sorts of people. Some work out, some don’t — just keep trying things.
Writing this post is, in fact, a way for me to see what others are doing. Please add your thoughts about what works or doesn’t work for you in the comment thread.
(Also check out this post, which has a lot of really good advice and tips and motivated me to compile my own thoughts on the subject.)
NOTE: Because I mention specific products in this post I may attract those who want me to mention their product on this blog. This is not going to happen. I will not reply to any email inquiring about a ‘guest post’, review, or other such thing. I encourage people to leave comments with information/advice about tools they use, but if the comment is an advertisement I will delete it.