Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Papers Toolbar

Earlier I typed up a quick rant disguised as a blog post about why you should stop delaying getting EndNote until you have to type your thesis. I did mention, however, that at times it can be convenient to put some, all, or a select few papers in a folder and browse that folder for papers you want.

I do this by implementing the My Papers toolbar. What the hell is that? It's simply a cute way of getting extremely quick access to papers that you want to find "this one thing real fast" in. It's for times when you know what you're looking for, you know who wrote the paper, and you don't want to open up EndNote, find the citation, and click on the "link to pdf". Well, if your papers' location on your harddrive is buried in some folder 8 levels in from My Documents, you might as well open up EndNote evertime right? It's basically the same amount of time and work. But, if your papers are one click away on the taskbar itself, then it's a whole new ballgame. Fortunately Windows XP can do just that for you (I haven't sold my second child for Vista yet, and have no burning desire to do so soon).

You can create a "toolbar" from any folder by dragging that folder to the edge of your desktop. Really. Just find a folder (doesn't have to be on the desktop to begin with) and drag it to the left or right, release, and there's your toolbar. I used that for a while (not for papers but for a Toolbar folder that has shortcuts to places I like to get to often and fast), but it kept getting in the way; it either takes up real estate or gets very annoying if you use the autohide because my mouse seems to reach all ends of the screen often. But I noticed later that if you drag that toolbar from the side to the taskbar, it plops down as a folder with a little double arrow that you can click to see the contents. This is where my Toolbar folder sits now. After a few weeks of a having a My Papers folder in my Toolbar folder, I found myself going to it more than anything else and thought I should give it its own seat on my taskbar, and we've been in love ever since.

When you have more than a screen full of papers, there are nice little scroll arrows it provides, and although I suspected with a lot of papers it would start to slow down, it hasn't. So the possibilities are endless: if you have all or nearly all of your papers in one folder like I do, you can use that; if you are working on a particular paper, you can put all the papers on that subject there; if you just have a few quick reference papers you always want to look up, you can create a folder of those and plop it down there. Personally I like the all-papers route myself, but whatever, its' a free country (unless you're reading this from a not-free country). Regardless, here's to the My Papers toolbar!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Gmail Illegal Attachment Fix

Recently I've had some problems receiving .exe and .zip (with an .exe file zipped in it) files as attachments with Gmail. It pissed me off for a while because I figure what's the point of the 2 gig goodness when you can't receive space-hogging programs from your friends? Fortunately for me has posted a fix. Now, I admit I haven't tried it yet, but it makes sense and sounds simple enough. Any one with comments on this or other Gmail problems/fixes fel free to let me know.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Use EndNote!

A senior grad student asked me the other day about "acquiring" a copy of EndNote. I was shocked. This guy was within a year of graduating and he was just now asking about EndNote! Unbelievable. When it comes to managing citations, bibliographies, and papers on your hard drive EndNote gets the job done. For some reason (read: money) grad students still hesitate or wait for the big paper or thesis when they can't put it off any longer to consider getting EndNote. Get EndNote now! The student version is totally affordable and your school may even have a discount. Here are four key reasons to get EndNote (or a similar citation/literature organizing software):

  1. If you ever have to write a paper with more than 10 citations, it will be a royal pain in the ass to keep changing them without it.
  2. If you plan on writing a thesis, it will most certainly have more than 10 citations so you're going to need it then anyways, so get it now.
  3. If you have more than 30 papers on your hard drive and need to find a specific paper, EndNote is an absolute beauty. You can search through papers by any criteria (or so it feels) and the search is faster than Gmail searching through your mail. Plus in the recent versions you can "link to pdf" and/or "link to url" so when you find the paper in EndNote, you've found the paper period.
  4. You don't have to manually type in all the paper information. Essentially all large literature databases have a "send to Endnote" option, so you just click on that button when you get to the article and it puts into Endnote for you. It even politely asks you which library you want it in.

I have only now started putting all of my papers into EndNote and implementing point 3 instead of just scrolling by author in my huge folder of papers and not finding what I'm looking for because the paper was in another folder. Although, I must mention, keeping certain papers (or shortcuts to them) in a certain folder for quick browsing can be convenient, but I'll write about that later. So get EndNote, it makes life a lot easier.

GTD Simplicity Reminder Tweak!

I couldn't do it. I couldn't stay away from Outlook for that long. I liked the Evernote idea, I really did, but I had to let it move back to second place in terms of listing the very next physical actions I have to take on each project. A few things weren't right in the Evernote scheme I mentioned:

  • The next actions list seems to need to be just that and nothing else, a clean list of actions, without notes and ideas and scratches there to clutter it up. I had trouble getting into the groove because I kept getting distracted by the overall picture, if that makes any sense, and felt I was spending too much time planning and too little time doing.
  • Using SlickRun to be able to quickly jot down a next action even when Outlook is closed whenever one pops into my head or I'm done with an action is priceless. That again limits time you have to spend fiddling with the system.
  • Having the next actions list two clicks or an alt+tab and ctrl+4 away was priceless. With Evernote I found myself scrolling and finding and reading other things I scrolled far too often.
BUT, I didn't scrap the Evernote idea completely. There was a key plus to to that idea:
  • Getting a sequential list of actions (past, present, and future), not arranged by context, for a specific project gives a great overview for that project. Little notes next to actions can be convenient too.
So the Evernote lists are still there, but they are just there when I get stuck on what the next action should be. When that happens I can open up the x-project "action overview" note and there is a (hopefully) crystal clear picture of where the project has gone action by action and (again, hoepfully) arising from that scan comes the idea of where the project should go.

Lastly, such a list is great for when your boss asks "What'd you do on project x this week?" or "Where are we on that?".
"Funny you should ask. Why don't you grab a Snickers, this may take a while..."

Friday, March 9, 2007

A GTD Simplicity Reminder

A couple weeks back I started to get caught in the trap of focusing on the system instead of focusing on getting things done. In reality, except for David Allen and a select few other people whose job it is to talk about the system and present tweaks for the system, most people are not recognized or rewarded based on how clever or pretty their GTD systems are, but rather on how much they get done. I remembered Merlin's great little podcast titled It's Just a Cup over on 43 folders. He also has perhaps an even more amusing one titled The Perfect Apostrophe with a similar theme. Their memories made me snap out of it...

I decided to simplify the system and focusing on doing and it has been absolutely splendid. I've stopped forcing myself to use my $99 Palm Z22 (but for those that are away from their computers often when they need to look at task list, I still think it's a great affordable item). I've stopped tweaking and customizing my GTD view in Outlook Tasks. I've stopped browsing through Evernote note templates. I've even cut down my productivity blog browsing (sick, I know). I'm also focusing on the more important tasks more, which is a bit contradictory to what David emphasizes in the Do chapter of Getting Things Done, but I'll write about that later. I'm now keeping current work/school related projects and tasks in a single note in Evernote and working off of that solely (again, just for work related tasks, but those are the ones that are messy and need to be viewed as projects and tracked extra carefully; that is, I'll forgive myself if I come back from the grocery store without the dijon). A nice benefit is that I can see all notes I make about the task instantly in a nice big picture. It's been working beautifully and only serves to deepen my simplicity conviction! The Evernote screen shot is below. Projects are blue so i can scan easily, tasks are listed chronologically down the page. The very next task is in bold. Completed tasks get unbolded. That's it. It's awesome. Focus on the doing, forget about the system, chances are what you have works. I bet, then, that your mind will be clearer!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How to Pick a Group -- Part 3

I almost forgot:

  • Ask the advisor, grad students in the group, and grad students not in the group what the group's financial situation is.
I don't know how I missed this after my story about being promised money that didn't exist in Part 1, but anyhoo, this can't be stressed enough. It should be complimented with:

  • Apply for any and all fellowships you qualify for, even if you don't think you stand a chance.
Grad school can drain a lot out of you even when your finances are taken care of. You can imagine what it does when you're working your arse off and aren't being paid what you were promised or are being forced to teach semester after semester. You want to talk about productivity -- start by not teaching too many classes.

Making sure the group is financially sound is also a key aspect of doing good (and fast) research. Believe it or not, science is, in fact, impeded or straight blocked by a lack of funds. This may sound like an obvious statement, and in some respects it is, but in some groups it means very very basic equipment can't be purchased for months since they are living grant to grant. This happened in my last group and it isn't pretty. Take care of the cash. Get stuff done.