Sunday, September 28, 2008

I'm Switching to WordPress: beware of some rough patches. Hopefully I will get the feed switch done without any hiccups. If you don't see any updates on your feed soon (specifically, How to Act Productive Tip #14 by today or tomorrow), head over to and see what's up. Also, if you do see that next post without any problems, leave a comment letting me know it worked without a problem for you. Thanks!

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Second Thought: I'll Post Whenever I Want

A little while ago I showed some zeal and posted this that mentioned I'd be ensuring one to two posts a week. I would like to say that on second thought I'll post whenever I want. I'm sure all 10 of you reading this are very disappointed.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Simply GTD: Get SMS Reminders of Anything and Everything with GCal

Simply GTD posts are designed to provide simpler alternatives to productivity ridiculousness.

New internet based time and list management systems seem to show up faster than TMZ articles on Britney Spears. Each one seeks to do the same thing: make it easier for you to get stuff done. How? By learning their system and using their website.

I admit, I'm definitely guilty checking out time management webapps just to see if they're cool. I've also written multiple posts on Todoist and how much I like it. But, in the end, I'm fully aware that they are mostly a big waste of time. (As a note, this is why I like Todoist, it basically just displays lists neatly and is accessible from multiple places since it's on the web. So get off my back. Also, I use notecards, so that makes up for it.) But there is one key feature that I always fall into the trap of coveting: Fancy ways to get reminded of stuff.

For example, Todoist offers a premium service which you have to pay for that has more features than the basic version, including being able to send email or SMS reminders at any time for a task. Sometimes this is useful. For example, I can write, "Drop check off at Landlady's" on my notecard in the morning when I'm at school and remember I need to pay rent, but when I get home in the evening, eat food and flop down on the couch, my notecard isn't going to remind me to get off my ass and drop off the check. Too many days of that mistake and I'm in trouble. So I need a fancy way to get reminded of this task, don't I?

Todoist is not the only one, popular web apps like RTM and IwantSandy (clearly secretaries are always women) brag about sending you reminders whereever you are as well. So what if you don't have an account with one of these trendy webapps, or don't want to pay for the non-free version but would find it convenient to get some SMS reminders now and then?

Enter Google Calendar

Ah Google, making money off of your little text ads and not our subscriptions. GCal allows SMS reminders, and it's free, and you need a calendar anyways, and if you're not using GCal you might as well because it's free and useful and can synch with iCal or whatever you use now (I don't know if it can synch everything, but certainly iCal). Create some calendar event, make it last for a minimum amount of time so it doesn't take up space, and send an email or SMS reminder. Go to the GCal settings to set up your mobile phone. Simple. Free. If you don't want your precious "hard-landscape" to be riddled with little reminders, make a new calendar for reminders and color it some bland, hard-to-see color. So this way you can let GCal remind you to get milk and be your personal female secretary at the same time. So you can get on with simply getting things done.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Switch to a Mac: 3 Things I Find Most Useful As a Grad Student

I’ve been a PC user all my life, but in June, I got my first Mac, a black MacBook. It immediately became my primary computer and my overall experience has been rather positive. Right now I can’t see myself switching back.
There are many great features in OS X, and also some downsides (why is Office so bad?!), but here are three features that I’ve found to be most useful so far as a grad student:

1. Preview For PDFs: Using Mac’s built in Preview app is like driving a Ferrari after riding a bike (Acrobat or Acrobat Reader). Adobe does a lot of good things, I’ll admit, but making programs that take an eternity to load is certainly not one of them. For a grad student that has to open papers in pdf format all the time, the slowness of Acrobat can be more annoying than getting email replies from professors, especially when you’re in literature search mode browsing through a bunch of papers in a given sitting. Preview, on the other hand, is lightning quick. You can highlight text and screen capture images just as easily as Acrobat as well.

2. Quick Look: Imagine being able to peer inside a huge variety of file types, super fast, with a click of a button. That’s Quick Look. When you are looking for a particular paper inside a directory with tons of them, for example, and the filenames aren’t clear enough, what do you do? Certainly you can start opening them one by one, but that quickly turns into a mess. By the time you find it you can have 10 to 20 files open. With Quick Look, you just browse into the directory, hit space bar, and you have an instant preview of the pdf, and of course you can use the arrow keys to scroll through all the other files in the directory to find what you’re looking for. Think of Windows image preview for more than just pictures, and with the ability to scroll through the whole document; I’m talking PowerPoints, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, even movies. You can even click play on a movie in Quick Look and watch it right there. This is one of those features that after using it for a day, you wonder how you made due without it.

3. Time Machine: Backing up files regularly is the thing everyone knows they should be doing but aren’t. Here to solve that problem is Time Machine, the slickest little backup program I’ve ever seen. Backing up with it is so ridiculously easy that if you have it and aren’t backing up your stuff, you deserve to lose your data. Harsh, but you seriously don’t have an excuse. How easy is it? Well, basically, you don’t have to do anything. Once you designate a drive as your Time Machine drive, it backs stuff up for you every hour automatically. If your drive is an external hard drive that is not always plugged in, it automatically starts backing up the moment you do plug it in. Leaving your back up drive plugged in during a particular class or group meeting is a great way to never be behind. And this isn’t the kind of backup you’ll only use if your entire your hard drive fails. It’s not all your files stored in one huge compressed dinosaur of a file. It backs up your entire computer, as is, so you can browse through all your backups and find just one file if you need to. Serious convenience.

What do you find most useful on your Mac? (other than Quicksilver. Yes, I have it. Yes it makes me feel like Merlin Mann.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #13: Start Late

A lot of productivity folks like to tout the advantages of starting early. “Get started on your projects early!” they say, citing reasons like reduced stress and better performance. More surprisingly, so many people aspiring to be more organized and more productive also say similar things, “If only I hadn’t started so late!” If only they knew, those poor bastards.

Truly productive people don’t start early, they start late. People that don’t have enough to do start early. Productive people have so many projects on their plate at one point that they simply can’t start early. Starting early is an insult to your own productivity. It’s an open declaration that you have no drive, no motivation, and little promise of achieving anything worthwhile. Clearly, you have nothing better to do than start on something that’s not due for a while. Starting early shows desperation for wanting something to do. It’s the equivalent of calling a girl the next morning after getting her number only the night before. Please.

Beyond avoiding being pathetic, starting late has other upsides. First, the best ideas come under severe time pressure. When it’s 4am and you have to make that big presentation in the morning that you just started on a couple hours ago that you’ll come up with the brilliant ideas that will impress the audience. Second, when a project ends and you tell people you barely started it a few hours ago, you look a lot more impressive than if you told them you’ve been working on it forever. You’ll get responses back that are chock-full of admiration, such as “Wow.” Lastly, starting late leads to other productive-person characteristics. When you start late you often have to skip meals, work through vacations and weekends, get very little sleep, and get from point A to point B at lightning speed. In this way, starting late is in effect a gateway drug of acting productive: it leads to the good stuff. Thus, it can be argued, it’s one of the most important characteristics of a productive person.

So the next time you’re handed a project and you have the urge to get started right away, resist it, sit on it, start late.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Who is Brave Enough to Work the Night Shift?

Photo by: josef.stuefer

I’m sick of working during the day. I’m sick of email, I’m sick of dealing with “productive” people that haven’t eaten or slept in a year. I’m sick of running into friends when I should be working and I’m really sick of instruments being booked when I need to use them. I’ve been sick about these things for a while now. I seriously feel I spend way too much time at work trying to be productive instead of simply getting things done. I want to spend less time working, so I figure I should cut out the crap.

A Recent Story

Recently, I was forced to use an instrument from 9pm-2pm to do the measurements I needed and was amazed at the results. That afternoon I went home early, ate dinner, went to the gym, watched a couple episodes of the office, packed some food for the night and went to the lab. Then I took my measurements. When data was being collected, I opened up my email as I often do, no new email. I checked some websites, no new stories. I checked my Facebook profile, no new activity. When it was time to eat my food I heated it and ate it by myself. No one to talk to, which kind of sucked, but I was also back to my work in 20 minutes. When I was done, I went home, went to bed, and slept in until 10 or 11am. No sleep loss, and sleeping-in guilt-free was oh so wonderful.

The next day when I was processing the data I realized how much stuff I had gotten done the previous night: The measurements were taken very systematically, and I took meticulous notes on what was going on. I spent 5 hours in the lab doing this work, and I thought to myself, how long would this have taken if I did it during the day? Clearly the whole day. Lunch would have taken at least an hour. Other grad students coming in and out of that busy room would have added more down time. Responding to the constant stream of daytime emails would add more. Pretty soon, the 5 hours of lab time at night would have summed up to a whole day of measurements. That’s another 3 or more hours, more than 50% more time I would have spent “working” or “in the lab” instead of sleeping, eating, cooking, at the gym, watching a movie, staring at the ceiling, what have you.

This got me thinking, what if I worked at night most of the time? Why aren’t I doing it? What are the pros and cons? I’ve been thinking about this and blowing it off as crazy talk for months now; something a “productive” person would do, “I worked all night last night!”. But the idea keeps coming back. I wouldn’t work more, I would in fact work less. I wouldn’t sleep, I’d merely shift my hours. I could be more creative if I had longer blocks of uninterrupted time. I wouldn’t be interrupted by stupid email as often. But there are still cons that keep preventing me from doing it. It seems horribly anti-social. It would cut back on random collaborative opportunities. What happens on the weekends when it’s time to hang out with friends on a normal schedule? When would I go to places that are only open during the day? Isn’t this something a weird person would do?

A (Partially) Nocturnal Schedule

So I thought of a possible sleep schedule and tried to answer some of these concerns. I’ve settled on sleeping from 5am-1pm as a good option. Below are some of the obvious concerns listed above and my answers based on this possible schedule.

1. What about my social life? Get ready to be the life of the party. 9pm-2am will be like midday for you, so no more of that yawning followed by the “Only 11? Wow, I’m getting old!” joke that is so overused it makes me want to throw up in my mouth.
2. What about research or work collaboration? This should be just fine with the above schedule, you’ll consistently be meeting with people in the afternoon.
3. But the library is closed for much of my “day”. That’s correct, and at that time, everywhere else is quiet.
4. I need to go to the gym, the store, the Laundromat, mechanic, etc. And now you can go in your “morning”, which is smack in the middle of the day, so you can miss both the regular morning and evening crowds. Oh I’m getting jealous of this one just thinking about it.
5. But I work best in the morning. If that’s really the case (and not just that the morning is the only uninterrupted time you get) you may want to think about how the answers to these questions would change if you used a noon-8pm sleep time. Questions 2-4 seem to be fine, with most need-to-do-during-the-day tasks being shifted to the morning (your evening). The only problem I see is if you are also a party animal, then, in regards to question one, you would have to drink in your morning often.


Now, let’s crank a few more numbers just to see the pay off. It’s unrealistic to think you would be a whole 50% more efficient just because you worked at a time when most distractions were non-existent. Let’s be more conservative. For most people, it’s also unrealistic to think that you are wasting less than 10% of your time on distractions or pseudo-work like answering email. So let’s, on average, put the efficiency gains at around 20%. How many hours does that give you for more important things like reading obscure blogs, sleeping, or learning Mandarin? For a 50 hour work week, that’s 10 hours saved. Ten hours! You might as well throw in Cantonese while you’re at it. If you even cut back our efficiency estimation to 15%, that’s still 7.5 hours a week you didn’t previously have. And, the kicker for me is that is 7.5 hours that is normally spent on crap, busy work, acting productive. In fact, if you’re think you’re one of those productive people that is working 60 hours a week, a 20% efficiency improvement translates to 12 hours - basically a day. This doesn’t take into account other immeasurable advantages that include increased focus, less stress and thus the opportunity for more creativity. You may even start loving your work again.

Who is Brave Enough?

Now, the obvious question is, why don’t I put my money where my mouth is and do it and report on how it went? Well, I’m kind of scared. Of what? I don’t know. Perhaps of my non-tenured advisor freaking out that I’m not around all the time. Or of being scared of the night (I’m not joking, I seriously have had this fear since I was a kid). But the more I think about it the more I am inclined to try it out for a week or more. In the meantime, I want to ask you if you have either done something similar before, and if so, how it went, or if you want to try it out and report on your findings on Grad Hacker. It would be wonderfully exciting for me and the rest of the readers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Grad Hacker is Here to Stay

Alright folks, I've posted once in the past month and four times in the past two months. Yet somehow, miraculously, the readership persists (thanks!). Some projects on the research end are starting to wrap up, so I say it's time to rock and roll. I will guarantee one post a week and try to shoot for two. I've also been running into more "productive" people - yes they never seem to run out - so How to Act Productive will be re-emerging. Any suggestions on what you want to discuss here are more than welcome!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Long Term Output is More Important than Minute-to-Minute Efficiency

Photo by: .Fabio

In the quest for productivity, blogs with the word “hack” in the title and other similar literature often end up discussing in detail ways to increase efficiency. What does that mean, efficiency? Efficiency is most often some metric for gauging output per unit time; how much work you are getting done in a given amount of time. So a more efficient person produces more output in a given amount of time than a less efficient person. Let’s agree on this definition of efficiency, in this context, for the sake of discussion.

Over What Time Scale Does Efficiency Really Matter?

This is the big money question. What is more important, the stuff I get done per minute or the stuff I get done per year? For grad students and all other “knowledge” workers, it is clearly the latter, or at the very least, not the former. Unfortunately, it’s easier to focus on maximizing minute-to-minute efficiency because minutes go by a lot faster than years. When you say to yourself, “Over the next x minutes, I’ll do this and this and this,” it doesn’t take very long for those to pass so you can evaluate how you did. Years on the other hand, are a different monster. Most of us don’t have a problem making the same self-commitments for years as we do minutes, “By next year I will have…” But they take so damn long to pass we simply forget, lose our drive, or change our minds. That’s a problem because when other people look back on your output (bosses), or you yourself look back, no one is really going to care how you spent each minute, they will care what you accomplished over longer periods of time.

So how do we make sure that we are following through on commitments to ourselves and others, finishing projects we start, and simply getting things done over the course of weeks, months, and years? We should make a plan.

Step 1: Forget Minute-to-Minute Efficiency Once and for All

We need to let this idea go so that we don’t stress over minutes, or sometimes even hours, lost here or there. Stress is paralyzing to getting things done and enjoying life, so we should seek to minimize it. Don’t plan your day by the minute, don’t worry if you lose a minutes here or there because you screwed up or didn’t plan as well as you should have. Simply recognize what can be improved and move on. Sometimes reading too much “hack”y literature can make you feel that if everything isn’t completely automated and streamlined you’re somehow being inefficient, you’re not, don’t worry. Lastly, if you are thinking that minute-to-minute efficiency should logically translate to efficiency over longer times, think again. Whatever minutes are saved in such short-time efficiency are quickly averaged out over the long term, or simply don’t matter. A few minutes saved here, and a few there, get canceled out by natural fluctuations in time taken for longer activities. You would have to not waste a single minute on every activity, every day, all the time, for saved minutes to add up to a significant increase in output in the long term. This simply doesn’t happen for reasonable human beings.

Step 2: Pick a Reasonable Time Scale on which to Focus

Now that efficiency on the scale of minutes is out of our minds, we can focus our attention on bigger and better things. We need to pick a time scale over which we will be accountable to ourselves. Minutes are too short and years are a tad large (although it can be useful to evaluate your goals every year). For this purpose, however, we need a length of time, where we can list things we want to accomplish at its beginning, try our damndest to get them done throughout, and evaluate our progress at the end. I think one week works well for this, but try what works for you. Every Monday I make sure my list of tasks for the week are set (e.g. Notecard for the Week), throughout the week I try to focus on these most important tasks (e.g. Notecard for the Day), and on Friday I see where I am and if I need to do anything over the weekend, and Sunday I make a final assessment and clean up my list.

Step 3: Make your Schedule Fit your Tasks, not Vice Versa

Now we’ve picked a reasonable length of time on which to focus on output. Continuing the above example, we are now focused on maximizing output over the course of the week, and could care less about minute-to-minute issues. We understand that trying to maximize the efficiency of every single minute is futile unless we are working every minute we aren’t sleeping or eating, which is ridiculous. I contend that at this point, we must create a schedule that is most conducive to getting all our tasks for the week done, which is not necessarily the schedule that every one else uses. In other words, simply plan your schedule around your tasks, not the other way around. This is incredibly pertinent for grad students doing experimental work, or anyone that has to book time on shared equipment or resources. Why come to work at 9 and leave at 6, keeping yourself busy with computer work (reading papers, etc.) when the absolutely most important tasks for you involve using equipment that is always booked during the day? Simply shift your schedule to make sure your tasks get done. Come in at 6pm and work till 3am if necessary, and enjoy sleeping in the next day. If you are at time when computer tasks are the most important but you are spending 1.5 hours doing 1 hour of work due to other people distracting you all day, you can move your schedule around similarly. Note that I’m advocating schedule shifting when necessary, and not schedule expanding. That wouldn’t be sustainable. You don’t need to become a complete night owl and not interact with anyone, that would stifle creative interaction, just ensure that you have a schedule that includes significant amounts of time for uninterrupted, focused work on the tasks you have deemed most important.


Above all else, I’m advocating finishing what you start and that obsessive focus on minute-by-minute details only distracts from finishing real substantive tasks. Once you’ve picked your time-frame-of-accountability, you need to be dead set on finishing. Significant stretches of uninterrupted work, at locations, with equipment, and at times that are most conducive to finishing your tasks are the means to that end.

Related Posts

Priorities and Getting Things Done

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Boring Exercise is Pointless

Photo by: Abraaj

Summer is well on its way, so let’s admit it, you wish you looked a tad better in the summer clothes than you do now. Or rather, that hottie you’ve been eyeing looks damn good in summer clothes and you’re feeling a bit insecure.

Your reaction? Start hitting the gym full speed. Hold on, there’s a problem: The gym can suck. If you have a consistent workout plan that you follow regularly, read no further, you’ve developed a great habit. But it seems to me that most people have no problem exercising, they just have a problem exercising consistently. And, unfortunately, “getting in shape” which is often soft-language for, “changing the shape of my body” (which I’ll argue, is a totally acceptable thought and not as vain as is commonly perceived), requires extremely consistent exercise. Do I need to back that point up? How many people do you know that have achieved enviable fitness goals by going every once in a while, or whenever they feel like it?

I contend that if you’re not exercising regularly, you’re bored.

Further, it seems to me that there’s no sense in invoking some idealized theory of willpower and trying to force yourself to do it. That often just leads to not going, and feeling like a loser. Forget that, if you’re bored there’s only one solution: get your little kid on and make it fun.

There’s really no sense in trying to explain fun exercise, everyone knows what that is: being dead tired but wishing you weren’t so you could keep playing just a little longer. I’ll admit, this most easily translates to cardio. But cardio is what most people hate to do but know they should; most folks lifting weights like to lift weights. Forget the treadmill that faces the wall, or sitting on a stationary bike at some slow or moderate pace and trying to read US magazine at the same time: are you really going to be able to sustain that for months? Or years?

For alternatives to treadmills, stationary bikes, the elliptical, the stairmaster, and all the the other cardio machines you may find boring or just can’t do consistently, try: sports (basketball, soccer, frisbee, tennis), running outside, running with a friend outside, setting a goal for an x mile run and working your way to it, finding cool trails and new places to run and hike on the weekends, spinning classes (these will kick your ass, but they sure as hell won’t be boring), biking outside on a real bike. Obviously the list goes on (Did I miss any great ideas for fun cardio?).

Now, there are some people that go to the gym, pick a machine, use it, and do this consistently, but they exercise so consistently that they have no need to click on this post title in their RSS feed. If that’s you, I’m impressed you’ve read this far. But for the rest of us that find staring at a wall and running in the same place more boring than hearing John McCain speak, try making it fun. I promise it’ll improve consistency.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How To Act Productive Tip #12: Switch Time-Management Systems

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, every once in a while we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Let’s be honest, most people don’t have time management systems; even the characteristic productive folks highlighted in this series. They’re too busy losing sleep and getting pissed off. But, in the web 8.0, blogospheric community of which you are definitely a part, time management systems are the norm. They’re like iPods in middle school, you better have one if you want to be cool. And the flashier the iPod, the cooler you are.

You vs. Productive People

Now there’s a difference between those of us simpletons that have a single time-management system and the real productivity gurus. The latter are constantly on the hunt for the ultimate system. They know that the moment they find it, day to day problems will disappear and their level of productivity will skyrocket to levels unknown to mere mortals. So, they don’t stagnate, they switch systems like Paris Hilton does boyfriends.

Is it Time to Switch?

“How do I know if I need to switch systems or not?” you ask. If you haven’t switched in the last 2 weeks, it’s time to get cracking. Switching your list management, time management, GTD, or what have you systems regularly keeps you up to date on the latest web 8.0 sites and features, it keeps you buying the latest gadgets, and it increases the chances of you finding the perfect system.

Tell People About It

But don’t just quietly find a new system to manage your life, do it loudly. We always advocate this on How to Act Productive and it’s for good reason. Show your friends your new list management system. Often sending a mass email with a link to the new web-based system is a good idea. Tell them how much more productive you’ve been since switching. If they ask the annoying question of whether using the system takes more time than is saved by transferring your life to it, just tell them that it will pay itself back soon, otherwise you’ll just switch to another.

Don’t be a tool, use a tool.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #11: Feel Guilty

Photo by: s-t-r-a-n-g-e

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, every once in a while we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Warning: This tip may hit close to home. You may walk slow, and eat a lot, but there's a good chance that you've felt some guilt before. I don't apologize for any hurt feelings.

Productive people feel guilty. A lot. About what? It doesn't even matter, they don't have time to think about stupid questions. When you have a lot things to do, there's inevitably a lot of things you wish you could do. But you can't. Because you're "just so busy right now." Result: guilt. A lot of it. This is the life of an important, busy, and thus productive person.

Productive people feel guilty about:

- Asking for an extension on assignments because the rest of their life is too busy.

- Assignments that they can finish on time but could have been done better.

- Neglecting their friends and family because they're just so busy.

- That long list of someday/maybe projects that they know they will never get around to.

- Not exercising.

- Skipping lunch and making up for it with Cheetos from the vending machine.

- Feeling guilty all the time.

If you haven't felt guilty in a while, chances are you're being lazy. Summer is not even an excuse. In fact, that's when you should look back on the semester of neglected "I should get around tos" and feel guilty about neglecting them. Then make a list of all those items and tell yourself you have to get them done. If you don't, don't worry, you can get your guilt on come fall.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Offer Summer Classes to Yourself - and Attend Them

Photo by: Greg Reser

"I really gotta read up on that sometime."

"I've been meaning to review that subject."

"I'd really like to have at least a basic understanding of how that works."

These are things I catch myself and my peers saying all the time. I'm a grad student in the natural sciences and there's always more that I "should" know. Fundamentals. Specifics on a new research area. Some random thing I want to learn more about. But, where is the time?

Summer, that's where. You know how classes force you to learn stuff that if left to your own, you would never get around to studying? Yeah, that's useful. As much as we feel we're so above classes now, so much cooler than classes, that we learn everything we need to know when we need to know it for research, you have to admit that if it wasn't for the fact that you had to attend class to pass, you'd always have a list of other more important things to do that would prevent you from learning the subjects on your own.

Why it's Worth it to Know "Random" Things

Obviously, the things you need to know that are directly relevant to your primary research subject are taken care of when you are "working on research" (whatever that means). So let's not worry about that. What I'm talking about is classes that push your comfort level or broaden your base. Why are they useful? I have one simple answer: You won't be studying the same single, narrow, subject for the rest of your life. Surely you must have noticed how the brightest and wisest in your field seem to know the basics behind everything remotely related (the lucky ones observe this effect in their adviser). I whole-heartedly believe this characteristic is simply a result of having very strong fundamentals. They have reviewed the basics in their field multiple times throughout their life and now have that foundation to work on. Then, when expanding their research frontier, they feel less lost, they are able to look for help in the right places, and as a result they continue to push their own boundaries. They have exposed themselves to the basics of many different subjects throughout their career instead of always focusing on the narrow topic they are studying at any given time.

What class should I offer myself?

First of all, get your Leo Babatua on and offer yourself just 1 class to start. It can be easy to fall into the trap of "Oh I'm gonna learn about this, that, and that other thing!" and have a calendar so filled with scheduled classes you just skip all of them to do more important things throughout the week. Don't do that. Pick one thing you want to learn about but "haven't gotten around to" and offer yourself that class. The best place to start is a subject that is peripherally related to your primary research objective. That way your mind can't play the "you have more pressing things to do, when are you ever going to use this information?" game with you. Or at least, your mind has less of an argument if it tries.

What's the Class Schedule?
Whatever it is, make sure it's not heavy. That's the only rule. The goal is to make sure you attend class. That's it. Just show up, the learning then comes automatically I find 3 hours a week is good. MWF for one hour. Put it in your calendar and don't skip it! A strong recommendation is the morning because the deeper into the day you get, the more likely something will come up. Just walk in on MWF, spend an hour at class and then get on with your day. Try doing this without checking your email first. It's damn refreshing. It gets you in the mood of doing real work instead of pretending to do work by "processing" emails.

What IS the Class?

So what happens during class? Do you stand at a chalkboard and lecture to yourself? I don't, but by all means do whatever is necessary. Realistically, these self-classes almost always mean you, a book, paper and pen, and some peace and quiet. If you're in the sciences, do the problems or think of problems (related to your research is great) and do them to avoid getting caught in the blind note-taking and derivation trap where no information is processed. If you're in the humanities, check out Study Hacks for various note-taking and study tips to, again, avoid blind note-taking.

Final Thoughts

The point is to expand your horizons or widen your base of fundamentals. To do that, you need to simply dedicate the time to sitting down regularly and reading and the summer is a great time to do this. Let's end with some simple arithmetic that shows the power of repetitive behavior. Say you want to expose yourself to the first 3 chapters of a book called "Introduction to VeryImportantIdea". The first 3 chapters are 80 pages, which include non-trivial math and physics and some example problems scattered throughout. Say in one hour you can get through 5 pages at a pace that really lets you learn the material. You'll finish this class in a month and a half on the MWF 1 hour schedule suggested above. That means over the 3 month summer, you can fit in two of these classes. That means checking of two items on your mental list of "stuff I should know." Think about how many items you checked off of that list in the last three months. Give it a shot!

Monday, May 19, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #10: Bring Massive Amounts of Work On the Plane

Photo by: Ma1974

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Summer is often a time of travel. Weddings, reunions, vacations, you name it. In non-summer months, travel for many grad students involves conferences and other work related trips. Common to most trips: flying. Flying is such a time-suck, right? Wrong.

You always know who the most successful people in planes are. They're the ones working. They've got their laptop out, the overhead light on, some papers, TPS reports, their briefcase within arms reach, a pen in their mouth, and a glass of red wine in a plastic cup on the corner of the tray table. When you see this and you look down at your "pleasure reading" or worse yet, The Office episodes playing on your iPod, recognize that you will never make your parents as proud as Mr. Productive in the seat next you will. Just a fact of life. The good news is, you can change your ways today with just three simple starter tips:

1. Bring papers. A good grad student doesn't go anywhere without scholarly journal articles handy. Resist the temptation to buy People Magazine at the airport and stick with articles that will get you ahead in life.

2. Use your computer. Productive people and rich people use laptops on planes, so get used to it if you want to be like either of them.
3. Never let nighttime deter you. The most successful people have the light on when everyone else is trying to get some sleep. This should be you. When they wake up, you'll be a good 2-3 hours ahead on life.

Start here. Don't take it too fast just yet. When you've mastered these tips, send me an email, we can then talk about more advanced tips like caffeine sources for red-eye or international flights.

Lastly, when you're flying in a group, make sure you ask everyone how much work they brought, and as I've always said, use their answer to spring-board into talking about how much you brought. "What'd you bring to work on? Man, I brought so much stuff, I'm gonna get really caught up on work."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Have Confidence

Photo by: chris.merwe

I’ve noticed a pattern. A large amount of productivity literature, blogs, and “hacks”, in the end tell a single story: Have the confidence to jump right in to your work. Often, they notice that there are certain barriers (self-created, or not) that are blocking your confidence or clouding your judgment so you simply cannot see clearly enough to have confidence. They then proceed to provide some tips on getting rid of those obstacles and get you back to jumping right in. That is, they modify the above phrase to: Take care of that garbage, then jump right in.

Let’s look at some favorites in the GTD, Lifehacky, blogging, and student communities and see what obstacles to confidence and getting started they wish to clear:

  1. Getting Things Done – David Allen: David Allen’s whole philosophy is based on “knowing what you’re not doing.” Another way he’s phrased it is having the confidence that what you are doing right now is exactly what you should be doing. Keeping list after list of next actions and projects is simply a way to make sure that when you’re performing a certain task, that’s exactly what you should be doing right now. Unfortunately, many of us get so enraptured with the process that we forget the doing altogether. Don't do this, it's deadly. You think you're being productive, while you're really just wasting your time. The obstacle is uncertainty due to a massive amount of "open loops", clear that quickly and get start working on something as soon as you can.

  1. The Now Habit – Neil Fiore: This book is a gem and is all about having confidence. Niel Fiore, however, is not removing the hundred and one day to day obstacles that are cluttering your head like David Allen, but rather reaching for things deeper ingrained: the constant feelings of self-doubt, guilt, and fear that lead to procrastination. He advocates not pretending to be working all the time and scheduling in guilt-free play as ways to have more confidence to start and finish your projects (by habitually starting).

  1. Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann – 43 folders: In the same style as David Allen, Merlin argues that clearing your inbox (most often email inbox) and properly processing all the input, leads the way to clarity and confidence in what the hell it is that we should be doing in this email-ridden world. Massive email in your inbox is a huge confidence shaker as all the messages keeping nagging at your brain, trying to convince they contain the true tasks to be done right now. Clear the inbox obstacle, but then don't sit there and come up with a million crafty ways to filter your email world so a monkey could process it, just get started.

  1. MITs – Leo Babatua – Zen Habits: I of course love the idea of having a small number of things you need to do each day and write these tasks on my notecard for the day. Leo likes this idea too. This idea is simple, know what the absolute most important tasks of the day are and simply do them. Don’t do anything else until they are done. This is hardest when you don’t have confidence in the outcome. That’s why having them clearly written and immediately accessible is a useful tool in helping you not find other things to do to feed your fear of your most important tasks. Again, clear the obstacle of uncertainty and doubt ("I have so much to do, where the hell do I start?") by consciously deciding on the most important tasks, and starting on them as soon as possible.

  1. Fixed Schedule Productivity – Cal Newport – Study Hacks – I’m quite envious of this schedule: 9-5 M-F and a few hours on Sunday. Really? That’s it? I seriously have trouble believing this post, and I don’t mean that as an insult at all. I doubt he’s lying, it’s just that impressive. I try every week to do this and almost always fail. Inevitably I’m not as productive as I wish to be from 9-5, and convince myself that I “should” or “have to” work in the evening and/or the weekend. This of course leads to a cycle of feeling overworked and thus working less efficiently. It’s miserable, I know. Sometimes, however, sometimes, I succeed. I’ve found that the days I do are the days I do not hesitate with what I should be doing. I simply grit my teeth and get started. The best part is, that invariably I don’t have to grit my teeth for long, for as we all know, formidable tasks are like bullies, once you stand up to them, they quickly back down. The part of Cal’s post that should tip you off to needing confidence is that he “starts early”. In other words, he doesn't waste any time before telling you to "jump right in." That means there’s no time for tossing around ideas of what you’re going to do for days to weeks before actually doing it. You gotta have the confidence that you won’t suck.

How Easy Would It Be to Start If You Knew You Wouldn't Fail?

I fail to understand why I still worry about the outcome of so many projects instead of just diving right in. I should give myself more credit. Invariably when I’ve dived in and started working, I’ve realized that the bully is actually a coward, that I have some good ideas, that I’m not the only one that doesn’t understand, or that it really won’t take as long as I thought. I imagine your experience is the same.

There's simply no alternative to having the confidence that you won't suck at the impending task. You either push aside doubt and start, or you don't start at all. Decide whether the second option is realistic, if it is, hooray, you've identified an unnecessary task. If it's not, recognize from the above 5 examples and any others you can think of that all time management and hacky literature says the same thing: get rid of obstacles to confidence, and immediately get started.

The faster you start, the more worrying you skip, and the less stress you get for a given project. If you broke down the causes of stress for a given project, how much would be related to actually doing the project? Unless the project involves an uncomfortable conversation or working with that one annoying bastard in class, usually very little. The stress comes from thinking about the project while you’re not doing anything. So if our goals are to minimize the overall stress a given project imparts on us, why not skip the thinking without doing, skip the worrying and self-doubt, get our confidence on, and get right to the doing?

How to Act Productive Tip #9: Get Pissed Off

Original Photo By: bubblemonkey

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and important you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

This post goes out to one of the inspirations behind the How to Act Productive Series: George Costanza. (The other, and primary inspirations, however, are two individuals in the department that always walk fast. They seem so damn productive.)

George discovered the secret to looking like he was working hard while at the Yankee Organization: looking pissed off. This piece of advice is such a gem. If you're juggling one measily project right now, why on earth would you have a reason to be frustrated or annoyed? You wouldn't. But if you've juggling 15-20, you don't want anyone giving you lip. And if they do, you give it right back to them. And don't just look pissed off, get pissed off; might as well blow off some steam while you're acting productive.

Often, having your friends help you on your quest of acting productive by being pissed off is useful. When you walk away having said something cold, they can add "You know, he's just under a lot of stress right now." "This has nothing to do with you, he's just really busy." People will stop bothering you. But most of all, they'll look up to you.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #8: Skip Meals

Photo by: Sashertootie

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

It's 7:00pm on a Thursday and you're finalizing a paper for a class with your partner. 7:35pm, you finish it and email it to your professor. You both get up, start packing your things when your partner takes a long sigh and quietly mentions, "Oh I'm so hungry, I haven't eaten anything all day." You're taken aback. It's 7:35pm. Your mind does the math: "If the last time Jim ate was yesterday's dinner, around 6, that means he hasn't eaten for over 24 hours." Suddenly, you feel like a glutton. You continue to think to yourself: "Man, I had that great oatmeal in the morning with raisins and and brown sugar, that killer burrito for lunch, then that half a pbj I made in the afternoon to snack on, and I'm about to go home and eat dinner." You self-conciously feel your midsection to see if it's larger than you expect. Then gluttonous guilt is replaced by feelings of inadequacy: "Am I lazy because I eat so regularly? Oh shit, I even exercise regularly. No wonder I didn't have the highest grade on that midterm." You finally manage to say, "Wow Jim, you haven't eaten anything all day?" Jim then begins listing all the things he had to do today that prevented him from eating and it hits you: Wow, Jim is a really busy, important, and productive person. He doesn't even have time for meals.

Take a lesson from Jim my friends: If you want to act productive, tell people you've been skipping meals. Sure you can actually skip meals, that's what productive people do, but if you like to eat, just eat in private, quickly so as to not get caught, pop some Altoids to get rid of that oh-so-obvious onion breath, and tell people you haven't eaten "in so long". It works every time.

Fine print: Grad Hacker is for entertainment purposes only. The makers of this website are not responsible for adverse health effects from skipped meals, overeating, or overworking.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #7 - Obsessively Follow GTD Methodology

Photos by: kadavy

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

There's nothing more conducive to getting things done than Getting Things Done. So, productive people get their GTD on like it's going on sale. I'm not talking about generally accepting the paradigms in the book like capturing open loops, processing your inputs, and reviewing things weekly. I'm talking about distinguishing tasks that are @computer-internetwork from tasks better described by @computer-internetfun. I'm talking about making sure next action, context, project, and other lists are with you always on your hipsterPDA or real PDA (if you use both please email me and we can talk about it). I'm talking about making sure the only tasks you do during the day are next actions, not simply actions. I'm talking about making sure each one of those next actions are linked to a context, project, and any other next actions that may be dependent on them. I'm talking about actually having at least 100 manila folders handy at all times. I'm talking about making sure your label maker is within "swivel distance" of your chair. I'm talking about owning one of these. I'm talking about referring to David Allen by his first name, like he's your friend. Or better yet, as "The David" or simply "DA".

The bottom line: If you want to seem productive, you need to get your GTD on, turbo-charged.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Notecard for the Week: Oh yes, it gets better.

Photo by: MShades

I have become obsessed with my notecard for the day: a single 3x5 sheet that carries with it what i need to do today (a very small and realistic number), often a calendar of events (so I know when the free time is that I can do my tasks for the day), and small afternoon/evening mini-tasks and thoughts that come into my head that I need to capture. On a single 3x5 sheet.

After using it for a few months now, I've concluded there are two reasons it's so wonderful:

1. Focus - Don't we all simply want to know exactly what it is we need to do today? I have it written on a single 3x5 sheet.
2. Importance - The tasks written on that notecard are the most critical steps right now to accomplishing short term and long term goals. I know this is true because that is the criteria for a task making it onto the notecard.

In this vain, I realized that I wanted the same clarity of focus and importance for my weekly picture. Why? Because the day is a bit zoomed in when trying to accomplish goals on the month to year scale (e.g. Finish this project and write a paper by summer). Also my advisor thinks in week terms: 'Have this done by next week'. So, as I accomplish my task for a given day, I want that same clarity of focus and importance on my weekly tasks so that tomorrow morning it's damn easy to pick my new task(s). Lastly, it fits perfectly with a weekly review and literally coaxes me to do one every week since I need to switch notecards anyways.

What about Todoist? It pains me to say this but I'm slowly starting to not need it as much. It's still works great for capturing thoughts quickly when I'm on the computer or converting emails to tasks, but with my list of tasks for the week (notecard for the week) and list of tasks for the day (notecard for the day) I almost have no need for a large database of every brain fart I ever had about thinks I maybe should do.

Clarity of focus and importance: Know what the most important steps to successfully finishing your projects are, and focus on them. Don't get distracted by anything else.

I'm finding this philosophy to be invaluable.

Monday, April 7, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #6: Make Sure "Right Now is a Really Bad Time"

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Right now is a really bad time for productive people. They're really busy and your petty requests are just not what they need right now. Remember this if you want to act productive: right now can never be the best time. Oh and sorry for the tardiness. I know this was supposed to get to you on the weekend, but right now is just a really bad time. I haven't slept in days and had to work all weekend, not to mention through my whole spring break. Hope yours was good though.

If you're so un-busy to where you can just take requests and phone calls from, share jokes with, or in general have a good time with any random colleague, family member, or significant other at any time of the day, you've got some serious soul-searching to do. In the meantime you should learn how to make sure your boringness is not revealed to the world. There is only one rule for this: Make sure right now is the worst possible time for anything. I'm not just talking about tasks; sure most people don't have the time to complete a requested task immediately. But I'm talking about something much deeper.

Right now needs to be a bad time in your life in general. Right now needs to be a temporary period of the most stress you've ever experienced, while you're in search of that one goal that is always just around the corner. You can't have time for a movie, dates, the family reunion, your best friend's wedding. Seriously, if it were any other time, it would be no problem, but right now is just a really bad time. The catch, though, is that "temporary" is in the eye of the beholder. You don't want to just be productive every once in while, you want to be productive all the time, so temporary needs to also be all the time.

Here are some sample exchanges with different phrasings to help you keep your lines fresh. Good luck!

Bob: "Hey you, how's it going?"
You: "Oh man, it's just really crazy right now."

Vanessa: "Hey big guy, me and my friends from the dance team are having a pool party on Saturday night, wanna come? It's gonna be wild."
You: "Oh Vanessa, I would love to...but...I'm just totally swamped right now. Seriously, if it were any other time I'd be up for it."

Or equivalently,

Ryan: "Hey, me and the guys from the soccer team are having a car wash on Saturday. You should come out, we'll have a barbecue going, and I think we'll be going out afterwards. We'll definitely give you a free wash!"
You: "Oh Ryan, that really sounds awesome, but I'm just putting everything on hold for a little bit until [insert some big deadline a few months away] is done."
Ryan: "I understand. Your passion and drive for your work is really admirable and makes you really attractive. So don't worry about it."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reading Natural Science Papers: A Method I Swear By

Photo by: a trying youth

Those of who enter grad school in the natural sciences inevitably encounter frustrations with "reading papers." They either seem totally incomprehensible or take forever to get through. When the stars are particularly misaligned, both happen. I've struggled with this for a long time and through talking with my adviser and others' have learned that there is a general system for getting through papers without wasting an entire day, which I outline here in 3 simple points. This strategy has gone through some rigorous training so I'm not going to make excuses for it and say "I hope it works for you." I think it's a good, solid method and should work for just about anyone doing research in the natural sciences. At the same time, I realize the process is one of learning and revising, so I'd love to hear your tips on this subject.

A Caveat for the Young

But first a caveat for those that are just starting to read papers, often those that just started grad school or started research with a group in the late undergrad years. Starting to read science papers sucks at the beginning and there's really no way around it but to keep at it. At the beginning you understand barely anything. There's too much jargon, there may be all kinds of equations you don't understand, you're not clear on what is obvious and what is new in the field, you're not clear on what is important and what is a detail, etc. This is normal. Follow these tips anyways, try your best, pay special attention to the "guess the figures" tip, and keep at it. It will start to make sense sooner than you'd expect.

2 Categories of Papers.

1. Know exactly why you're reading the paper. In my experience, papers in your subject fall into 2 categories: 1) Papers from which you want to extract certain information. 2) Papers that are extremely relevant that you need to read in detail. You read every word of the second type of paper and not every word of the first type. Not heeding the later part of that warning is where most of my time has been wasted. Most papers in your field fall into the first category. And by most, I mean almost all. That makes sense, because if there were a massive number of papers that were so close to what you are doing that you need to read every word of them, you would be getting scooped right and left (scooped = someone else publishing what you're working on before you do). A good strategy for deciding which category a given paper is in is to assume that it's in category 1 and move on. If, as you read, you realize it's very relevant, you will naturally start reading more and more of it and it will fall into category 2. There are only very few papers that fall into category 2. When they do, you know, because you are usually scared shitless that you just got scooped or very excited that you just found out some new, very relevant, information that could really help your project. Category 2 papers are most often ones that you read multiple times.

2. Do the following in order: read the abstract, stop and make a guess as to what the figures will be, look at the figures and captions, read the conclusion, read the introduction if necessary. Minus a few instances where I get bogged down on figures that are interesting for one reason or another, this usually takes no longer than 5 minutes. This is where you get the gist of the paper. The abstract of course should have been read before even downloading the whole paper. The guessing figures step is an extremely handy trick that keeps you engaged. You think "If I wrote a paper with this abstract, I would probably need the following figures to support my claims." Once you do this, each figure becomes a "Yup, of course" or "Hmm, I didn't think of that. Let me think why this is important," and you're 10 times more engaged than if you had kept reading mindlessly. The conclusion is often even more concise than the abstract in stating what about their paper is new and important, and finally, the introduction, should be read if you feel you want more of a sense of context for this work. If you know how the work fits into the larger picture, the introduction is not necessary.

If you feel you've found what you wanted from the paper or what you want is definitely not there, stop here.

3. Move on to discussions of the figures within the text. Know what the most relevant figures to you are, search for where they begin discussing those figures (pdf searching "Fig. 3" or something equivalent works well), and read those sections.

This is all you need for Category 1 papers. If you need to read more, it's probably a Category 2 and it should be obvious by this point. Note there was no mention of the experimental setup and details. These should be skimmed if read at all. The only reason you need to know of these details are when you are comparing your exact experiment with theirs or are working off of their experimental setup, in which case, the paper is clearly a Category 2 and you'll be reading the whole paper probably more than once.

I read Category 2 papers using the same steps above, only after step 3 I start at the introduction and read through the whole thing, skimming parts I just read in detail and understood easily and slowing down at the more interesting sections.

That's it.

What to avoid: Equations, Details, and Reference Chasing

Don't get bogged down in equations. If you really need to know them, you'll get back to their derivations later. The worst thing you could do is start reading the paper from the beginning, word for word, get to equation 1, realize you don't know the derivation, see that it comes from reference 7, look up reference 7, start doing the same thing with that paper and slip down a cycle of never having completed an entire paper because you stop and look at a reference every time you don't understand the tiniest detail. Details are important in science of course, but there is simply too much out there that you don't know to be chasing all the details and all the derivations down the very first time you run into them in scientific literature.

Reading More Papers

I've been using this method (category, abstract, guess figures, figures, conclusion) for months now and it's absolutely dandy. I find I'm exposing myself to more papers now because I know I can get the gist of the paper without wasting an hour. I also don't feel intimidated by not understanding every detail. I used to have this false idea that professors and other experienced scientists understand everything about the papers they read. That's nonsense, of course they don't, that's why papers continue to get published, they're new. I find myself now browsing through Nature and Science magazines' websites expanding my base without feeling stupid about not knowing the details and not wasting too much time. I'm keeping up on the journals in my field a lot more than I used to. And I'm saving massive amounts of time doing literature searches to find information on a specific idea or subject.

What strategies do you use?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #5: When in Doubt, Check Your Email

Photoby: Soctech

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Let's be honest, productive people get a lot of email, so they have to check it. How could they not? They're productive, so everyone wants a piece. These people often have scores of project they're working on simultaneously (think triple digits), each one producing multiple emails a day that need immediate checking and responding, and they're handling each one better you will probably handle any single project in your whole life. But don't feel bad, feel productive! Check your damn email already.

Most of us check email whenever we feel like it, respond whenever we feel like it, and somehow seem to make it through life with this level of mediocrity. Productive people, on the other hand, feel a deep sense of urgency, and can express this through digital communication like it's going out of style. These are the people that make others say to their friends, "Look at this, he responded to this email in 5 minutes," or "Woah, I sent this at 1am and she responded by 1:30!"They check email at work, at home, on dates, in bed, on the road, driving, biking, jogging, at the movies, at the beach, when they are in front of you and get to the counter at the burrito place that already has a long line. Bottom line is, they check that shit. If you want to be productive you should too. How do you know how often is enough? If you got to the end of this post without checking your email at least once, you're not checking it enough. Go back and try again.

Some good ways to increase your daily email checking: when you're stuck on a difficult project, go check your email; when you really don't want to work on something with a deadline, go check your email; when you get to work in the morning, definitely start by checking your email; when you have that awkward 20 minute break between events, go check your email. You get the point.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #4: Work Through Spring Break

Photo by: allygirl520

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Ah spring break. Sun, skin, MTV video cameras, uninhibited drinking of alcohol. This is what spring break is about - if you're lazy.

We all know the truth about spring break: it's a time to finally get some research done. Maybe you've heard that before, maybe you've ignored it, maybe you're grossly unproductive. But one thing, however, is for sure: even if you don't work through the entirety of spring break telling people how hard you worked all break long is a sure way to increase your perceived productivity. Of course, being productive is an important part of acting productive, and actually working through spring break while everyone else is having unbridled sexual escapades that they won't remember, is encouraged. But we understand that everyone slips up once in a while, that's why we think the most important part about spring break is to prepare for the "how was your break?" conversations, regardless of how hard you worked:

First, make a list of things you got done over the break, review the list (email us, we'll help you with your list at no charge). Try to include items that your friends have been trying to do themselves for a long time but haven't "got around to" doing.

Second, have at least one event in mind that you were invited to attend but skipped out on to ensure you aren't perceived as a loser. Multi day events in tropical locations are encouraged. Mentioning the event was attended by very attractive and rather out-of-your-league peers is very strongly encouraged.

Third, what should be a fundamental skill if you've read any of the tips in this series, always start the conversation off by asking about their break was, mentioning how you wish you could say the same, and expressing a resigned acceptance that it was so much more fun than yours.

Finally, if there is one person you have this conversation with, let it be your boss. Your boss is probably not cool enough, attractive enough, nor lazy enough, to have spent spring break at some tropical location, they were probably working too, but expected that you weren't. But you were, and you should say so. Or you weren't, but you should still say so. Set yourself apart from your peers and tell your boss.

Happy Spring Break.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #3 - Work All Weekend

Photo by: emdot

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

What did you do this past weekend? Hang out with friends? Drink alcoholic beverages? "Oh but I did a little bit of work on Sunday morning" you say. Unacceptable. Who do you think you are, Cal Newport? Stop being lazy, start being productive, work the entire weekend.

Productive people don't have weekends. Weekends are when the office is quiet, there are no classes if you are a student or professor, the phones aren't ringing, the email volume takes a dip, so why would any sane, productive person waste this time gallivanting around town when they could be making progress on the million projects on their plate? Don't get me wrong, you can do that, it's your life, just don't expect to be productive at the same time.

Now, in the vain of the How to Act Productive series, I must add the final ingredient to acting productive by working all weekend long: tell people what you did over the weekend. You need people to know how productive you were over the weekend. You need to inspire them. Last week I mentioned how you must carefully slide your lack of sleep into conversations to preserve some social tact. Such rules seemlessly extend into this week. Don't start by talking about your productive weekend, ask about their lazy weekend first: "So what did you do this weekend." "Oh it was awesome, we took the boat out on Saturday, the weather was beautiful, hung out for a while, hit up this party in the evening. Then on Sunday..." "Oh, that must have been nice, I was here working the whole time." Oh yes.

So towards the end of this week, when you start to think about what you'll do this weekend, ask yourself this simple question: Am I a productive person?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Zotero Review

On its website, Zotero is described "is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources." Even though it’s been out for a while, I somehow didn’t run into it until a few months ago. I’ve used it for a while and have switched over from using Endnote because I like it that much, below is my review.

Here is my two sentence review of Zotero: If Evernote and Endnote had sex and made a baby, Zotero would be that baby. It would then outdo its parents in so many ways.

If that is all you need to know, go ahead and try it out, it's free for crying out loud. Otherwise, here is my longer review organized in list form of my opinions of its features. The part about Evernote in my two sentence review is about how Zotero can do more than just manage research articles, but I can’t write about everything (that’s what it’s website is for) so this review will just be about using Zotero to manage research papers.

1. Autofind - This is perhaps the coolest thing about Zotero. Zotero recognizes when you're looking at a summary, abstract, citation, and/or list of articles and puts a little icon next to the url. When you click on the icon, it automatically stores the citation information for that article in the database. My experiences with this feature have been pretty damn good. I'm in the natural sciences, so results in other fields may vary, but in the databases that I use, and most surprisingly at the vast majority of individual journals' websites, Zotero knows when I'm looking at an article. It isn't perfect though, and it can be annoying when you're cruising along and just want to store a citation and move on and Zotero doesn't recognize it. I've had this problem when checking who cited a given paper in Web of Science. But overall, this is a positive feature and a hell of a lot faster than exporting to Endnote. Which leads me to...

2. It Lives in Firefox - An absolute plus. Firefox is where I find articles, often look at the pdf of articles I've found, find other articles related to a given article I'm reading, so it only makes sense that my database of papers also live in Firefox. When you click on the icon in the address bar, the whole world doesn’t stop for Endnote to startup and you don’t have to click 5 other screens to allow Firefox to download the file, pick the library, etc. It just pulls up a little “Saving item…” tab in the bottom corner of the Firefox window, does its business, and removes the tab. The whole process, when working properly (which is the vast majority of the time) takes maybe 10 seconds. You do have to be careful about which folder you left highlighted in Zotero, because it will automatically save citations into that folder. I find this more of a plus than a minus though, because often I’m searching for a bunch of articles about one research subject, so I can just keep clicking the icon in the address bar and Zotero will keep saving citations right where I want them.

3. Folders – Does Endnote have folders inside a given library? I don’t think so, but maybe. Is it useful and fast enough for me to have known about? Evidently not. The folders and subfolders list is extremely useful and a breath of fresh air. Research papers aren’t emails. Throwing them all in one folder and searching for them is often not the best way to find what you’re looking for. You also seem to be able to place a given entry into more than one folder, which rocks. Drag, drop, drag, drop. Ooooh, it’s easy.

4. Tags – If folders aren’t enough for finding the articles you want, you can also add tags to papers, which work exactly like Gmail labels. Personally, I find that since I can place an entry into multiple folders already, tags aren’t particularly useful. But I use this occasionally. For example, when I’m doing a search on a given subject, it’s often convenient to keep adding entries to the list, but mark the especially pertinent ones as “to read” via a tag and go back and make sure I read all of them later. I wish I had learned this trick earlier because it’s one hell of a time saver. I’ll write more about this and other opinions about doing literature searches later.

5. Search as you type – Awesome. The search function of Zotero is so convenient. It’s fast, and it’s built, unobtrusively, right into the little screen. Endnote’s search worked well for me too, but it brought up a second screen and results didn’t show up as I typed; minor details, I know, but I’m just listing what I like here.

6. Notes – Oooh this is convenient. I’ve started to keep all of my notes and summaries of papers in Zotero in the notes option. It’s right there with the paper always. Besides actually taking notes on the paper though, the fact that the notes are included in searches means that I can type a list of “keywords” or random ways that I remember a paper into the notes to increase my chances of finding it later. Why not use tags or folders for this? Because often the ways I, and many others, remember a paper is through odd characteristics like: “that one paper by those British guys”, “the one with the blah blah technique in it”, “the one with that blah blah figure in it”, etc. I don’t want those random thoughts about every paper to have their own folder or tag, that’s ridiculous.

7. Importing from Endnote – So, if you’ve been using another reference software, how easy is it to switch? Good question. I used Endnote, so that’s all I can talk about. I went through their method of importing my references from Endnote and it worked with one weird quirk: it turned all kinds of Endnote keywords of some sort into tags, which is really annoying. So now I have all these tags that I don’t want and I don’t know how to delete all tags at one time, so I’m just not using tags much, eh, oh well. Otherwise the papers seem to enter just fine.

8. Citing as you type – I haven’t written a paper using Zotero for citations and don’t plan on it because my colleagues, and most importantly, my adviser, don’t use Zotero, so collaborating on a paper requires that I still use Endnote for that. I don’t forsee that being a problem though because the papers we write have maybe 20 or so citations max, and I can export them as RIS and make a little Endnote library for that particular paper. Maybe I’ll use Zotero for citations in a paper when I have to write the dissertation. I’ll let you know.

9. Free – Endnote costs money, this doesn’t. How do you beat that?

10. Open Source – Zotero is actively being worked on, which means bugs and kinks, and compatibility issues are constantly being fixed. This is a huge plus. Think Google; it responds to users’ requests by constantly improving its products, that’s so useful.

Overall, I’m quite happy with Zotero, and I find myself saving more papers than before and doing literature searches a lot faster and a lot more efficiently than before, which is a plus. Recommended.

What do you think of Zotero? Share your thoughts!