Archive for the ‘productivity tips’ Category

I’ve written before here about how useful I find the iPad to be as a productivity tool. I’ve been musing on this some more, in particular its use at different stages of writing and research.

Perhaps the most help the iPad gives me is when I’m brainstorming an idea in the initial stages. This can be for a piece of writing, or a planned piece of research, or anything really. I will always have a mind map (in iThoughtsHD) for my overall to-do list plans, and whenever I start a new project I make a new mind map for it. I’m not a natural mind mapper, but find it a great way, especially on the iPad in this app, of breaking a task down into smaller stages, recording ideas before I forget them, and moving research on a lot. Using this technique I’ve been able to bring more projects to fruition more quickly than in the past. I also think it’s helped me to be far more creative than I would have been without it.

The other way the iPad is brilliant for my way of working is as a concentrated writing tool. Because you can generally only focus on one task at a time in it, apart from possibly playing music in the background or through headphones, it’s very good for focused working. There are a number of distraction-free writing apps out there. I like WriteRoom, and will often take the core structure of a mind map from iThoughtsHD, import it into WriteRoom, and then start to write up my text. This is good for blog posts, short articles, and even academic papers. I also used it for some of my essays and my final project report in the honours level Open University art history course I took for fun last year. WriteRoom provides a word count facility, but little more. No fancy formatting options or anything like that. It’s essentially a getting-the-words-down app, and it’s really good at that.

I don’t find the iPad so good for final laying out and formatting. For example in #AcWriMo I’ve been working to get a few journal papers out the door and submitted. And a really important part of that is to make sure that each paper conforms to the journal’s own chosen house style. This editing could be done on an iPad, but I find it easier on my Mac laptop, even a 13″ size one, where I can have two windows open at once. On the left I have the Word window for the paper I’m working on, and on the right I have a window (whether in Word or a PDF, or a web page) containing the journal house style rules. And then I can refer to both as need be.

Also I don’t find the iPad as good for higher-level editing, at least in the word processor directly. For Paper 2 in my #AcWriMo goals I’ve been hacking away at the text like mad, making very big changes. And that’s easier done, for me anyway, on a laptop or a desktop. But the iPad is brilliant for annotating text. I have a stylus (cheap but effective, with a squidgy end that presses on the screen as I write with it), and using GoodReader I can open up a PDF that I’m reviewing and considering changes to, then scribble all over it on the screen. Then I can email the annotated PDF to my laptop for making the big changes. Talk about a paperless office! Anyway that method works for me. I also find I get through more PDFs reading them on my iPad than I would on the computer, and I really don’t like printing them all out.

Note all this applies to the large-screen iPad. I have an iPad 2. I’m not sure how well I’d work this way on an iPad mini. I think it’s a fantastic device, but the smaller screen size, both for typing on and reading PDFs, might be an issue for me. I have a separate Bluetooth keyboard that I use at times, and would work with an iPad mini too, but I rather like typing on screen as much as I can.

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A blog post yesterday on the Thesis Whisperer website argued strongly against PhD students writing from day one, as is advocated by at least some lecturers and supervisors. This proved to be quite a contentious post, and the comments after it showed a split pretty much down the middle. But some people, like me, appreciated the viewpoint, and were largely in favour of it.

When I started my second go at a PhD, having had to leave a full-time science one after falling seriously ill, I was determined to make the best possible use of my second chance. And that included being as efficient a student as possible, and making the most of my productivity. I wrote my history PhD literature review in the first three months, and then went straight on to start historical research in the archives. This was despite me being a part-time PhD student the second time around, and increasingly severely disabled as time went on. When I’d been a full-time science student it was normal to spend the first year reading and writing a literature review. That meant that when I fell ill in that first year, and deteriorated rapidly, I had made little concrete progress early on. Wasn’t going to let that happen the second time! But beyond the quick literature review I wrote very little in my history PhD before the halfway stage. Most of my creative processes went on in my head, as I focused on doing the archival research.

One of the history lecturers advocated the write every day from day one approach, and I strongly disagreed with him. Partly that was from my own personal circumstances, being so severely ill and disabled that I just didn’t have the time or energy to devote to that activity. But also it was that I needed to be doing other things for my PhD, and they had to take priority at that stage. And I think in productivity terms that can apply to more people than just me.

One point I definitely agreed with in the Thesis Whisperer post is that writing can be best done after ideas have had a chance to germinate, and that takes time. When I look back at my writing in the first year of the history PhD much of it – though not that literature review, which survived largely unscathed – is naive not because it was badly written but because it was written too early, before I’d had a chance to think things through properly. This is a lesson that I’ve applied in my post-PhD research and writings. I might scribble notes or create mind-maps on my iPad as I start each new piece of research. But I don’t do any more formal writing until I’m well advanced working through the primary sources, and my brain has had a good chance to think about things.

A counter-argument to that is that writing is a creative process, and I agree that you can come out with ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise when you start to write. But there’s a limit to how effective this can be early on in the thinking/ideas stage, and I would argue strongly that writing is more effective creatively later on than at the start. Some people will be different in this respect, for example finding brain-dump style writing very helpful in their early thought processes. But I’m not one of them. If I try brain-dumping before I’m far enough through the research and thinking stages I just produce gibberish of no worth.

One point I made in my comment on the Thesis Whisperer blog post is that I found writing my humanities PhD thesis very hard. I started writing up about halfway through the six years I was allowed as a part-time student, and the time that I ended up taking in the end. But I don’t think my writing difficulties then were due to my delaying starting the thesis writing, but rather that I was still struggling to work out my ideas and find my best voice. I was working through a process that took time, and starting writing early wouldn’t have helped significantly, because ultimately I needed to figure out the ideas in my head, and that took a while.

The Thesis Whisperer post was not so sure about how different – or not – the writing process in a science PhD was from a humanities PhD. I have an unusual perspective on this, having been both a science and a humanities PhD student. There are differences in the approach to the thesis, particularly structural, which meant that a university training course I went on which advocated the science model of writing the thesis, even for humanities students, really exasperated me and didn’t help me at all with my humanities thesis writing. A science PhD thesis is much more in the style of a traditional formal report, whereas a humanities PhD tends to be more abstract and layered, at least in my experience. But there are also similarities. Both sets of students work through the literature review stage, then generally do research and/or experiments, before writing up. Some write up sooner, but for me as a history PhD student the second-time around there was very much a three-stage process to the PhD: literature review, archival research with primary sources, and writing up the thesis. And it wasn’t so hugely different from my experiences as a science student.

Would I have done things differently if I hadn’t been ill and so restricted? I don’t think so. I was lucky that my first PhD supervisor, for the science PhD I had to leave, wasn’t a write-every-day type, and gave me more freedom to choose how best to work for me. I like to think that if I’d have been able to continue with that full-time PhD I would have discovered a way of working for me that’s not so dissimilar from how I tackled my part-time history PhD, and how I’m now doing things as a post-doc / honorary research fellow turning my research into more academic papers.

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So often the iPad is assumed to be a content consumption device, rather than a productivity tool. However since I got my iPad I’ve found it very useful for research and academic purposes. I wish I’d had it when I was doing my PhD, especially writing up the thesis. Unfortunately the iPad only came out after my successful viva! And even then it took me quite a long time to get one, only getting an iPad 2 many months after it was released.

The app I find most useful of all productivity-wise is iThoughtsHD. This is a mind mapping app, but can be used by people who don’t generally mind map. It’s great for brainstorming, and getting ideas down fast. I find that I get things down more quickly and creatively using this app than I did before without it, and that means I get more things done more quickly and better. I have a mind map open for each academic journal article that I’m working on. I also have an overall to-do list / possible research areas one. And I have a few other mind maps on the go just for jotting down ideas.

My other favourite productivity app is WriteRoom which is a distraction-free writing tool. There are others like it, but I think it was the first of its kind, and I like it a lot. It lets you focus on writing, getting the text down, rather than worrying about layout and font. I’ll often copy the structure of my mind map / brainstorm from iThoughtsHD into WriteRoom, and then work from there. I find this an easy way of writing up papers and articles. You can customise WriteRoom’s display. I like green text on a black background – very 80s!

I think the best PDF app on the iPad is Goodreader. It works well with all different kinds of PDFs, and you can annotate, even with a stylus if you buy one of those. I bought a cheap stylus from Amazon, one with a squidgy foam end that writes pretty well on the screen. And I can then scribble all over the PDF files on my iPad. For example I’m currently turning my PG Masters dissertation into an academic journal paper, and recently made great headway scribbling all over the PDF of the latest version with my stylus.

Two other apps that I recommend for following academic/research types are Feedler RSS for following interesting blogs, and Flipboard for turning Twitter feeds and others into a very dynamic and easy to scan magazine-type interface. I follow a lot of historians and archivists on Twitter, and it’s nice to be able to use Flipboard to quickly scan their interesting posts.

Also there’s a blog dedicated to using the iPad as an academic/productivity tool. See academiPad.

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