Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

I’d been hoping to move a rather urgent paper on this month, another PhD-derived one that really needs to beat the 1st April 2013 submission deadline, otherwise I’ll have to pay dearly for it to be published due to the new UK Open Access rules. But I’ve been rather knocked out of late, and haven’t finished the transcribing I’d hoped to do. I have my own microfilm machine at home, and the relevant records on film, but haven’t been well enough of late to sit down and work through them, which is not good.

But to move things on despite all this I’ve been looking tonight at developing other parts of the paper. Some time ago I had made lots of notes in a text editor, jotting down ideas for a rough structure. But I was struggling to see beyond these, and to properly see the bigger picture. So tonight I turned these linear notes into a mind map on my iPad, using the iThoughtsHD app. This allowed me to sketch out the overall structure more dynamically, and to fill in details of the other sections, as ideas occurred to me.

Chapmen mind map in iThoughtsHD

I now have a detailed structure that I can develop, and while part 2 of the paper (the part related to the microfilm transcription) is a little on hold I can develop the other parts, particularly parts 1, 3 and 4. I can also work on a bit of part 2 that is derived directly from a section in my PhD thesis. That leaves the rest of part 2 to finish after I’m better able to do the microfilm transcribing, and likewise part 5 – the conclusions – to work on at the very end, though I have sketched out a likely structure for that already.

So my paper is underway again, not quite in the manner I’d planned at the start of this month, but it’s making forward progress. And since I am aiming to submit before a looming deadline that is a good thing. Mind mapping has proved to be very effective for me tonight. Usually I’d mind map at an earlier stage than this, but in this case I was able to take a rough very linear set of notes and turn it into a mind map to make sense of and develop the bigger structure. And that was an enormous help.

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Charlotte Mathieson posted a useful blog post today reflecting on what she’d achieved writing-wise in Academic Writing Month. Even more valuable, I think, are her thoughts there on learning from the experience and taking it forward. In particular she writes:

So the first thing I’m taking away from AcWriMo is planning my writing month-by-month as a way of focusing on more concrete, realisable targets. At the same time, the above goals make clear that being flexible is crucial; we can never entirely predict where a piece of writing or research will take us, and that’s natural. What was important about having the overall AcWriMo structure in place was keeping the end-goal in sight, and being realistic about how I could still have a solid outcome from the month whilst adapting to the changing needs of my research.

I totally agree with her thoughts here, on the value of planning writing month-by-month, and the need to be flexible. When I started November I declared my goals and a strategy for completing them. But in the end papers were finished in a different order from that originally anticipated, depending on how well they were going, what I wanted to do next. It was very much a case of reaching the end goal, not mattering quite in what order I got there.

Like Charlotte I plan to continue to state my goals month by month, and see if I can carry the momentum forward. This applies not just to writing, but to research in general. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring more projects to fruition more effectively this way.


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Although I can’t work due to a progressive neurological disease I keep my academic CV up to date with details of academic journal publications, papers in progress etc. That was useful when I asked for an honorary research fellowship after finishing my PhD in 2010, and it’s been sensible to keep it up to date ever since.

I last updated the CV in October 2012. It is already out of date! Not only have I submitted papers now that were in progress then, but I summoned up an unexpected paper idea, and submitted that as well. That one wasn’t mentioned on the October 2012 CV at all.

I’ve now updated my CV again. I now have three single-authored published papers, and one more accepted / in press. Three more papers are currently with editors or reviewers. And three more papers are in early stages. That is all in addition to co-authored computer science papers from my previous science academic life.

Even if, like me, you are not working in academia, I would recommend keeping an up-to-date academic CV for your personal use. You can detail work in progress, and plans for submission, as well as completed / published things. It is an extremely useful aide de memoire, for keeping track of various projects on the go.

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Haven’t made so much progress in the last week, because I’ve been quite ill, with a worsening extremely heavy cold on top of my neurological disease. But on the plus side I submitted Paper 1 by email last week, and received a prompt response from the editor. So that’s in hand. That makes it 3 journal papers submitted in November 2012, which is excellent progress. And I have a blog post that should be appearing in the near future on the website of an academic society I’m a member of.

My focus over the last few days, where I’ve been able to, has been to look ahead to future plans. For that I’ve been using my mind mapping app on my iPad, iThoughtsHD, to brainstorm future paper ideas and longer-term research plans. I’ve identified 3 more papers that I want to work on in the near future, though all are at relatively early stages, and need quite a lot of research, thinking and writing to be ready for submission. I’ve also identified areas that I want to work on in future research-wise.

My text adventure coding hasn’t moved on – just been too ill really – but it is in a good state, and I will be able to move it forward in future. It is far improved from where it was at the start of November, and for that I’m really pleased.

Because I’m unlikely to be able to do much more academic writing between now and Friday this is my last sum-up post for #AcWriMo this year. I’m incredibly pleased by how it’s gone. Thanks to its encouragement I’ve been able to complete and submit 3 papers that were lingering and not getting finished off otherwise. And I’ve also moved other writing and plans forward.

I definitely intend to sign up for #AcWriMo again next year. Between now and then I will also try to be more focused in terms of setting myself mini goals from time to time, declaring them here and on various social media sites, and trying to stick to them. That method of working has proved to be very effective for me, and I should use this technique more in future.

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I recently had to buy a new printer, after my old one (which had lasted over a decade) finally caved in. Clearing out the old printer and making room for the new one prompted me to deal with a backlog of printout odds and ends which I hadn’t dealt with properly. Most are just scraps and can go into the paper recycling box, but I found a couple of interesting things tonight.

One was the notes for a talk I gave during my PhD to fellow postgraduate students about the difficulties of identifying individuals in the past. This came out of my Masters dissertation, where I had built a very large database of pursuers and defendants in 17th century court cases. There are many references to people with the same name, some would be to the same person multiple times, but more often than not references are to different people, but it’s really difficult to figure out from them who was who. This is despite the very helpful habit in the locality concerned of using nicknames, sometimes based on where the people lived, sometimes to do with their physical description, sometimes genealogical, and so on. Anyway the talk notes, which are accompanied by a spreadsheet page of similarly-named people from my court cases database, make some interesting points. Maybe I should write it up into something more formal? Even a blog post would be good.

The other useful thing I found tonight in the pile of printouts was my initial plan/notes for an essay from 2006. I think this was part of a training exercise we did on writing skills, and we were advised to break down our writing task under certain headings, to focus ourselves more. The piece of writing I used to practice this technique on was part of Chapter 6 of my PhD thesis, and what would ultimately turn into my recent Scottish Historical Review journal paper.

The headings that the essay plan is broken down into are really helpful:

  • Title and summary:
  • Title
  • What is the focus of this essay?
  • What is the purpose of this essay?
  • Deadlines (start date and 1st draft due date)
  • Research:
  • What is the essay about?
  • What is the focus of this essay?
  • Why is this topic interesting or relevant to me?
  • What is my working hypothesis?
  • What questions or conflicts need to be resolved?
  • Audience:
  • Who is going to read this essay?
  • What does my audience know about this subject?
  • What do I want my audience to learn from this essay?
  • What am I trying to tell the readers about this subject?

And under each of those subject headings I have a short paragraph expanding on my thoughts accordingly. Often in ways I had since quite forgot. I mean I had a working hypothesis at that point?! And thoughts about conflicts?! If I was planning a set of questions like this myself now I’d add other ones, for example to stress my contribution, and why it is of interest to other people not just me. But they are a very good start, and could be really helpful when planning a piece of writing, or indeed research. This technique would also work well with my mind mapping technique for breaking down ideas and fleshing them out. I wish I hadn’t forgotten it over the last six years. But thankfully I rediscovered it tonight. And will aim to apply to my academic writing in future.

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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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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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