How Not to Suck at Efficiency: Some Technology Suggestions

Here is a bonus blog as we prepare for the fall term.

Nearly all graduate students and academics complain that they wish they had more time for the details of science, discovery, and writing results for publication. We all seem to struggle to find the time to write, think, and communicate. Time in the classroom, office hours, meetings, administration, and other professional tasks function to take away from research productivity. And there is always real-life: sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, relationships, family, illness, stress, exercise, and coping with mental health issues all take time away from productivity. These are essential disruptions. A well-balanced life is critical for long-term work, well-being, and happiness. However, scholars are required to maximize efficiency in the few hours per day that are available for research productivity.
Everyone will find the work habits that are best for them. I have written about many of these habits before, but this post is about some tools that I have found to assist me in being as efficient as possible. I have no financial or other stake in these products. I only found that they work well for me.

Priority matrix: This is a fancy to-do list that helps to prioritize tasks by long-term, short term, due dates, importance, and other variables. It has a free trial, but is fairly expensive to subscribe to. I have purchased this item. The flexibility is the true strength of Priority Matrix. I like that it has the ability to break down large tasks into small chunks and integrate tasks with calendars. The program sends me an e-mail with my list of tasks every day. At the end of the day I check off each task completed and update the tasks for the next day. It could also be a good idea for a lab as there are group rates for integrated project teams. The price is a little high and there are other good to do lists on the market, but I find this one to be extremely helpful.

DragonNaturally Speaking Premium Version 13: This is my dictation software. I use it for all first drafts and nearly all e-mails. It is a remarkably easy product to use. I have heard that this does not work especially well for people with soft voices or strong accents. I have a southern-inflected Midwestern twang, but have no problems. The program learns your vocabulary by going through your e-mails and other documents and learning the words that you use the most, even highly technical terms and phrases. It’s kind of spooky. The only problem is that most people do not write in the same tone or style as they speak. It takes some practice to say the words in the same style as your writing. Your writing will be a bit chatty at first. But once you get that down, then your speed of writing goes from around 50 words per minute (or however fast you type) to about 140 words per minute. The pace of thinking increases and first drafts can be finished in a couple of hours. I also like using a wireless microphone. I will lay on the couch, close my eyes, scratch the dog, and complete a draft of a paper. Be sure to edit carefully. The types of errors you make when typing are different from dictation errors. Slurred or mumbled speaking makes for odd errors. In a recent paper a student was editing, she asked, “When did we start working with German children?” I meant to say “certain children,” but slurred my speech and the wrong word was recognized. Those types of errors take some practice to identify while editing. Overall, it is a major time saver and enhancer of creativity. I also find it to be useful when I am just sick of being at the keyboard.

Scrivener: A wonderful outlining and word processing program. I enjoy the corkboard and notecard features. For me, these features are helpful because I tend to write decent paragraphs, but sequencing and flow can be problems in the first draft.  It works well for any writing activity, but I find it to be essential for large and multipart projects like books or grant proposals. The special strength is for outlining projects. I have found it extremely intuitive and it work easily with Word and other word processing programs. I have also found that the technical support, instructional support and videos, and frequently asked questions parts of the website are excellent.

aNote: This is a simple note taking system for the iPhone. I used it for a while, but have switched to OneNote because I use a tablet and pen now and OneNote quickly and easily transfers to my other devises. But aNote is pretty strong note taker.

ShopShop: Grocery list. There are many complex grocery lists with recipes, prediction of items that you might want and other factors. But ShopShop is a stripped down and super simple model. Free.

30/30: This is an iPhone app for the truly obsessive. Anyone who likes to plan every minute of their day will benefit well from this time management system. My daughter uses this to organize her day and swears by it. This is the kid who has published four books by the age of eighteen, was on the college Dean’s list, and is an efficiency savant. It is somewhat similar to a Pomodoro system, except more flexible. The 30/30 program allows you to dedicate a set amount of time to each task. Then a timer tracks the amount of time that you dedicate to each of the tasks. I have found the structure a little too much for me. I enjoy some degree of flexibility (i.e., semi structured laziness). But for those developing the discipline to organize your day for the completion of specific tasks, I recommend this app.

Google Calendar: I know there are many fancy and sophisticated calendar systems available. I have tried several. This basic default calendar seems to meet my needs.

LoseIt!: For keeping track of what I eat as I am working to drop some weight and generally improve fitness. A really wonderful program for computer and iPhone. The free version is pretty good. But I use the Premium version to keep track of additional data (especially my sugar intake) and for motivation. The program does a nice job of identifying patterns that can be helpful. For example, the program noted that on days that I consume branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), I tend to consume less sugar (a major problem for my eating habits). Good to know.

A lot of people use various apps for concentration. I know there are many for blocking or avoiding favorite procrastination websites. But honestly, often I just turn off the wifi and do not use those systems. When focus is a problem, then I listen to a metronome set to my resting heartrate (around 56bpm) with headphones I also use the pomodoro timer online to keep track of time segments.

Zotero: An open-source manuscript management system. EndNote, Mendeley, and others all have their strengths. The interface is a bit clunky and not as pretty on Zotero compared to its commercial competitors. However, it is a functional, intuitive, and a valuable addition. I just prefer open source software as a personal preference. I also have an issue with high profit manuscript management software that have now paired with major academic publishers. Let the price gouging commence. I have a stand-alone version of Zotero for my projects and we have a group version that is shared among lab members.

SurfacePro3: I am new to this hardware as I have recently shifted from a laptop to a tablet. I am still getting used to it. The keyboard is not great. I recommend a full-sized external keyboard for long and fast typing (or just switch to dictating). So far, it has just made writing, internet work, storing information and other basic work much simpler. The wireless HDMI display to my basement TV/sound system is pretty cool as well. The light weight and ease of interface removes any excuse. I can work anywhere at any time. (note: I wrote this blog on the train and finished it waiting for daughter #2 at the dentist–so that is cool). It is a bit expensive, but so far I like using it.

I am not a fast adopter of every new technology or app that comes down the pike. I use two simple criteria: does adoption of something new save or cost time? and Does it improve the quality of work required to achieve my aims? There are hundreds of apps, software, and hardware that claim to lead to improved efficiency. What works depends on your needs and style of working. These are just a few of the things that I use.

SR Shaw

Next blogs:
How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative
How Not to Suck at Creating a Professional Network


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