My Grad School Notetaking Workflow

Now that I’ve had my iPad Pro for a while, I’ve finally settled into a routine for managing my course notes. I rely on two main apps (Goodnotes and Evernote) and both my Macbook Pro and iPad Pro.

Setting Up for the Week

Each week before class, I duplicate an existing copy of my weekly course notes to save time typing out my preferred format. It’s broken down into Administrative (typically action items or important information about the course), a list of assigned readings, an area for taking notes during that week’s lecture, and a place for the lecture slides.

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(Note in the screenshot above I have two reminders listed in the sidebar. They serve as a workaround to pin notes to the top like Apple Notes. Until Evernote decides to add the feature, this is the next best thing. I just turn off notifications so I’m not pestered by dates.)

Next, I download the assigned readings for the next week as well as the lecture slides from the previous class from the course site on Blackboard. Newly assigned readings get put into Goodnotes on the Mac. While I’m in Goodnotes, I also export any readings from the previous week to PDF and delete the previous week’s category.

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Back in Evernote, I create notes for each of the new readings and link to them in the weekly note using the Copy Note Link feature. I used to include my reading notes directly in the Weekly notes, but after noticing a few of the assigned readings were papers I’d already read for another class, I switched to keeping my notes directly with the papers themselves, linking each class to the single note for the paper. It makes noticing connections a lot easier.

The last step in preparing for the week is to create tasks in Omnifocus. I typically prefer to have all the assignments plugged in at the start of the semester, but for this class, it’s easier to enter them on a weekly basis.

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Reading

With set up done, I switch to my iPad Pro for reading and annotation within Goodnotes. If something seems particularly noteworthy I make note of that in the stub note in Evernote, but for the most part, the annotation is sufficient.

In Class

During class, I use my iPad Pro to switch between typing notes into Evernote and making additional annotations in Goodnotes.

Tidying Up

The day after class, I make sure my weekly note for the previous class is complete by adding the final annotated copy of the readings into the stub notes I created for them (they’re already linked to the main weekly note), adding the lecture slides. I end up with something that looks a bit like this.

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And then it’s time to start this whole process over for the next week!

 

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A Simple Solution for Integrating Goals into Omnifocus

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Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

As each year wraps up, I, like many, start thinking about my goals. What did I set out to accomplish for the year? How did I do? Admittedly, I did pretty well, successfully completing 12 of my goals for 2017.

But there were equally as many that I didn’t get to. A handful of them are simply still in progress or wrapping up, but it was clear the others failed because I just wasn’t tracking them.

This makes me laugh because anyone who knows me knows I track just about everything: tv shows, tasks, activity, sleep, habits, how I spend time on my computer, water consumption… the list goes on…

For 2018, I set out with a plan, ensuring each goal had a way to be tracked. How to track progress on some things were a no-brainer. Tracking my weight is done automatically with Fitbit scale provided I remember to stand on it. Meditating regularly is something that Streaks can track automatically as long as the app sends the data to Apple Health.

It was the larger objectives I was having trouble with – my reading goal, financial goals, interpersonal things. They were things I really wanted to work on, but without some sort of accountability, ensuring steady progress on them was easily forgotten during the day to day activities.

Seeing as I run my life out of Omnifocus, I figured that was the best place to start, but I had a few problems:

  • I didn’t want my goals to get buried amongst my ongoing responsibilities.
  • I didn’t like the added visual clutter of prefixing each project with something like [GOAL]
  • Some of my goals like posting to this blog regularly were just tasks, not full blown projects.
  • I wanted them to live within my existing folder/project/context structure of Omnifocus.

My solution was quite simple. I simply added #goal to the Notes field of each project or task relating to a goal. With that, I created a custom perspective (project-based, grouped by folder, showing any remaining tasks that included the text #goal). The perspective gives me a list of all tasks related to my goals (at least the ones being tracked in Omnifocus) in one list.

I’ve added the perspective to my toolbar, so that whenever I’m in Omnifocus, I can see all my goals in one list. It’s become a valuable part of my daily planning and keeps me focused on ensuring I’m always making progress on my goals.

Trouble with Task Managers

I’ve been using Omnifocus for over 3 years now. It’s effectively become my second brain at this point. But lately, I’ve been running into a few hiccups.

Design

For anyone interested in GTD or task management, I doubt I need to mention how gorgeous Things 3 is. Looking at Omnifocus feels like I’m looking at a complicated spreadsheet now. I’d switch to Things in a heartbeat, but it’s lack of sequential tasks or perspectives are deal breakers. I also find that the sidebar gets quite overwhelming fairly quickly if you use a task manager to the extent that I do. If they’d add the ability to have headers in Areas, I’d be thrilled.

Sharing Lists

Now that I’m sharing tasks with another person, mainly my grocery list, I’ve had to look elsewhere and abandon my wonderfully organized list in Omnifocus. I’m back to using Reminders for now. For a brief time, I explored GoodTask and 2Do which both sync with Reminders, but found GoodTask lacking in features and 2Do just too complicated.

Tags

Testing out Things 3, GoodTask, and 2Do really opened my eyes to how valuable a tagging system could be. While not critical to my workflow, I do think there is value in being able to assign things like energy levels, priorities, or people to certain tasks in addition to just their context. Multiple tags is on the roadmap for Omnifocus 3, but it is yet another thing to be desired in my current set up.

For now, I’ve resigned myself to keep using Omnifocus. Tags are at least on the roadmap, and sharing of lists has at least been hinted at so it seems like my best bet is to keep waiting. Hopefully, the next version will feature a simplified design as well and the wait will be worthwhile. Until then, it seems like I’ll be dealing with a little more friction when it comes to my task management system then I’d like.

What’s on my home screen? (2017 Edition)

I try to post an update on my home screen at least once a year, but admittedly it has remained fairly stable… at least up until now. This year, I actually have a few new apps to show you! So without further adieu, here’s my home screen for 2017.

The top row still serves as a gauge for my day, but this time around all of the apps are new. I’ve switched back to the stock calendar app (read more about why here). Carrot Weather has replaced Dark Sky, due to it’s superb Apple Watch complication. My Ulla obnoxiously blinking at me is still my biggest motivator to stay hydrated throughout the day, but because it lacks any sort of tracking capability, I use Waterminder to track what I’m drinking throughout the day. I like it because it includes other types of fluids (even soup). Streaks is in the last spot, and I use it to keep track of well… streaks… It’s nice to keep tabs on various habits I’m working on (mindfulness, daily exercise, steps taken, hydration, etc) over time. Streaks and Waterminder are both rare apps that are deemed important enough to break my no notification badges rule.

The next row is my row of folders which serves as a nice visual barrier on the screen. Following a tip from CGP Grey to relocate any lesser used apps to the second page of a folder, I keep only the essentials here and rely on search for getting to the others.

The third row, my Media row, has remained relatively unchanged over the years. These apps seem to be here to stay.

The last two rows are a collection of miscellaneous utilities and things I like to incorporate into my life. 1Password and Waze always get a spot on the home screen. Notes is primarily used for quick access to carry out menus. Given that I still haven’t officially started classes yet, I’m still working my way through some TV shows so Television Time is being used fairly heavily at the moment. To balance it out and serve as a reminder to meditate, I also have Meditation Studio on my homescreen.

My home row, like my media row, hasn’t changed at all. Messages, Airmail, Safari, and Omnifocus are definitely her to stay as well.

Stay tuned for an iPad Pro version coming soon.

 

 

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My Personal Reading Workflow

Having recently joined a book club, my personal reading habit has started returning back to normal levels.  Having recently wrote about how I read for grad school, I thought it might be interesting to detail how I go about reading for fun too.

First things first, I almost always pick the Kindle version when possible. They’re delivered instantly, don’t take up any space, and I honestly prefer the reading experience more than I do with physical books. I get most through my local library’s website, but occasionally I will buy them through Amazon or check them out through the Kindle Lending Library. Since Kindle Lending Library books have to be read on a Kindle (not just the app) this is usually last resort, but it’s nice for books that aren’t available from my library that I don’t want to buy.

Once I’ve picked a book to read (and I’m usually reading a few at a time), I set up a project in Omnifocus. I have a template saved in Keyboard Maestro. Triggering it prompts me for the book’s title and author, and then generates a project with corresponding tasks for progressing in the book in 10% increments, along with one final task which I’ll get to in a second. I also add the book to my currently reading list on GoodReads just for good measure.

For the actually reading, I use either the Kindle app for Mac or my Kindle Paperwhite. Even several years old, the Paperwhite is still one of my favorite devices and my preferred way to read. As I’m reading, I take notes on or highlight anything that seems worth remembering using the Kindle app or Paperwhite.

Once I’ve finished a book, my final task before marking my book project complete is to export my highlights and notes. To do this I use a bookmarklet called Bookcision, which exports your notes and highlights in plain text. From there, I copy them into a repository. Any sort of destination will do. I’m currently using Evernote, but have used Day One in the past. I do this so that I can search across all my highlights and notes, which not only helps with recalling what I’ve read but helps to establish connections between books I might not have otherwise seen.

I hope this has been helpful. Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping track of and remembering what you read? If so, I’d love to hear them!

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Omnifocus Project Templates with Keyboard Maestro

Two years ago, I wrote a post about using checklist templates in Omnifocus. It’s one of the most popular posts I’ve written on the site, but, honestly, I never really felt like having a folder of stalled projects that I could duplicate was all that great of a solution. Not only did they add visual clutter to an already complex system, but some of my more complex ones required fiddly applescripts.

Thankfully that’s all changed. With version 2.7, Omnifocus is finally bringing the TaskPaper support it first introduced on iOS to the Mac, and it’s allowed me to drastically improve my templates.

The folder of stalled projects has been replaced in favor of a new set up that uses Keyboard Maestro. Seriously, I can’t say it enough. Every day I find a new use for this app. If you haven’t bought it yet, go do it!

I’ve set up a hotkey to display a macro palette that displays a list of my templates while in Omnifocus. You could just as easily trigger this with a snippet. I just think the palette looks nice, and makes it look like I spent a lot more time making my templates than I actually did.

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The beauty of TaskPaper support is that you can just copy and paste tasks in Omnifocus preserving all of the meta data like contexts and due dates, so the simplest of my templates (e.g. my packing list) do just that. They paste the TaskPaper template using an “Insert Text by Pasting” action. All I had to do was select the template project I had in Omnifocus, copy it, and paste it into the Keyboard Maestro action. Essentially these are just text snippets, so you could just as easily do this with a TextExpander snippet.

For the templates with fill-in variables, I just added an additional action to prompt for input and updated the template to include the variable tokens. Again, this is something you could also easily do with an app like TextExpander, which also supports fill-ins.

Of course, Keyboard Maestro’s incredible power actually inspired me to take a few of my templates a step further than just variables, and this is where I think it’d get a bit more complicated if you were trying to use TextExpander. Some of my project templates have action groups that are conditional (e.g. if x, also do y). My previous templates just included all the groups and I deleted them if I didn’t need them. With Keyboard Maestro, If, Then rules automatically add or remove the groups based on other variables of the template.

Sometimes the Best Tool is the One You Already Have

Yesterday, on a whim, I ordered a Roku Stick. I didn’t really need another streaming device. I already had a Chromecast plugged into my Xbox One which was plugged into my Smart TV (three devices all capable of streaming all plugged into each other) AND an Amazon Fire TV Stick sitting in a drawer. But let’s be real, who can turn down same day shipping when it’s free? Not this girl.

Impulsive consumption aside, the Roku Stick really was the missing link in my entertainment set up. It’s speedy. It lets me search across all my streaming services (seriously life-changing), and Roku’s feed feature to track your favorite shows, movies, and actors is the closest I’ve gotten to being able to turn the TV on and just watch things I want to see since having a DVR.

The Roku Stick certainly gets my vote for best tool when it comes to streaming. In fact, it’s so good, I found that most of the movies I had in my Netflix DVD queue were available to stream elsewhere – enough so that I won’t be renewing it next month.

But… here’s where things took a dangerous turn.

Netflix has long served as my movie watch list. If a movie I wanted to see wasn’t available to stream, it went in the DVD queue where it eventually made its way onto my TV. I started thinking, “If I don’t have a DVD queue, how on earth will I keep track of which movies I want to watch?”

As a GTDer, I can’t keep that list in my head, so as the tech person I am, I would need a fancy app to keep track of my movies. For the next 4 hours, I went down a rabbit hole of movie watch list apps. My phone’s purchased section shows that I downloaded 11 different apps (most were free; and this number doesn’t include the ones I’d already tried previously and redownloaded). ELEVEN!

Which app did I go with?

None of them.

After wasting hours trying out different apps, I decided that the best way to keep track of which movies I wanted to see was the same way I’ve been keeping track of books I want to read – a “Movies to Watch” list, set to “On Hold” in my Someday/Maybe folder of Omnifocus.

Sometimes the best tool is the one you already have.

Tips and Tricks for Staying on Top of Meeting Agendas

Attending meetings is a necessary evil of my job. Thankfully, most of my colleagues see the value of having a running agenda stored somewhere in the cloud. Over the years, I’ve come up with a few best practices of my own that have helped save me time and keep me on top of my game.

1. Use Alfred to quickly launch agendas in the cloud

Agendas are great. Having to remember what every person decided to name the agenda just to find it isn’t. I can never quite remember if they decided to use “Catch Up”, “Running Agenda”, or “Meeting Notes”. I’ve solved the problem by making an Alfred workflow that opens the URL for the agenda by typing “agenda” followed by a descriptive keyword for the meeting that makes sense to me (e.g. agenda managers). The amount of time this saves me is honestly a bit mind-blowing.

2. Use Apple Notes or another notes app to store your own notes for the agenda

My colleages and I tend to use meeting agendas as shared notes and edit them throughout the meeting as things come up. However, I’ve started keeping my own running agenda for each meeting in Apple Notes. It’s nice to be able to look back over my own notes in one place rather than a myriad of Byword files. I’ve named all these something similar (e.g. Agenda Notes: Meeting Name) to avoid another complicated naming scenario as described in the last tip.

3. Add any action or follow up items to Omnifocus ASAP

As soon as I get back to my office, I make sure to review the agenda and my own notes making sure to capture any action items into Omnifocus for further action. This ensures nothing slips through the cracks before the next meeting.

4. Keep an agenda project in Omnifocus

Any time I think of something I need to discuss with someone that’s not immediately pressing, I add it to Omnifocus as a reminder to mention it the next time I see them. I name each item in the same format, “Person’sName: Action”, assign it to the @People context, and add it to my Agendas project (if it’s a work colleague). If I know the next date I plan to meet with that person, I’ll set a defer date as well.

When it comes time to meet with someone, I have one of two options for reviewing items to discuss with him or her: (1) view the @People context which has items involving both work and personal contacts or (2) view the Agendas project which only has work colleagues. Since every item includes the person’s name, I can search by name to narrow down the list to a specific person if need be. If an item up for discussion seems like it will warrant a lengthy discussion, I make sure to add it to the agenda before the meeting as well.

My Current Omnifocus Workflow

With my project and context organization out of the way, I figured it would be helpful to explain how I’m actually using Omnifocus to get things done (or at least try to get things done).

I start every morning by reviewing my calendar in Fantastical. This gives me a good idea of where I need to be and how much time I’ll have to do things.

Next I go through my inboxes. Email is up first. Anything that is going to require more than 2 minutes gets added to Omnifocus using the Airmail’s built in integration. I also check my “Action” folder in Readkit which contains anything that I’ve starred in Pocket. This may be a recipe I want to add to Paprika, or something I want to research further. As with email, if it can be dealth with quickly I do, otherwise, it gets added to Omnifocus. Last but not least, I jump over to Omnifocus and process anything that’s been added to the Inbox.

While I’m in Omnifocus, I look over my Waiting perspective and the Forecast View breifly to see if there’s anything I can check off or need to attend to. With that out of the way I go to my Available perspective, which as you might guess, shows all of my available tasks. Based on what I have going on for the day, I decide if there are any tasks I want to tackle during the day and flag them.

Once tasks are flagged, I can work entirely from my custom perspectives (based primarily on where I’m at) to get things done:

  • Today shows all due or flagged tasks grouped by context and sorted by project. It’s a nice overview of everything I plan on doing sorted by where I can do it.
  • Work also shows all due or flagged tasks, but it’s grouped by project and sorted by due date so that I can tackle the most pressing issues first.
  • Home, once again, shows all due or flagged tasks grouped by project, but I sort this one by duration. By the time I get home, I’m usually pretty tired, and doing chores is usually the last thing I want to do so sorting by duration lets me check off the quick wins.
    I do have other custom perspectives like Errands and Grocery List but these are the three I primarily work from.

To stay on top of this workflow, I’ve created a Daily Routine project that lives at the very top of my Projects list. I’ve flagged the project so that every step shows up in all three perspectives, just to serve as a reminder in case I miss a step.

Revisiting Context Organization in Omnifocus

Contexts seem to be a point of contention when it comes to any GTD system. How many should you have? What should they be? How many is too many? A quick look at the countless methods being discussed in the Omnifocus Forums show that there is no single right way for picking contexts, and when you consider the possibility of a task having multiple contexts (not currently possible in Omnifocus), it gets more complicated. The age old answer of “It depends” truly applies here. That being said, a few things stand out for me when I look at those long lists of contexts that people have.

Don’t try to do too much with Contexts

In its purest form, a context is a tool or location. II need to be at home in order to clean the shower in my bathroom, so “home” is a great example of a context. No matter how much I wish it were true, there’s simply no way I could get my shower cleaned while I’m at work. The problems tend to creep in when you start to factor in other things like energy levels, time available, or urgency.

On paper it makes sense to define these various lists to drill down to what you can work on at any given moment, but if you use something as powerful as Omnifocus, there are more options available to you for this than just contexts. There are due dates and flags to indicate urgency or importance and durations to indicate quick wins or when you’re looking for something to do during a set period of time. Prefixing tasks with a “mindset” such as “READ:” or “WATCH:” can also help you define your tasks by mode as well.

Don’t think to Granularly

When I first started implementing GTD, I thought I needed an incredibly complex list of contexts. I had geo-tagged sub-contexts for each of the stores I visited, contexts for every person I regularly talked to, and even contexts for every room in my house. Much like the trend towards fewer folders when managing email, I quickly learned that the cost of managing a lot of sub-contexts can be* far greater than the benefits especially if the contexts only contain a small handful of tasks.

*Notice I said can be. Sometimes granularity does help as is the case with my Grocery Store context discussed later.

Adding a prefix to a task can also really come in handy here. Instead of having a sub-context for a friend, consider putting their name before the task (e.g. Boss’s Name: Discuss Office Layout). You can still easily drill down to all tasks involving your boss by searching his or her name, but you won’t need to worry about a lengthy list of contexts. I do this with stores now as well.

Regularly Review and Adjust

In the paper planning world, reconfiguring your system is seen as “Planner Fail”. It’s frowned upon, probably because it takes so long to recopy everything. The beauty of software like Omnifocus is that there’s no need to recopy everything over if you need to make a change. Contexts and projects can be created, removed, or rearranged just as quickly as your life changes. While I’ve distilled my contexts lists down over the years, I still regularly consider making changes. In fact, I just got rid of two contexts today that were being used sparingly.

My Contexts

  • Do – Some tasks can truly be done anywhere
  • Campus – For work or graduate school related tasks that require me to be on campus
  • Home – For things that need to be done at home
    • Arriving – This is a geotagged context to alert me of anything I need to be reminded of when getting home (e.g. bring that item that’s been sitting in my trunk in with me)
  • People – Anything I need to discuss with a person at a later date.
  • Errands – All things I need to do when I’m out and about.
    • Shopping – Anything I need to buy.
      • Grocery Store – Anything I need to buy specifically at the grocery store.
        • Sub-contexts for each aisles – Subcontexts, in this case, allow me to keep my custom grocery perspective organized based on the layout of the store I shop at. For a more detailed explanation, I wrote about it here: Creating a Smart Grocery List in Omnifocus
  • Waiting – Any tasks that are part of active projects but are waiting on something or someone else before they can be completed.