Grad School Distillation with OmniOutliner Essentials

I’ve struggled with procrastination for as long as I can remember. I was always that student writing the paper hours before it was due. Exams? You could forget about studying for them. I’d put off studying for so long that I’d convince myself cramming was a lost cause. Despite my disdain for school work, I’ve managed to make it all the way to graduate school (for a second time).

But… it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I found a process that has me completing my assignment on time if not early. (Plus it’s entirely paperless.)

Each week, my graduate coursework consists of reading 3-4 research papers and summarizing them each in a short 3-5 paragraph essay. During class, we discuss the papers as small groups before rejoining for a discussion as a class.

I read each paper in Preview, highlighting important passages as I go in yellow. I also copy these highlights into an outline in OmniOutliner Essentials. OmniOutliner Essentials is the perfect, distraction-free outlining app. I wait a day before reviewing my outline, as I feel the concepts sink in better.

While reviewing, I bold any keywords or quotes I find important. Using those boldened keywords and quotes as a sort of “skimmed down” outline, I am able to write the 3-5 paragraph summary in Byword (my favorite writing app) knowing I’ve captured all the points I wanted to include.

Once in class, these keywords and quotes also serve as the basis for talking points in discussion rather than fumbling around through a 20-30 page PDF. If a quote within the paper is mentioned during class, I highlight that in blue using Preview.

At the end of it all, I have a highlighted PDF that distinguishes between my own highlights and those mentioned in class, an outline with emphasized keywords, and a 3-5 paragraph summary, giving me a number of options to go back and review what I’ve learned.

For this whole process, I like to snap them the apps to half the screen using Moom and make sure to turn on Do Not Disturb for the ultimate, distraction-free environment. If I’m feeling particularly distracted, I’ll also turn on my Focus playlist on Spotify.

Going Paperless in 2014

As part of my goal to simplify in 2014, I decided to clean up my paper storage. Granted, at 23, I don’t really have that much, but I grew up in a house where as soon as you got a car, gadget, or pet, you started a binder or at least a file and that’s where everything and anything about that item went. With 3 cats, a car, and being the gadget lover I am, that’s a lot of binders and binders take up a LOT of space. More importantly, I have a bad habit of throwing things inside the binder/file with no regard to having to find it easily later, and that’s if they even get to the binders in the first place.

This of course, led me to my first simplifying project of 2014 – going paperless.

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First step – Go through the paper.

I went through everything quickly. Product manuals can usually be found online these days so no sense in keeping them. I set them aside and went online later to find PDF copies. Once I found them online, I tossed the originals. As I was going through papers, I found I kept a lot of things that I didn’t really need like packing receipts for Apple products when I had the actual receipt saved already. I even found an old newspaper clipping of the ad for the people we got Abu from. {He’s nearly 10 now, so I doubt that’s necessary.}

Second step – Decide how I want to store them.

I highly recommend doing this BEFORE you start messing with scanning everything. I started with Evernote, and later realized I didn’t care for how difficult Evernote made it to export multiple PDFs at once. Moreover, I never bothered to name my scans anything useful, so after spending an hour and a half moving things back out of Evernote, I had to rename them as well. Lesson learned.

I read David Spark’s Paperless Field Guide, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s thinking about going paperless. He discusses a lot of things like file naming conventions, tools, storage options, and workflows that I never would have even thought of. Plus it’s loaded with screencasts.

In the end, I decided to adopt a folder based system rather than using some sort of software. David Spark’s file naming conventions were also really helpful, e.g. if I were to save an invoice for a vet appointment Chase had today, I’d name the file 2014–01–07 vet invoice chase. {Note: I’m not normally one to not use title case, but it really is nice to not have to worry about what should or shouldn’t be capitalized, and the goal of this really is to make things simple.} End result: I can quickly see files sorted by date AND name at once. Using the pets as an example, this was really helpful in seeing when they switched vets or had visits to the emergency animal hospital because they stood out. I can also see which animal(s) the receipt is for.

Third step – Get a scanner.

We’ve always had a scanner in our house whether it be part of a multi-function printer or a standalone printer. Either way, they were always a flat bed scanner {Great for pictures; not so great for scanning buttloads of documents.} I originally had my eye on a Doxie Go {which I may still get one day for quick scanning}, but when it comes to going paperless, you really do need a scanner with a document feeder. I know Fujitsu’s ScanSnap line is what everyone raves about and in a perfect world with unlimited resources I’d have gone with a ScanSnap iX500, but I actually got fantastic deal on a Canon P–215 for under $180. {I’m a Canon fan anyway so this was a no-brainer.} Even better, it’s small, so I can pop it in my bag or throw it in a drawer. If I’m honest, it’ll probably live on my desk though.

Fourth step – Start scanning.

My scanner is scheduled to arrive today. {Hopefully… It was originally supposed to be here yesterday.} Once it arrives, you can bet I’ll be scanning things left and right.

Fifth step – Develop a workflow.

In order for this whole “going paperless” thing to work, it really needs to become part of my daily routine. When I get home, mail needs to be sorted; junk needs to be trashed; things need to get shredded, and important things need to get scanned – immediately, no questions asked. Piles tend to turn into overflowing mounds quickly in my house.

Another thing I plan on leveraging is Hazel. Hazel’s been one of those things I’ve had on my Mac, but honestly never really found a use for. As part of simplifying, I’ve really been trying to be more mindful of the things I do on a regular basis. If I’m consistently renaming a file and moving it to another place, why not let Hazel do it for me. It’ll be like having my own personal secretary to file away papers for me. How cool is that?

So that’s project #1 for simplifying 2014. I’ll be back with updates on how this is working for me, things I’ve learned along the way, and any tips and tricks I discover.

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