Posts filed under General

Collaboration in Research - Part 2: Planning Tools


In Part 1, I described potential roles for members of a research team. In Part 2, we’ll finally take a look at a group of tools for planning that I find useful in helping to organize teams and keep everyone headed down the research pathway.


The “Right” Tool?

As I mentioned in Part 1, I have found it most efficacious to allow the members of the team responsible for a specific role to choose the tool; or at least have a voice in the tool of choice. That said, I think one of the poorest approaches to choosing tools is the belief that there is a “right” one. I was recently discussing with a colleague how much I appreciate the old-school “notecards” method of qualitative research. There are all kinds of tech-tools available for qual research (NVivo, Dedoose, etc.), but prolonged engagement that results from physically writing and manipulating notecards can be a major advantage.

I always shudder a little when colleagues ask me, “What task-manager should I use?” The little smart alec inside my head always wants to respond, “None of them; you don’t deserve any of them.” People tend to believe that it is the tool that organizes a person/team: that if I just had the right platform, I’d communicate effectively. It’s just not the case.

Also, I wish to note that I have no financial relationship with any of the companies described below - except that I’ve given them some of my money ;-)




I love this platform so very much. It is highly adaptable for use, and affords a team the ability to configure it in just about any imaginable structure. Trello is built on the KanBan approach to project management; where there is a logical stream of items through a process. The other advantage of Trello is that there is a low barrier to entry: it’s free to use at a basic level, and one can immediately get going with very little introduction. That low barrier of entry, however, belies the depth and power that is available in the platform.


  1. Low Barrier of Entry - Trello can be used for free, and one can immediately get into the system with very little introduction. This makes Trello especially useful for ad hoc research teams.
  2. Creatively Adaptable - Trello is highly adaptable, especially when one upgrades to using power-ups. My administrative assistant and I use Trello to manage several of our workflows: we run our disabilities accommodations requests and testing center entirely on the Trello platform.
  3. Wide Resources - Trello has a great Twitter presence, and offers a newsletter with lots of ideas. Moreover, you can spend a lifetime on youtube seeing how folks use Trello for different workflows.
  4. Excellent Integrations - The power-ups are integrations that work within the platform. Some are specialty apps, and others are integrations through APIs to other services. I’ll give a huge shout-out to the Zapier integrations, in which one can get very granular about what’s happening on the cards.
  5. Interactive - Trello is web-based, and all members of a team can contribute to the way that the Trello board develops, and make updates in the workflow.


  1. Creatively Adaptable - Yep, I said that was an advantage; but it’s also a disadvantage. When you can do almost anything with a platform, it can be hard to get moving. Finding Trello templates can be helpful; and Trello has a nice Trello board for templates.
  2. Too Many Cooks - The highly interactive nature of Trello makes it difficult to control what happens on the boards. For example, if Larry gets drunk and decides to edit the entire board, that can prove frustrating for the rest of the team. Other tools allow for more control by a Project Manager: Trello does not.
  3. Dependencies - There are times where a process really requires a careful analysis of dependencies: we can’t do Y until X is complete. In my experience, task dependencies CAN be done in Trello, but it’s clunky and undependable; and for my money, there are some projects where clunky and undependable just won’t fly.


  1. Explore - If you’ve a free afternoon, why not try Trello? It’s free. See whether there are ways in which it addresses your team’s needs. Check out Trello on youtube, and see how others are using it.
  2. Collaborate - I find that Trello is most powerful when I use it in collaborative projects. If a project is more individual, it’s probably going to be in my OmniFocus.
  3. Visualize - That said, I use Trello sometimes for projects where I want to visualize my road to completion. For example, I had a Trello board for my Ph.D. degree plan. I had a column for the courses I needed, another for the courses I’ve registered for, another for the courses I was in, and a final column for the courses I had finished. It was sooo neat to see the cards flow from left to right - and to send the last three course cards into the “complete” column at the end.
  4. Similar Options - StrikeBase is very similar to Trello. It’s a freemium option.

OmniPlan (et al.)


It’s no secret for readers of this site that I am a HUGE fan of the OmniGroup. I’d buy their waffle-iron if they sold one. And OmniPlan is, by far, the most professional project management tool I’ve used. OmniPlan is available on MacOS and iOS (though I’ve not tried the iOS version), but it is not available for other operating systems. I would recommend software like OmniPlan in situations where there a) a team is targeting a specific deliverable, and b) a professional-grade approach to project management is required. It is not, however, useful for ad hoc groups (at least by my experience).


  1. Pro-level PM - Project management, as a discipline, is really about leveraging resources (people, capital, data), time, and scope toward a specific outcome. OmniPlan is designed to handle each aspect of the “PM Triangle” in ways that give a clear understanding of the critical path toward completion. Put another way, this is a pro-tool!
  2. Critical Paths - In projects where there are specific milestones and multiple dependency structures, software that can help the PM manage the critical path is, well, critical. In Robert’s case, where the research team needs to meet critical deadlines for FDA approval, my mind goes to a product like OmniPlan. This is especially powerful when one can compare the project baseline with the actual progress - something OmniPlan does very well.
  3. Resource Allocation - If equipment, material, money, or personnel are important considerations for a project, OmniPlan is a great tool to manage those resources. This can be really valuable for projects where it is necessary to track the resource cost of a project.
  4. Visualization - Users of OmniPlan can visualize the project in terms of an outline, Gantt charts, or a network view. The network view is especially useful in understanding the relationships between different tasks or groups of tasks in the project scope.
  5. - There is a phenomenal course available on for those who want to get help in a) using OP, and b) managing a project. I had used this product for a long time before stumbling upon the course at Lynda, and boy did I miss out.


  1. High Barriers to Entry - OmniPlan is expensive; currently, the Standard version is $149.99 for MacOS, and $74.99 for iOS. The Pro version (which I do not own) is $299.99 for MacOS, and $149.99 for iOS. Additionally, it takes a good while to learn to use the software to its potential, and I discovered that there are a lot of PM principles I needed to learn to maximize the platform as well.
  2. Low Collaboration - Drunk Larry won’t mess with your carefully planned project (unless you allow him to). It is difficult to network this tool. Each member of the team would need to have the software. I am currently using this software with a small team, and the file is stored on a network so that we can share it; but collaboration is NOTHING as delightful as it is in Trello.
  3. Flexibility - I am sure you are allowed to use OmniPlan however you’d like, but the platform is specifically designed within the professional milieu of project management. It is really for projects where dependencies need to be managed.
  4. Low Integration - So if I were in charge of the universe, I’d have a seamless integration between OmniPlan and my beloved OmniFocus. I have it on good authority that this is something that OmniGroup has thought of; but so far, integrations with other software is clunky at best. One can export projects into OPML, so that’s nice - but really, that’s more a definition of exportability than of integration. My OmniPlans tend to live lonely lives of desolation.


  1. Lynda - If you’re not sure about the cost of the software, I highly recommend the Lynda course. Not only will you see how the software manages projects, but you’ll also get a clear understanding of the methodology of project management that the software is addressing.
  2. If you’re on a Windows platform, Microsoft Planner is very similar in terms of methodology. That said, it’s been a loooong time since I’ve been in MSPlanner.
  3. This platform is really useful when you’ve a planner on the team who is willing to manage the project and report to the group.

Note: I’ve not yet bitten the bullet to purchase OmniPlan Pro, which I understand offers some publishing options that may be especially valuable. To date, I’ve just not found a use-case where I work with a team that needs to see the outputs of my plan, so I’ve no real sense of its value.


Database Approach


I actually have a project currently managed in FileMaker Pro. I’ve also used Podio and BaseCamp to manage projects as well. Shoot - I can imagine using Evernote or DevonThink as a kind of very simple database.


  1. Bespoke Utility - Some projects need to be monitored in unique ways. I have a longitudinal study where I am collecting data over a long period of time. In that case, I decided that a database is the best option.
  2. Data in the Database - The biggest advantage to using a database approach is that the actual data for a research project can be incorporated into the project management system. Everything can live in one location; the data, the workflow, and even the communication.
  3. Infinite Flexibility - Trello is flexible. Your own artisanal database crafted just for your project can be whatever it needs to be. You get to decide what variables are included, what views need to be represented, and how progress is visualized and understood.
  4. Potentially Affordable - I used Podio and Basecamp for free. Even FileMaker Pro is relatively inexpensive (I purchased mine through a volume license agreement).
  5. Integrations - OK, for FMP, the integrations are terrible. But Basecamp and Podio have some very nice integrations and API hooks.


  1. High Barrier to Entry - The high barrier in the case of database approaches is that the entire system needs to be built. The advantage of having something tailored to a specific research team’s needs may also be a disadvantage if someone has to build it.
  2. YMMV - These tools are only as useful as the architecture and construction allow. I think this is why so many of us resort to some kind of pre-built platform. If you need a feature in your database, you have to create the feature. If it stinks, or doesn’t work, the architect needs to make it right. So some databases can be very useful - others can stink. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Potential Training - If not all of the team members are involved in the database construction, training becomes a potential issue. I can’t point my colleagues to a youtube video of how to navigate the database I built - unless I actually create the video.


  1. Databases are especially useful if you’re connecting workflows and planning to the data used in your research.
  2. Some database options (like Basecamp and Podio) are better for collaborative work. FileMaker Pro is going to require more build time, more management of the platform, and some training to make it useful for a team.
  3. In instances where it is necessary to build a major database to manage the data of a research project, it may be worth the time and effort to build a few workflow variables (approvals, completions, assignments, etc.) and views to the system.

SpreadSheet Approach


No project management tool list would be complete without a shout-out to the most common approach to managing projects: the spreadsheet. My guess is that more projects are managed in spreadsheets than anywhere else. And why not? They can be very useful for ad hoc projects, or places where we just need to see some basic bits of information.


  1. Very Low Barriers to Entry - Most people know how to use spreadsheets, so there’s very little in the way of learning curve. Almost everyone has access to them, and they can be an almost no-cost option.
  2. Flexible - The reason we default to spreadsheets is that a nice table is easy to formulate. I actually recommend that students use spreadsheets as an assignment tracker, because we can usually create something meaningful in short order.
  3. Collaborative - In the case of a Google Sheet, folks can work on the plan at the same time, make edits to items, and even chat about elements on the plan in real time.


  1. Lack of Design - Spreadsheets, even beautiful spreadsheets, are not pretty. They are clunky. You have to go to the spreadsheet to see it. They don’t look nice on an iPhone. With so many great, low-cost, and beautiful options available, it just seems that settling for generic cheese slices wrapped in cellophane is a real shame. And I bet this is the first time spreadsheets have been compared to generic cheese slices ;-)
  2. Low Integration - There are some web-hooks available for Google Sheets; but again, spending much time at all fashioning a complicated set of Zapier rules for a spreadsheet plan may not be efficient. That wheel is already invented.
  3. Simplicity - If a project has any complexity to it whatsoever, the spreadsheet can quickly become cumbersome. Database approaches at least allow for multiple views of the variables.


  1. I recommend using spreadsheets when the project is so small, or the involvement of members is so cursory, that training people to use your tool of choice doesn’t make sense.
  2. If you’re having to explain to other members how to navigate and understand your spreadsheet, it’s time to move to a different tool.

Next Time: We’ll review some tools that may aid in communication for research teams.

Title Image Credit:

Posted on February 14, 2018 and filed under General, Task Management.

Collaboration in Research - Part 1: Roles before Tools

 Photo by Rawpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Rawpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Robert made an excellent point about some of the challenges of research workflows. He noted that in his industry, people tend not to use tools, which can cause huge delays. This can be especially frustrating in his field, where drugs are not able to get FDA approval because of poor execution.

Let me start by noting that I am not and expert on team dynamics and organizational systems; I’m just a guy who tries to get stuff done, and sometimes I have to work with others. That said, I think that evaluating a team’s approach to planning and execution can be a valuable endeavor.

Thinking of Teams as Organizations

Let’s agree that it would be odd for a company to hire an entire staff that were all tasked with the same functions. If a software company, for example, asked all members to do coding, marketing, accounting, and HR, things would likely break down quickly. We would expect that the organization would parse out responsibilities in reference to individual strengths, and maximize those for the organization’s benefit.

But when groups of researchers gather to work together, we tend to have a shared set of skills. In fact, we should have a shared set of skills. I would be very uncomfortable handing over decisions on methodology to one person or group of people; I’d want to have some level of influence on the methodological approach of the research. I was recently a part of a team where some members felt insecure about their methodological skill-set. To be honest, I think the work suffered as a consequence. Research teams need to be comprised of people who are good at research; and while some may have strengths in specific areas, all need to have a working knowledge of the entire process.

That said, there very well may be some soft-skills that can be distributed according to strengths. Perhaps not every member of the team needs to be able to organize the team. Some may be better communicators, while others may be more inclined to work deeply in isolation. There may be members who are able to focus on the objective, while others are more focussed on the process. Here are ways to think about the organization…

Identify the Roles: Instead of parsing out segments of the research itself, think about identifying the soft-skills that are necessary for the team to progress. If your team is going to work together for a longer period of time, it may be worth the effort to use something like Belbin’s Team Roles or CliftonStrengths to formalize those roles. For more ad hoc teams, some examples of roles that I’ve found useful are…

  1. Project Planner - This person is responsible for mapping out the project, its timelines, the tasks, and the resources for the work. The planner is able to show the group where we are in the process, and think strategically about how to leverage time, resources, and the personnel to reach the objective.
  2. Communicator - This person is responsible for keeping the group - and the individual members of the group - informed about deliverables. The communicator is someone who is able to say, “Scott, we need your analysis on Wednesday.” The communicator is assertive, constructive, relational, and emotionally intelligent.
  3. Organizer - This person is happy to clean up the messes, and set things in place for future work. The organizer is someone who doesn’t mind cleaning data, renaming files to a naming-convention, or keeping the digital space neat and tidy. A great organizer is one who can leverage tools (and even set up automation) to make it easier for the entire team to find what they’re looking for.
  4. Go-Getter - This person is the fearless member who seems to always be itching for the next opportunity: the next publisher, the next conference, the next project, the next research question. The go-getter is the driven optimist who thinks futuristically, and isn’t afraid to shoot an email to a conference organizer to suggest that all six members of your research team should keynote at the next meeting.
  5. Wrapper - This person is the one who helps the team decide when enough is enough. Research teams can drag on and on; there’s always more to see, almost more to write, always more to analyze. Having a member whose job it is to say, “That’s a wrap” can be very helpful to the team.

Team Size Matters: In research teams that are small (2-4 people), individual members may need to play more than one of these roles. As teams get larger, it may be oppressive to ask the Planner to be the Go-Getter AND the Communicator AND the organizer. As teams increase in size, parsing out the roles becomes increasingly important.

Thinking of Tools in Terms of Roles

So far, we’ve not discussed tools. There’s a reason for this: the tool for organizing project, or communication, or organization, should start with the person who fills that role. If the organizer really works best in a Google Team drive, why not let the organizer work in Google Team drives? If the communicator believes that Slack is better than email, then the communicator should choose the platform.

Next time, I’ll suggest several tools that may help those who want fill some of these roles.

Posted on February 13, 2018 and filed under General.

In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man Is an Alien

Workflows and Collaborators


Whenever I find a product or a workflow that allows me greater concentration, I find reverting back to the old ways especially painful. A great example of this is my TextExpander: I can’t type on someone else’s computer, because I have so many snippets that have worked into my writing (I have even caught myself writing a snippet when writing something in long-hand). Adjusting to the workflows of others can be especially daunting, especially when they tend to do things in ways that are tragically inefficient. I had this experience with my dissertation.

The Problem

I guess my readers have observed that I am a big fan of Scrivener. I don’t know of a better writing tool. And while many use Scrivener for creative writing, I have discovered that it essential for academic writing. Almost everything I write starts out in Scrivener, unless it starts in Ulysses. If I have to open a MSWord document, I feel a tiny pang of disappointment and malaise.

So you can imagine my horror at having to write my dissertation in Word. My committee members wanted to track changes and see revisions throughout the process. I deeply appreciated all of the feedback (and they gave me LOTS to be appreciative of), but I couldn’t functionally use Scrivener for my dissertation and maintain a lot of the tracking that was being done. If you’ve seen the APA template for Scrivener, it is SO awesome. I had edited the compile menu for my institution’s unique requirements, but I rarely had to do any formatting work. There are ways to collaborate with others not using Scrivener; but in the end, I just decided to use Word and keep moving.

This happens in other situations as well. I’m on a research team where everyone wants to do everything on a Google doc. I spent hours trying to convince a colleague to use Trello, only to discover that I’d spent more time in the persuasion than the work would actually take. I created an OmniPlan project for a huge disability compliance project, only to find that the rest of the team just wanted to use a spreadsheet. I’m not the most powerful power-user, but among some that I am fated to work with, I am often advocating for tools and methods that present insurmountable barriers to those I’m working with.

The Solution

I have found that there are several questions that need to be explored in doing collaborative work, and particularly in terms of what tools or methods will be employed in the collaboration. While some of these questions may seem obvious, I’ve discovered that I actually have to be intentional about asking them.

  1. Does the choice of tool/method slow me down, or the entire team? I am learning that I tend to assume that if I am slowed, the entire team is slowed; call it the illusion of validity cognitive bias. It is entirely possible that the net-effect of using spreadsheets to track the progress of a project is faster for the team, even if it takes more time for me individually.
  2. Does the choice of tool/method really result in different outcomes? Is a presentation in Powerpoint any less effective than a presentation in Google Slides or Keynote? Shouldn’t I get similar statistics from Stata, R, SPSS, and Excel? Does Dedoose or NVivo really provide any better observations of qualitative data than notecards spread out on the floor? If the tool or method does result in different outcomes, then I am more comfortable in advocating for the right tool - but I think it’s a question that must be answered.
  3. What is the ROI of training/investment regarding a tool or method? If, as a team, it takes 20 person-hours of training to use a tool that saves 2 person-hours, is that a useful tradeoff? Sometimes the benefit is not in hours saved, but in accuracy. In the example of the disability compliance project, the stakes of missing a deadline with the Office of Civil Rights are potentially quite high. I decided to fight for a system that would allow us to see deadlines and contingencies throughout the reporting process. In other instances, I find that low stakes or minimal return on investments of time, resources, or finances in training an ad hoc team to use the right tool may justify a hearty shoulder-shrug.
  4. What is my real investment in this tool/method? In the example of my dissertation, I so very much looked forward to the elegance, efficiency, and delight of my beloved writing tool. It has served me so well in all of my other writing; why should I not use it in my magnum opus??? I had to come to terms with the realization that I probably could go through the collaborative process with my committee in Word just fine - I just didn’t want to. It boiled down to an emotional investment. I might be willing to fight for an emotional investment; but I at least want to deliberate about the fight before throwing down the gauntlet.

When You DO Decide to Fight

I think it’s fair to assert that sometimes my tools/methods are better than those that others. I may have given more time, energy, and development in my approach. Others may have defaulted to the familiar, or chosen tools and methods that lead to poorer outcomes. In situations where I’ve decided to the adoption of my tools and methods, I’m learning that I need to evaluate my own mindset. Here are some tips…

  1. Be Prepared to Train! This is deeper than the obvious “Show them how to do it.” I had a staff-member who wasn’t keeping her part of a project updated in Trello. As it happens, she had lost the password, and the password recovery emails were going to her spam folder. So the training became “how to find emails in the Google spam folder.” One would assume that practitioners in higher education would think about how we train one another, but I am constantly discovering ways in which I fail to think about how learning happens for colleagues.
  2. Be Prepared to be Patient! Maybe it’s just me; but I act like “Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy” more often than I’d care to admit, even if it’s in my own head. You know what? I’ve been working on my task-management system since September of 1992. I spent hours learning how to use OmniPlan on I don’t remember my password for Trello either: it’s just that Dashlane remembers it for me.
  3. Be Prepared to Be Responsible! If I assert my own tool or method with a team, it’s probably only fair to assume that I should be responsible for that approach. For example, when I did decide that our compliance team was using OmniPlan, I had to assume that I would be the one building the project with that tool. If Larry wants to use his dang spreadsheet to manage the project, I’m sure we can argue whether Larry should be in charge of building the spreadsheet. But I’m learning that when I advocate for “a better way,” that likely means that I’ll be the one responsible for that choice.
  4. Be Prepared to Learn from Others! It may not appear obvious to this point in the post, but there is an assumption that underlies the entire theme: that I know best how things ought to be done, that I am the one-eyed man among the blind. My assistant started using Trello because I asked her to; but I realized soon after that I needed her to train me on all of the ninja things she’s learned to do with it. Remember when I mentioned the research team wanting to use Google Docs? Turns out, it was a GREAT way to do that project.

I’ll write more about some collaboration tools and methods that I think can be very effective for research and teaching; but I think that it is imperative to ask important questions about the value of those tools before assuming that there is a “better way.” And in those instances where a fella believes he has the better tool, he’d better check himSelf before he wrecks himSelf.

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Posted on February 9, 2018 and filed under General, Writing, Task Management.

I'm Back - And Boy Do I Have Stories!


Well, my friends, I have finished my Ph.D. Turns out, that was a lot of work - who knew!  I actually finished in October of 2017, but there was a lot of leftover kruft I had to manage before I felt that I had space enough to return to this website; you know, remodel the bathroom, pain the living room, take a vacation, etc.

As I've thought about how to restart posting, I discovered that I really needed to clear the air about some of my experiences with the Ph.D. in terms of productivity and technology. I found that in many ways, I was extremely productive; but I made some MAJOR mistakes along the way.

What Went Right

Since most of the folks who read this are also nerds, lemme tell you something; I did my Ph.D., tip to stern, in 28 months. It was a residential program, three hours from home, and I worked full time as well. So I kinda crushed it. This was my third attempt at the doctorate, and while I did have to start from scratch, there were some things that worked in my favor...

  • I had a clear idea of what my research question for the dissertation was going to be before I started. That meant that I also had a clear idea of who I wanted to chair my dissertation, and was able to start working through things with her early. It also meant that I was writing sections of my proposal in coursework. My proposal was ready before I was in candidacy, which meant that I was defending and in dissertation the day coursework was complete.
  • I was able to completely rely upon my task and time management systems. Weekly planning was daunting at times, and there were moments of severe panic - but I knew I was capturing everything well. 
  • I had a remarkable support system. My wife was extremely helpful, and was gracious enough to give me time when I needed it. My dean and provost allowed me to find ways to move things around so that I could travel back and forth to school, and my sweet grandchildren even sent me videos at times telling me, "Do good on your schoolwork, Poppy!"  The image at the top of the post is of a nameplate the children gave me when I started. I kept me going!!!
  • I had a clear sense of what tech I needed. That was also a problem, which I'll note in a moment. But I am a power-user of almost all of the tools I employed, and knew the limits of those tools as well. The most important tools were OmniFocus, Trello, Scrivener (to a point), Zotero (more about THAT later), my Google calendar, and - God help me - Microsoft Office. I also used the Chrome browser almost exclusively during this period, in part because I found that it provided some seamless integrations for Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and Blackboard (yuck).

What Went Wrong

Ok, this is where I confess that the best laid plans were, in many instances, nothing more that nerd-wishes. I made a number of mistakes; some of which cost me valuable time, and others that cost me a great deal of pride. The latter almost seems worse than the former.

  • I tried to make big changes at the worst times. For example, I got very frustrated with Zotero, and in a moment of exasperation, decided to migrate to Papers3. So I exported the Bibtex file, imported it into Papers3, and thought I had everything running well. Unfortunately, I discovered that Zotero has its problems, but Papers3 was giving me nightmares. I spent weeks trying to make Papers3 work, believing that it must be a better solution. It was only after about 45 days of trying not to cuss that I finally said to myself, "let's go back to Zotero."  Fine. But guess what?  All of my organization of sources in Zotero was now gone, so it took me a couple of days to migrate back. I made similar mistakes with other systems as well. I finally had a stern talk with myself about making huge changes in the middle of projects. There are good times to see what other options are available, and bad times. These were bad times!
  • Sometimes you don't get to choose your tools. I love Scrivener with all my heart. And while I wrote a good portion of my papers in Scrivener, I found that it was very difficult to use during the dissertation. I could start projects in Scrivener, but my committee wanted to track changes in MS Word - so I had to use Word. I wrote my freakin' dissertation in Word. Not what I had planned to do. My school's Enterprise email system was really created for MS Outlook - so when I tried using Apple Mail, it created all kinds of nightmares with authentication. I ended up keeping my email in Outlook. I had to use SPSS instead of Stata. I had to use Powerpoint instead of Keynote. But here's the thing: all of the bells and whistles (scripts, services, add-on apps, etc.) that make using my preferred tools preferable were unavailable.
  • The iPad-only lifestyle takes a lot of commitment. Remember a few words ago when I said I made big changes at the worst times?  One of those was trying to force myself to go iPad-only. It's what thecool kids were doing it (I mean, it seems like Fredirico Viticci must be a cool kid), so why not me?  I am certain that there is a workaround for almost every situation where an iPad needs to do laptop work; but the precious hours of investment on figuring each one of these out is time I'm not working. So I eventually reverted to using my iPad for specific tasks, but did the bulk of my writing on the Mac. Future posts will unpack this a bit further.


Posted on January 31, 2018 and filed under General.

Shoot yeah - I use paper

When I was a kid, we were forbidden to use curse-words - but mom also forbade us to use euphemisms for curse-words (e.g. darn, heck, gosh). Even to this day, I know that if I were to use salty-language, my mom would find a way to force me to the floor and wash my mouth out with soap.

But at some point in my childhood, I discovered that my mom uses a euphemism as well - she says "shoot" all the time. When I called this to her attention, she told me to "Shut up!" We're not supposed to say "shut up" either ;-)

For all of my exhortation to going paperless, and leveraging technology to improve workflows, paper is my "shoot" - I still use paper to navigate my way through the day. I think it's a great way to keep my shoot together, and I think you should give a shoot as well.

The Problem

As I've mentioned before, OmniFocus is the nerve-center of all my projects and tasks. But having a task-managing database in electronic form does present several problems that a hybrid approach can address:

  1. Capture: I am all thumbs when it comes to typing on a smartphone. It takes me a great deal of focus and time to get things typed correctly. I frankly thought that this was a problem unique to people my age and older, but I've begun asking my students about phone-typing. They tell me that, while they can type quickly, they also have to edit a great deal. Sometimes writing things down can be a lot faster.
  2. Distraction: When I grab my phone to check for the "next action," I'm actually presented with a wide-range of well-meaning distractions. I don't mean Facebook; in fact, some of the distractions are really important. I may discover that students have submitted work in the LMS, and I want to see how they did. I may have an important email from the Provost. I may have even come into some money from a Nigerian prince. My phone is a lot like my fridge - I can go there looking for carrots, and come away with chocolate pudding.
  3. Face-to-which-face: I do capture tasks into my OmniFocus while in conversation with others, but that does mean that I need to stop the conversation and enter information. There are a lot of times where this distraction actually damages the conversation; I'm looking at my phone (or talking to my phone) instead of the person. Writing things down is not only faster, but more conducive to keeping discussion going.
  4. Microtasks: I have a heater under my desk to keep my feet warm. When I turn it on, I need to remember to turn it off before I leave work. I'm not sure whether that task really requires that I open OmniFocus, create a task, schedule a reminder, and figure out its context. It's a little thing that I want to complete, but not something that really warrants the time to create the task.

The Solution

Each morning, during my morning planning routine, I open OmniFocus, my calendar, and my Moleskine. I process any tasks that are in my inbox, clean up the calendar, and decide what tasks need to be done for the day. For those who follow a GTD-like method, this should be familiar. But I also write the tasks (on the left page) and the appointments (on the right page) in my notebook, and identify two or three big tasks that will result in a successful day.

When new tasks emerge throughout the day, I log those on the task list in the notebook. If I finish them before the end of the day, they may never show in my OmniFocus. If I don't finish them by the end of the day, I usually capture them and process them in OmniFocus. Every once in a while, I'll migrate a task to a following day without logging it in OmniFocus, especially if it's a micro-task that I'll do tomorrow.

I have discovered several keys to doing this effectively and efficiently:

  • Morning Routine - Open the task manager and choose tasks that need to be done today. I mark the ones that came from my OmniFocus with an O so that I know they need to be marked off in OmniFocus (later). I also scratch out my calendar for the day.
  • During the day - New tasks are added in the notebook. Any chicken-scratch that I need to scribble down (e.g. a phone number) goes under the schedule portion of the notebook.
  • End of the Day - When I'm ready to wind down, I migrate incomplete tasks into OmniFocus, and process my inboxes. By the time I have processed my in-boxes, the notebook is closed for the day.

I use a notation system for tasks that help me track not only priority, but also which tasks need to be checked off in OmniFocus, or added to OmniFocus.

✓ = Done
→ = Moved forward, not in OmniFocus
O ← = Migrated into OmniFocus to be done someday later
! = "Big Important Things To Do" (I try to have several of these each day)
X = Deleted task
D ← = Delegated task migrated into OmniFocus

Tips and Tricks

  1. Nothing Fancy - I don't spend a great deal of time with making my notebook pretty or fancy. These pages need to simply help me make it through the day. I've seen some very elegant Bullet Journals that look remarkable - but if I spent half the time doing that, I'd miss out on doing some things that are really important and valuable for me.
  2. Waste Pages - Some days have finished with almost nothing on them. I recently spent an entire day working on a data-set, so I had three tasks and no appointments. I still started the next day on the next page.
  3. Daily Planning - At a minimum, this approach will only work if one plans at least once a day. I finish my day by processing any captured and incomplete tasks back into OmniFocus. 
  4. Note-Taking - I still keep notes in Evernote as often as I possibly can. When I capture something in the notebook that really needs to be in Evernote, I'll scan it with Scannable and send it to Evernote. Usually, though, these are scratches that don't need to go anywhere. For example, I was trying to call Anthony, but I couldn't reach him. I scratched his phone number down so that I wouldn't have to go back to my contact manager every time I wanted to try again.
  5. Specialty Lists - I have a few running lists in the back of the notebook. These eventually find their way into Evernote, but I can quickly capture items that relate to one another. For example, I have a running list of research questions that pop up when I'm working with others. I also have a Netflix list, a reading list, and a list of people I promised I'd have lunch with some day.

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Posted on February 5, 2016 and filed under General, Task Management, GTD.

I'm Baaaack

I ended up taking a long break from a lot of projects over Christmas - this site being one of them. What did I do, instead of pontificating on workflows in higher ed? I went to Costa Rica for about three weeks, I went into the deep-end on a dataset I've been holding on to, and I endured the first-weeks of a new semester.

I also have the dubious honor of starting a new program from scratch - which means that I've sat in way too many meetings where we repeat the same information, describe the same problems, and imagine the same solutions. 

But my head is back above water, and I've some new thoughts and suggestions for workflows for the coming year. So here we go :-)

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Posted on February 5, 2016 and filed under General.

Helping Students Manage Part 3: Common Pitfalls

It can be frustrating for faculty who try to help students manage tasks and commitments, particularly when students seem to "shut down" during the mentoring process. Often, students will ask me to help them to develop a system, but give me the infamous "blank stare" as we get into developing a process. The easiest, and least helpful, way to respond to the student is to is assume that he is lazy or unmotivated - that may be true, but there are other possibilities as well. I've found that it helps to parse the reasons why students shut down during this process, and to think about mitigating the approach based upon these challenges. Frankly, I've seen these same processes at play for my colleagues who have asked for help in developing workflows as well!

1. The "Silver Bullet" Problem

Somewhere between "I want to use your system" and "That doesn't work for me" lies a vast landscape of different options and approaches to time/task management.  Helping students discover a system sometimes means choosing between thirty different methods, and then an overwhelming number of options within each system. I've used the Franklin Quest, the Covey, and the GTD methods in my own career: I don't even know what I would call my current method. And how many apps on the iTunes store claim to be the "perfect GTD solution?" Students can face a choice-paralysis paradigm - I first have to spend all this time finding the perfect system, just so that I can get around to completing all of the work that I needed a system for in the first place. This is, in my experience, the primary reason for the "shut down." I can almost see the language on the student's face; "I'll just work on getting my current assignments done and maybe pick something during the next break." 

Solution: Start really small. I will often ask the student to bring her syllabi to the meeting, and we will go through the assignments and get them into a single list. No software, no fancy system, no clever methodology. Presenting students with software options may be overwhelming, as may the introduction of your own methodology. If a student has NO system, start with paper. If a student has a paper system then needs to be managed by a database, I will often introduce her to Wunderlist, and then encourage her to use that database for a semester. If a student has used several options, I will help her explore the strengths and weaknesses of different software options. If there was a silver bullet for time and task management, we'd all use it - but there isn't. Start small - VERY small. 

2. The "Emotional Intelligence" Problem

When I attended Hyrum Smith's workshop on time management, he encouraged us to write down EVERYTHING we did on a legal pad for a week. That turned out to be a difficult task. I didn't mind writing down things I was proud of doing; "10:15-12:00 - Graded papers." I did, however, find it emotionally difficult to be honest about how I spent other chunks of time in my day; "1:15-2:00 - Stood at the coffee machine describing "Weekend at Bernie's" scene-by-scene with Larry." Having the emotional honesty to write EVERYTHING down can be a difficult, partly because we start to see places where we are less productive. It's much easier to lie to ourselves about what we do with our time, and build a narrative that makes us feel better about our productivity. When a student says, "I've been working on this paper for three weeks," what he actually means is that he worked on the paper for about four hours over the span of the last three weeks. But this emotional honesty is super-important in developing plans that will be productive and effective.

Solution: I encourage students to put "time wasters" on their calendar (XBox, NetFlix binges, Facebook) when they are longer than 15 minutes. If these activities are going to happen, then they are important to the student - regardless of how important they are to other people. The reasons this is valuable for students is that they have the opportunity to make micro-commitments to themselves that they will keep, and also deal rationally with the work that they find less attractive or enjoyable than Candy Crush. If a student unwinds each day with a couple hours of xbox, why not put that on his calendar? He can schedule an appointment with himself to play xbox from 6:30-8:30 p.m., set a timer to remind him to quit at 8:30, and go on to the next commitment. 

Naps are an excellent, and extremely necessary, part of this exercise. I've only known of one student who didn't like naps - and he was a weirdo. Students have infamously poor sleep-hygiene, and will often discount the importance of a good nap in the afternoon. Frankly, I find that the promise of a nap is the only GOOD reason to get up in the morning. I recommend to students that they schedule 90-minute naps as part of the plan, and be good to themselves an follow through with those commitments.

3. The "False Expectation" Problem

I worked with a student several years ago who put everything into a system, and gave a lot of time and energy into crafting what eventually developed into an elegant task and time management solution. I confess that I was surprised when he didn't turn in his major paper in my class. When we met to figure out what went wrong, he launched an interesting complaint - "I did all this planning, but stuff still doesn't get done." Yep - stuff doesn't get done. The passive voice of that verb is really important. Planning doesn't mean that stuff gets done, it merely shows me what needs to be accomplished.

As I reflected on his choice of phrase, I realized that my language contributes to this passive position. I often try to make things sound easy so that students will not feel overwhelmed by the many options (see Problem #1). But things on my task list don't "get done" - I do things. It is possible that my own language in helping him contributed to some magical thinking, deemphasizing the doing, and emphasizing the benefits.

Solution: There are two approaches that I believe help with this problem. First, I changed the way I use language when discussing productivity. I used to tell students that "When I put something on my task list, it gets done." Now I tell my students, "When I put something on my task list, I DO IT." The change from passive to active helps mitigate the false expectation that making lists is productive work.

Second, I help students focus less on "capture" and more on "doing." I read and followed some advice years ago that has paid off immensely (for the life of me, I can't find it to give credit). The author suggested that one start small. My first "task" was "to put my socks on tomorrow morning." I wrote it down the night before, and checked off the next morning when I put my socks on. This was a genius suggestion - because I discovered the joy of crossing things off my list. It also resulted in an awareness and intentionality in completing tasks, even the ones that might get done without planning. It focussed attention on planning and doing - not just planning. I always grin when a student starts putting things on his task list that he already did, and then checks them off. That's the moment when he is focussed more on what gets DONE than what gets captured. Besides, I do that for myself ALL the time (wink).

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Posted on December 5, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management, Calendar Management, General.

Zotero for Literature Reviews

If you've ever tried working with several different PDFs simultaneously, you may have discovered a significant frustration. Even on a relatively large screen, one can only look at a couple of PDFs at a time. This can make comparing information in disparate journal articles somewhat frustrating.  More than once, I have found myself reverting to printing the articles I want to compare, and then spreading the papers out on my desk.

If that's what I need to do, I'll still do it. But I've discovered a quick and easy way to make that a little less necessary. I found that one of the reasons I print PDFs is because I need to keep track of which article is written by whom. When capturing journal articles from EBSCO, for example, the filename for the PDF can be nonsensical.

This is one of the many places where Zotero can bring a lot of sanity into the process. I've discovered that Zotero is especially useful in managing annotations, keeping track of PDF names, and making life a little easier in the analysis of journal articles.


I've mentioned this before, but I've grown quite fond of collecting my annotations for sources in Zotero. I keep these in the "Notes" section of each source. I find that I prefer to arrange my notations in the following order...

  1. Copy and pasted quotations - I really dislike opening a PDF just to see if I can find a highlighted quote. If I am going to highlight something on a PDF, it makes just as much sense to copy and past the quotation into the Notes section of the annotation. I follow each paste with the page number from the source.
  2. Summary - I tend to write a paragraph listing the primary thesis, methodology, and findings for each source I'm evaluating. I find that this summary annotation makes sifting through lots of PDFs a little more efficient, since I don't need to open each one to remember what was in the article.
  3. Reflection - These are notes I write to myself, usually in the form of observations, evaluations, or questions I have of the source. Sometimes a scholar will use a methodology that I want more clarity about. Other times, I'll note limitations to a study that are not clear in the article. Very often, when I am reflecting on the source, I will add a final line of how this source fits with my own research question.

Here's an example of an annotated source for a project I worked on this last summer. Note that the reflection is really specific to the thesis of the literature review and research question of the project I was working on.

Renaming PDFs

When I capture PDFs from EBSCO, the file names are often different from the bibliographic information. This can make it difficult to sort through various PDFs when several are open at the same time (they have names like EBSCO134561). I choose to rename the PDFs from the metadata, which can be a pretty easy task if the metadata is already in Zotero. Here's an example...

The PDF name for this source is "untitled - EJ966132.pdf" When it is open with other PDFs, it can be very difficult to remember which source is which.

By right clicking the PDF, and choosing "Rename File from Parent Metadata," the file is renamed to match the source...

As long as the metadata is available in Zotero, this renaming is extremely easy, and makes searching the desktop for the open file a bit easier as well...

Tags and Folders

Zotero allows the user to organize sources into folders, which can be useful for smaller projects. When the project is much larger, these sources can be difficult to navigate. Consider using tags attached to sources for faster sorting. Zotero assigns the publisher's key-words as tags in the metadata, but you are free to add additional tags as well.

When searching for sources, list the tags that are preferred in the search tool. This kind of search can narrow the field significantly, and allow you to work from a subset of sources with relative ease.

I've found that keeping things centralized in Zotero not only makes reviewing scholarly literature more manageable in the electronic format, it has become preferable to printing the literature off and spreading it out over my desk. Even though reading on the screen can be limiting, a few tweaks makes the process more productive than the old-fashioned methods I used to use.

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Posted on September 13, 2015 and filed under Writing, General.

Processing Email Faster with Mail Act-On

Gates 2.001.jpg

I love how Jim Gaffigan describes how lazy we are...

You ever find yourself being lazy for no reason at all? Like you pick up your mail, you go in your house, you realize you have a letter for a neighbor -- you ever just look at the letter and go, 'Hm, looks like they're never getting this. Takes too much energy to go outside.'*

I wonder whether he has a point when I get SO excited about turning three mouse-clicks into one single key-stroke. Perhaps it's not so much that I am lazy [nervous throat-clearing], but that I am so easily distractible. This is especially true reading emails. I have found that I often read an email, decide it's something that needs action, agree with myself to do something about it, and then (before doing anything), move on to a shinier email object. I lose tasks this way, which can be very frustrating.

Mail Act-On** has really streamlined the way I manage emails. It's an Apple Mail add-on that allows the user to create additional rules for mail, some of which are executable by hot-key commands. For example, I like to forward all tasks to my OmniFocus inbox, all reference material to Evernote, and some items to both. Until recently, I did this by

  1. opening the email,
  2. clicking "redirect" 
  3. entering text in the "To:" field, and then clicking send

If I have twenty tasks in my email inbox to process, that can result in many opportunities for distraction.

Using Mail Act-On, I created several rules that run on Hotkeys (btw, I am CERTAIN that this could be done with KeyboardMaestro, but I just don't know how). When an email is highlighted that needs to go to OmniFocus, I click "control-O", which

  1. redirects the email to OmniFocus
  2. colors the email blue (for task) 
  3. marks the email as "read" 
  4. sends the email to my Archive folder

Similarly, I have a hot-key for Evernote that does the same (turning those emails green), and one that sends to both Evernote and OmniFocus. I like having the color of the emails coded, so that I can quickly look through my archive and see what's been sent to Evernote or to OmniFocus (or both). I have a number of hot-keys set up at this point (forwarding to my staff, or to common collaborators), each doing a different task. 

One other feature of Mail Act-On is that you can highlight a number of emails and perform the same task on all of them at once. I recently needed to forward a bunch of different emails to a colleague to catch her up on a conversation. Since she was already in my Mail Act-On rules, I highlighted all of the emails I wanted to send her, clicked the keyboard short-cut, and all of them went to her (individually forwarded).

As a result, I am processing email WAY faster. Even better, I'm not nearly so distracted by shinier emails that draw my attention from moving tasks out of my email Inbox. There are other, more complex, rule-options as well, and I am playing around with those. Frankly, I downloaded the free trial version because I was dubious whether this was worth the $15. Mail Act-On is available for a trial at They have some other products I'm trying on for size - but I have found that Mail Act-On is worth the $15 price-tag.

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** I have no affiliation or financial arrangement with Indev, other than I gave them some of my money ;-)

Posted on September 2, 2015 and filed under General.

Crisis Cleanup

I was in Prague this last July to present a paper at a conference, when my summer pretty much devolved in a few short hours. It started when my wife called to tell me that a member of our family had died in an accident. Within an hour of that call, I learned that one of my grants was unexpectedly defunded. Additionally, my step-daughter and her family moved in with us for the month of August as they prepared for a move to Costa Rica, I took two classes, and tried to get ready for the new semester.

In short, I've been in a constant crisis-state for about a month-and-a-half. I breathed a little sigh of relief last Thursday when, for the first time, I started to see some regularly coming back into my schedule and task list.  

In some ways, working in Higher Ed is similar to running one's own business. We have the freedom to choose many of our priorities, but we can also feel like the weight of an enterprise rests on our shoulders. And when crisis comes, the whole system can feel like it's falling down around us. 

I took some important lessons away from the last six weeks...

1.  Crisis tests priorities - One evening, my wife came into our make-shift bedroom (the kids and grandkids were in our bedroom) and said, "I just need to get away with you for a little while." My first reaction was, "I've got too much to do," but I knew she was right - I needed the same thing. We drove around town for about an hour, just spending the time talking to one another. Crises test our ability to make good decisions on the best use of our time - and spending time with those most important to me is the best use of MY time. In GTD terms, many of my current projects became "Someday Maybe." 

2.  Crisis tests our independence - I was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and colleagues over the last six weeks. When the grant was defunded, several of my colleagues helped me scramble to find institutional funds and draft an interim plan. A family friend took us all to a resort for a day of rest. I am rarely comfortable with giving my plans over to others, but crises are times where we can discover our need for interdependence.

3.  Crisis can redefine success - It is tempting (at least for me) to feel like we are failing to meet our goals and objectives when we are constantly sweeping up the messes around us. I had to spend some time reminding myself that, at least for a while, "sweeping up" is success. In time, the messes will accumulate at a slower pace, and we can start to plan again. 

4.  Crisis is exhausting - I only made it to the gym a couple of times over the last six weeks. I run on the treadmill with a heart-rate monitor. Usually, I can run at 4.5 MPH with my heart rate at a steady 140 - but lately, my heart rate has been at 160 at the same speed. I shared this with one of my colleagues in the Exercise Science dept. He looked at me incredulously, and asked, "Ever hear of stress?" We just don't have the same energy under the stresses of crises that we do in calmer times. Feeling tired and run-down is not exclusively emotional - it's physical as well.

I was able to make a pretty good list of future posts during the last six weeks, so I am hoping that I'll be back to regular updates. Meanwhile, if you find yourself in crisis, be sure to cut yourself some breaks!

Image Credit -

Posted on August 29, 2015 and filed under GTD, General.