Capture - 2. Evernote

If you look at satellite pictures of my back yard (stalker), you’ll see a well-worn path from the door to the back corner. Every time our dog goes outside, he runs to that corner. What’s weird, though, is that the path is not technically a straight line - about halfway down the path, there is an inexplicable bow. It’s as though Jett has been avoiding a big rock on his way to the corner every time he runs the path. There’s nothing there - he apparently likes to make a miniature detour on his way to bark at the neighbor’s dogs.

I think Jett’s behavior is a good illustration of the challenge of capturing information, tasks, and responsibilities. Why do I write stuff down on a sticky note, when I know I’m gonna have to go back and enter it again somewhere else? Why do I save web-pages as “bookmarks,” when I’ve a billion to scroll through already? Why do I make a grocery list on the back of an envelope, only to discover that I forgot to bring my pen to the grocery store?

Evernote has really helped me address a lot of these “detours” over the past several years. There are a number of ways to “capture” things into Evernote, other than opening a note and typing. This means that just about anything can be easily directed into the Inbox, without creating a significant detour in the workflow. Here are a few of my favorites…

Default Inbox

When you use Evernote for the first time, it creates a notebook with your account name as the default notebook. I changed the name of mine to “!Inbox” - the exclamation point makes the notebook sit on the top of Alphabetical listings. You can change any notebook to be the default notebook by clicking the settings wheel on the bottom-right corner of the notebook, and selecting “Make this my default notebook” Having a dedicated inbox is the first step to Evernote Nirvana, as this is where all new information will go IN, and from where all processed information will go OUT (to other notebooks). I’ve written elsewhere about setting up Evernote more generally.

Email Drop

Evernote provides the user with a unique email address that will send information directly to the default notebook. To find this, open the Evernote web-app at, and go to account settings. On the account summary, near the end of the list, will be an email address that is attached to your default notebook. If, at any point, this address is compromised, you can reset the address. Forgive me for the blocked out information on the image below - as my mom used to say, “I trust you, I just don’t trust the other drivers.”

The email drop EXTREMELY valuable, and may be the most important part of my workflows with Evernote. There are some obvious ways to use this email address, and some not-so-obvious-but-oh-so-cool ways to use it as well.

Before Evernote, I used to try to delete emails that I thought would never be important. I’m not talking about spam here, but the email from Larry announcing to the university that his daughter was visited by the tooth-fairy. I am quite happy to hear it, and don’t mind the email per se. But I have found it difficult to accurately predict what will be useful in the future. Nowadays, I keep a great deal of email in my email-archive. I still delete spam and a lot of bacn as well, but Larry’s family dental history may well be archived in my email account.

However, when Larry sends me some data that may be important for a future committee meeting, I’ll forward that to my Evernote Inbox. If something seems important, or potentially important, and I believe that I will want to reference it someday, I send it to Evernote (e.g. emailed receipts, travel confirmations, interesting articles, committee reports).

Some email doesn’t seem important at the time I receive it, but becomes important in the future. Since I archived it in my email, I can find it and send it to Evernote. So Evernote has the stuff that seemed important (at one time or another), and my email archive has stuff that may never be important. Who knows, Larry may ask me to give a toast at his daughter’s wedding one day, and I’ll have some great tooth-stories to share.

I’ve found that some of the most important information in my email is in my “Sent” folder. If I send data, or information, or anything that I want to keep reference of, I add my Evernote Email Drop address in the BCC line. I just used it this morning - HR asked me for some information for an upcoming retreat. I blind-copied Evernote, so that I can pull that same information up in the future (cuz … you know … HR loses stuff).

Pro-Tip - If you forward the email, it will have all the forward-formatting. But in (Apple Mail), you can “redirect” an email to forward it without all the forward-formatting.

Web Clipper

This is the second-most used feature of my Evernote workflow. I must confess that I hesitated to use it much in the beginning - I really didn’t see the need to save something in Evernote that was retrievable on the web. Nowadays, I clip a lot of stuff. Searching in Evernote for something I clipped is SO much faster than navigating the web to find it. I clip online-payment receipts, interesting articles (not academic ones, I use Zotero for that), instruction manuals, conference schedules, blog-posts - a LOT of stuff. I did worry whether I would clip stuff that would later be useless - and sometimes I do clip stuff that I decide later on is not worth keeping - but I clear that out on Friday afternoons when I process my Evernote Inbox.

The web clipper is available for Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and IE. It’s also available on mobile devices, if you have Evernote installed on your phone or tablet (and you should). Here’s how to set it up on iOS…

Once you have the Evernote app on your device, open a page in Safari that you would like to clip. Choose the “send to” icon…

Scroll the top row to the right to the “More” button

Turn on “Evernote”


Now you can “Share” web-pages with Evernote, which clips them into your Evernote Inbox.


If there is anything I don’t like about Evernote, it’s opening it up on my device to take notes. It takes a moment for the app to open, and there are a few clicks to make to get to a new note. Plus, you have to name the note in one field, and then click in the body-field to take the note…ok, this is totally a first-world problem. But I will show you a more excellent way…

Drafts by AgileTortoise is my FAVORITE iOS app. I procrastinated for a long time in trying it out - and I wish I had started using it the day I learned about it. Drafts is a very simple text editor for iOS - but it is also very powerful. Drafts opens quickly to a blank page, where one can start typing immediately. That’s nice when someone finds out you’re going to Jason’s Deli for lunch, and they ask, “Hey, could you pick me up a Southwest Turkey Sandwich with no cheese, no turkey, and extra bananas?” 

But it’s also nice for taking notes in a meeting. I have been trying to go “iPad only” at conferences and meetings lately, and I’ve been using the Markdown features of Drafts to take notes. Drafts can export any note into Evernote in several different formats. I’d be happy to describe how to use Drafts and Evernote, but AgileTortoise has two EXCELLENT articles on their site. Drafts will also make a repeat cameo when we discuss capturing tasks.


While a lot of my scanning gets done on my desktop scanner (click HERE for a recent post on going paperless), I use Evernote to scan a lot of bits of paper - receipts, sticky notes, my Moleskine notebook. I prefer to use Evernote's Scannable app, in part because it allows me to capture a scan very quickly without opening the Evernote app. 


Evernote is so ubiquitous that most automation packages have found ways to integrate it. If This Then That ( has great integrations with Evernote for web-automation, as does I use Feedly for my RSS reader, and clip a lot of stuff to Evernote from there. 

Cleaning !Inbox

By the end of the week, my Evernote Inbox can be pretty full. As mentioned previously, I tend to first decide whether I was under the influence when I sent stuff to Evernote, and delete as much as necessary. I then process the notes, adding tags and sometimes changing titles of notes. Most everything gets sent to my Reference notebook, which is my archive in Evernote. I try to get the Evernote Inbox to Zero at least once a week.



Posted on June 30, 2015 and filed under GTD, Evernote.

Capture - 1. Inboxes

When I first started in seminary, one of the faculty described the program as "trying to drink from a fire-hose." I learned later that this is a cliché used by lots of academic programs - but the metaphor does a fine job of describing the immense challenge of capturing information and responsibilities. It can be difficult to gather everything that needs to be processed - and the same is true in our work contexts as well.

One of the specific frustrations I've experienced in the Higher Ed context, more than in any other work experience, is the way that new streams (or to maintain the metaphor, fire-hoses) seem to spring up. I referenced this earlier in the post entitled Streamlining Inboxes, but I thought I'd spend the next several posts describing solutions to the problem of "Capture."

Establishing Inboxes

One of the best pieces of advice I've received on capturing is to have great set of inboxes. As David Allen suggests, one should have as many as are needed, "No more, and no less." I have four major inboxes, and wherever possible, I like to push everything I can into one of those four. Here are the four that have a primary place in my workflow...

Evernote - I entitled this inbox "!Inbox" so that it remains at the top of the list of notebooks in my Evernote. This is the default notebook for everything that goes into Evernote - which tends to be a lot of stuff. I make it a priority to clean this inbox at least once a week (I have a recurring task to remind me to get it done on Friday afternoon). If I am having a crazy week, I may clean it more than once in the week.

Dropbox - Like Evernote, I have a file folder called "!Inbox." The folder sits at the top of my list of folders. I save EVERYTHING into that notebook, and in fact, I have designated it as the default place to save files from the text editor, Scrivener, Word, and everything else. As in the case of Evernote, I clean this out on Friday afternoon.

Email Inbox - This inbox gets cleaned once or twice a day. I tend to process mail before lunch and before leaving work for the day. Tasks are sent to my task manager, receipts and reference materials are sent to Evernote, and everything else is sent to the email archive. 

Task Manager Inbox - This inbox gets cleaned twice a day. After I have processed my email inbox, I'll go to my task manager (in my case, OmniFocus) and assign tasks to projects, assign contexts, and defer dates.

Streamlining Inboxes

Whenever possible, I try to get all information to flow into one of these four inboxes. I'd rather not have to go to 17 different apps and platforms to "hope" against hope that I haven't missed something important. Here are some ways that I have found streamlining to work for me...

Shared Google Docs/Spreadsheets - Some of my colleagues (with whom I collaborate on research) prefer to write in google docs. A very easy way to get these into one of my four inboxes is to copy the link to a file and attach it to the note of a task. I keep the task active (deferring as necessary) until I am done editing a shared document/spreadsheet. The link ensures that I am accessing the latest version of a shared google doc, but I don't have to open google drive to see what's going on. I also have some files on my own google drive that need to stay there (shared with others, attached to scripts, etc.). In those cases, I have created a Hazel rule that copies them into Dropbox so that I have the most recent versions in my Dropbox system.

VoiceMail Messages - My assistant and student workers take messages on the phone for me. I asked them to always ensure that the subject line of the phone message starts with "VMS..." I have a quick and easy IFTTT recipe to look for messages with "VMS" and send them to my OmniFocus maildrop.

Drop-Zones - If Evernote is on your dock, you can easily drop files onto the icon to have them uploaded to your Evernote inbox. I also have a drop zone for my Dropbox Inbox (see the images below), and created a Hotspot using Hazel to do the same with OmniFocus (coming in a future post). I can quickly drop a file onto any one of these three icons in the dock to have files shunted to the appropriate inbox.

 I created a folder named "!Inbox" and found an icon to make it stand out. Then, I simply dragged the folder onto the dock next to the other folders. Now I can quickly drop email attachments or things from my desktop onto the hotspot.

I created a folder named "!Inbox" and found an icon to make it stand out. Then, I simply dragged the folder onto the dock next to the other folders. Now I can quickly drop email attachments or things from my desktop onto the hotspot.

Phone Calls - When I am on the phone, I almost always have a new OmniFocus task opened and ready to capture. I've discovered that almost 80% (I measured it, cuz ... you know ... nerd) of the phone calls I make or receive contain some task that either I or someone else needs to get done. I tried opening Evernote for each phone call, but discovered that I rarely need to capture information, and more often need to capture a task (or a delegated task). 

Email Forwarding - I can't remember whom I owe this nugget to, but they deserve three cheers. When I forward an email to my OmniFocus, the subject line changes to "FWD: <original subject line>" - which means that I either have to fix all of the task names in OmniFocus, or get over the fact that much of my task list has the blasted FWD prefix. But if you are using, you can REDIRECT an email to your task manager, rather than FORWARDING the email. In this case, the email is sent to the task manager without all of the forward formatting junk.

Processing Inboxes

Sometimes (less than 15% of the time), I may to skip Inboxes and file things directly where they need to go. I've determined to do this only when I a) know where the file needs to go, b) have the time to put it there, c) named the file according to the naming convention, and d) know for certain that the file (or note) will be saved forever.

Otherwise, I process information in my Inboxes by asking myself a series of questions...

  1. Should I just delete it? - Sometimes I save stuff into Evernote, and by Friday I realize that it's not nearly as important as it seemed while I was drunk with web-clipping joy. I'll delete that stuff first.
  2. Does it belong in a different Inbox? - There are times where a task ends up in Evernote, or a file ends up in Dropbox that probably belonged in Evernote. I'll determine if it's in the right place.
  3. Is the file named correctly? - I try to follow a strict naming convention (see my convention HERE). Sometimes, stuff that needs to stay needs to be renamed.
  4. Should the item be processed? - Metadata like tags, projects, contexts, start dates, reminders, etc. get added to the file, note, task, or email.

Going from Inbox Zero to Inbox Hero

When I first heard Merlin Mann describe the Inbox Zero idea, I immediately took note, and started archiving all of my old emails. It turns out, that was not what he was suggesting. It's more about processing the inbox consistently and intentionally, getting stuff where it needs to be, and creating a means by which it is out of mind until it is necessary. Anyone can "select all" in gmail and "archive." But more attention and intention is necessary to actually "process" mail and tasks and files and notes into places where they belong. I call it, "getting to inbox hero."

Image Credit:

Posted on June 25, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.

Screencasting in the Classroom

I've been increasingly interested in finding ways to "shift" the lectures for my courses out of the classroom. The concept of "flipping" my courses has had a demonstrable effect upon student performance, SLOs, and evaluations of my courses. We use class-time to discuss a lot more, and explore the material together.

But moving lecture out of the classroom can present some significant challenges to faculty - we weren't necessarily "trained" in creating digital media. What's more, there are a lot of different ways to go about creating digital media. What follows is a description of my workflow for creating short lectures in video format for students to view outside of class.


HERE is an example of a chapter review I created for Ream, T. C., Pattengale, J. A., & Riggs, D. L. (Eds.). (2012). Beyond integration: inter/disciplinary possibilities for the future of Christian higher education. Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press. This episode focusses upon Chapter 1 by James K. A. Smith.


Camtasia - I have tried a number of different apps and combinations of apps. As I've said before, the adage "you get what you pay for" applies here - free apps tend to take a lot more time, and require the use of other free apps to complete the work. I finally went to our Digital Learning Studio on campus and asked one of the staff there to recommend software - without hesitation, she answered "Camtasia." I ran back to my office, and upon finding that the app is kind of expensive (~$100), I thought, "Can this really be worth it?" In a word, YES! I have used this program a lot over the last two years, and I have discovered that I can create a 5 minute video in less than an hour. The program has an awesome help menu, videos, and so far, answers to every question I've had to date. 

Keynote or Powerpoint - I create my slides with Keynote, and then record the slide presentation in full-screen mode. The preparation of slides is no more difficult than preparing for any lecture. I have, in many cases, just used the slides that I had already created for lecture to make a video.

Vimeo or Youtube - As I mentioned in the Evernote in the Classroom post, I am increasingly insistent that my materials belong to ME, not to my LMS. When I post videos in the LMS, it is always as a link to Vimeo. Also, I will take stuff down from Vimeo when it's not in use.


Mic - A good mic is really important to creating video that you can be proud of. I originally tried to use the built-in mic on my mac - and the video sounded pretty bad. I purchased a USB mic with a little stand for about $25 on Amazon, and it's pretty OK. I may, at some point, spend a little money for a better mic, with a boom and a "pop" screen.

Computer - Duh. It is important to put notifications on hold so that they do not appear on your screencast. Also, my iMac has a LOT of RAM - but my Macbook Air only has 8 gig. I have found that, when running Camtasia, I get better performance on the MBAir if I close all the apps and refresh the RAM before starting.

Clicker - Some of my early videos had a noticeable "thud" sound whenever I advanced the slides because the mic (sitting on my desk) picked up the sound of my keyboard. I started using a clicker during recording, which solved the problem.


Create Slides - I tend to do this first, as it drives the script that I'll write in the next step

Create Script - I initially tried to do these things in natural unscripted speech. No more. I discovered that a script is really important for several reasons...

  1. Time - It helps bring the total time of the video into control. If I write a script, I can edit it for brevity and directness. In fact, I've found that a good script can reduce the total time of a lecture significantly. I get more content into a five minute script than I feel I ever do in a 30 minute lecture.
  2. Accessibility - If you are in Canada, you are already required to caption all video content. In the US, this requirement is coming. A script makes captioning really easy, as text can be copied and pasted into the caption. (My example above does not have the caption layer, as I re-uploaded it for example purposes only). Additionally, you could attach the script as a transcript to the video file if captioning is not an option. For my part, I try to make content accessible through several forms simultaneously - but I am a disability compliance officer, so I would, wouldn't I?
  3. Clarity - Don't you hate it when folks read their slides? But I tend to do it a lot in live lectures. Scripting gives me a chance to overlay the text on the slide with different language in the audio track. To see an example of this, check out the example starting at 3:10.

Practice - Cuz, you know ... perfection.

Record - I prefer to do this in one long take. If I make a mistake, I will make a popping noise with my tongue and then back up to the previous sentence. The "pop" creates a visually identifiable peak on the audio file so that I can quickly find and edit the mistake out. I try not to talk during slide transitions - that way, I'm not worried about fixing audio and messing up the transition effects from slide to slide.

Edit - There are four steps that I complete IN ORDER. I cannot stress this enough - the order is kind of important...

  1. Edit the sound - Take out any errors (easy to find on the visual representation of the audio track) and ripple delete (apparently, that means delete the audio and corresponding video section of the project). This will create a clean, but boring, draft of the video.
  2. Add intros and outros - I do this just because I loves me some music - my students seem to notice it as well. 
  3. Zooms and Transitions - Now is a good time to see whether there are any video effects that need to be added. I like to sometimes zoom in on a portion of text for accentuating effect. Also, some text can be tiny (like in the cartoon at 3:54 of the example). Zooming in makes the text readable.
  4. Highlights - Once the draft is edited, and the effects are in place, text can be highlighted. See 2:42 in the example video of highlighting text.
  5. If you edit in this order, things won't get all messed up from edit to edit.

Export - I tend to save my files as mp4s, but then I am on a campus where almost everyone uses an iPad or Mac. You may discover that other formats are better for your campus. Regardless, I share these by uploading them to my Vimeo channel - so the format is not really very important.

Save the Source Files - I keep all of the files (script, Keynote, Camtasia, final product) for a video in a folder on Dropbox. I have discovered that there are a LOT of reasons why I may need to go back and fix something (errors, clarifications, adding captions, etc.), and that having them available saves a great deal of time.

Tips and Tricks

  • Don't Give Up - On the first attempts, these videos will take a lot of time to produce. Keep at it - there is a literacy to this stuff that develops in relatively short order. 
  • Get Students Involved - I have some videos that my students produced, which saved me a load of time, and gave them the chance to get creative with the material. In cases where I intend to share the video with future students, I get written permission to use the video.
  • Free Tools - I still use cheaper and simpler screencasting tools like Snagit or Screencast-o-matic to record instructions for a project. They are useful - but not for the solid gold I'm putting out there in my lectures ;-)
  • Student Paper Feedback - Here's the interesting thing. I thought that I would continue to use cheaper or simpler tools to record my feedback on student papers. But now that my classes are increasingly "flipped," I have time during class to talk to the students one-on-one or in groups about their work. I'm mentoring students directly on their writing in ways I could only DREAM of in a screencast. 
Posted on June 24, 2015 and filed under General.

Zotero for Personal Library Management

My name is Scott, and I'm a bookaholic. When I hit rock bottom, I was rummaging through library sales, garage sales, and even dumpsters behind Barnes and Noble to feed my habit. I bought books that no one, including me, wanted to read. But I've been giving it all to my higher power, taking it one day at a time, and remaining accountable to my sponsor - and things are getting better.

Seriously, I thought I had a problem until I visited my Greek professor's home - he had books pouring out of his kitchen cabinets! And there were no first editions of The Great Gatsby in the pile - he had Danielle Steele paperbacks for cripes sake.

At about the time I visited his home, I was also preparing for a big move - and decided that it was time to rethink what to collect and keep in my physical library. I can honestly say that, at this point, every book on my shelf (whether at work or home) has earned its real-estate. Desk copies that I don't like get donated, novels are given to friends, and paperbacks get recycled. I still have a LOT of books, but the ones I have are important to me.

About a year ago, I started cataloguing my library in Zotero. At first, it was a laboriously slow process, and I'd log a book or two in my spare time. More recently, I discovered some ways to automate the process so that I could move much faster. Now, whenever I receive new books that I intend to keep and use, I log them immediately with almost no effort. Here's the workflow so that you can save time at the expense of my experience...

Scanning ISBNs

I use a free iPhone app called "Bar-Code" to scan the ISBN code on the back of the book. In this example, I have scanned only one book (it just arrived), but you can scan several at a time. I found that if I scanned around 10 at a time, the app was reliably stable and happy to help - if I got greedy and tried to do more than 10, the app would sometimes crash.

Once the codes are scanned, the app offers the option to "Do something with the scanned barcodes." I choose "send the list by email."

The app sends the list of bar-codes in plain text format. Select all of them and copy to the clipboard.

Import ISBNs

Open Zotero (standalone or webapp) and click the "Add Items by Identifier" button (it looks like a wand). A small window will open in which a single ISBN, or a list of ISBNs, can be pasted...

Zotero will search for the ISBN information, and import the record into your library. Zotero will search for the bibliographic information, and create a record of the resource.

Old Books and Bad ISBNs

I'm sure a library scientist could describe why, but some ISBNs are not easily searchable. I was VERY frustrated with bad ISBNs, and books that were printed before ISBNs - until I ran across a workflow that should have been more obvious from the start.

When I find a book with no ISBN or with a bad ISBN, I simply go to my university's online catalogue and search for it. Since the online catalogue searches for books in lots of libraries, I am able to use the Zotero web-clipper to download the information into my reference manager. Other resources that can be used in a similar way include the Library of Congress, and even Amazon!

Books printed by self-publishers, or that are unique imprints (like some specialized textbooks) won't show up in any of these places. In the end, I had a few books that I had to enter information manually - but only a few.

Managing the Library

Tags - You can move all of the records for your physical library into a folder in Zotero, or you can tag them as items in your physical library (I used the tag "Personal" to note all of my own physical books). Consider tags for Personal, Home, Work, etc. Zotero will also import the keyword tags that some catalogues include in the citation information.

Notes - If you continue to be a sucker like me, you can note whom you lent your books to, or even annotate specific information about the book. I do keep annotations in the notes section. I used to note which were at home and which were at work - I now do that with tags.

Standalone - The standalone app is really quite nice. The catalogue syncs nicely across all my devices.

iOS - If you want to access your Zotero libary from iOS, ZotPad is a great tool. It's free, and will open any pdfs that are stored in your Zotero library right on the iPad. It's a great way to organize a lot of reading!

Keeping it Up

No that everything is in Zotero, it is VERY easy to add new members of my personal library. When I receive books, I scan the ISBNs, copy the numbers, and import them into Zotero. It takes only moments to log a new book into the reference library. It's a great way for a bookaholic to feel like they have a handle on his addiction.

Seriously - he had Danielle Steele paperbacks!!!

Image Credit:

Posted on June 19, 2015 and filed under General.

Going Paperless - 3. The Old Stuff

So, having stopped creating new paper, and finding the right tools to get a paperless office in order, it's time to look at those filing cabinets.

This is difficult to admit, but I'm not the most emotionally intelligent person in the world. I've had to learn late in my adulthood to identify and understand my emotions - and frankly, I am often surprised by what might be somewhat rudimentary for others.

A prime example was my unexplained attachment to about 12 linear feet of paper-files. My graduate school experience was mostly comprised of hanging out in the basements of libraries, my cargo-pants loaded with rolls of nickels. I'd collect bound journals, and start copying. On one occasion, I asked the librarian to refill the paper TWICE in one day. I then found some labels for my dot-matrix printer, and created labels for each article.

I've shlepped that corpus of files all over the country. Every time I've moved, including to and from Hawai'i, I've boxed those files up, found new file cabinets, and carefully put them back in order. I'm sad to say that I really only went back to them on VERY rare occasions - but I took them with me wherever I went.

When I decided to go paperless, I found it very difficult to part with these files. As I tried to understand why I couldn't let them go, I realized that I had invested a great deal of time (and nickels) into gathering them - and while I knew that I could find all of them (and more) online, I discovered that I had an emotional attachment to those files.

I got over it - they've all been recycled - but I discovered that we tend to keep stuff for more reasons than "I might need it one day." Like Costanza's overfilled wallet of receipts, we tend to think of "stuff" as "friends."

So in looking at the old stuff in the file cabinet, it's likely important to confess the emotional attachment to the stuff inside - it makes letting it all go a little easier if one can account for the feelings that are associated with our old friends.

Parsing Files

Not everything gets scanned - some of it can be recycled. Here's how I classified the stuff in my filing cabinets so that I could save time and digital space in scanning my old files...

Vitals (Scan and Keep) - The following are scanned into Evernote, but also kept in paper-form

  1. Government issued documents - I scanned birth certificates, marriage licenses, passports, titles, deeds, and state-issued licenses.
  2. Gradebooks - Most institutions require that gradebooks are kept forever. Nowadays, my gradebooks are all digital - but I decided to scan my old paper ones and keep the books in my files as well.
  3. Vital Records - Wills, living wills, divorce decrees, and powers of attorney
  4. Recent Versions Of - Insurance policies, retirement statements, social security statements. Keep only the most recent versions of these, and destroy the older versions.

Necessaries (Scan and Recycle) - The following are scanned into Evernote, and then the paper is shredded and/or recycled

  1. Records - You should have a records policy, especially if you operate any external grants. For example, on the external grants I am responsible for, things must be kept for three years after a grant cycle is complete. 2 CFR Part 200.335 allows for any federal grant to keep digital records "whenever practicable" so long as there are "reasonable safeguards" against alteration.
  2. Personnel Records - Frankly, some institutions prefer that these be housed ONLY in Human Resources. But if you are likely to keep records, they can all be digitized and shredded.
  3. Student Product - I've always kept specific artifacts from students in each class (a final exam, the final paper, etc.) to have some record for program evaluation. Once these are scanned, it makes a lot of sense to shred and recycle them.
  4. Institutional Receipts - Check with your financial office. Mine requires that I be able to produce a receipt from the previous fiscal year if requested - anything before that can be destroyed without scanning. Original receipts are not required if one can produce an electronic version
  5. Personal Receipts - Ask your tax-man what he wants you to be able to produce. Original receipts are not required if one can produce an electronic version.
  6. Unpublished Personal Work - I've kept some of my papers from graduate school and seminary in digital form, and discarded the paper. Who knows, my grandchildren may one day want to know my thoughts on the trade-incentives for Iceland's conversion to Christianity.
  7. Attaboys - I've some cards that I received from students, colleagues, or family that I kinda wanted to keep. I scanned them, and then discarded the originals.

Non-Essentials (Recycle Only) - The following do not get scanned, the paper is shredded and recycled

  1. Old Institutional Records - If your institution or department's records policy states that records can be destroyed, they should be destroyed. I learned the hard way that keeping old records that are older than the records policy presents some liability in an A-133 audit - if you have it, they can test it. It's also a good idea to expunge electronic records according to your institution's records policy as well.
  2. The 12 Linear Feet - Oh, this was hard - but I said goodbye to my good friends. I threw out anything that was published (academic or otherwise). So far, I've not been sorry yet.
  3. Unnecessary Student Artifacts - Quizzes, Midterm exams, minor papers, and homework assignments went to the shredder without the warm glow of the scanner.
  4. Manuals - I found a manual for my old IBM 8088 computer. Maybe I should have checked whether that was collectible before I chucked it. Hmmmm.
  5. Old Contact Information - Let's face it, a phone number on a yellowed piece of paper from 20 years ago may no longer be useful. Plus, you can likely ask the person for updated contact info on Facebook. You say they're NOT on Facebook? They don't want to talk to you anyways, then.

Full Disclosure

When I was in seminary, I took notes for 8 hours a day for three years (summer included). The result is a series of about 16 2-inch binders with all of my notes in them. I'm not going to scan them, and I am not going to throw them away. I decided that I am quite comfortable with a little nostalgia. Also, I'm no Philistine.

Discarding Old Files

When throwing out old files, whether they were scanned or not, it's a really good idea to shred them before recycling them. I initially started shredding stuff myself - but that took a lot of time, and it was really messy. I finally decided to pay to have my old stuff shredded and recycled - it was a great decision. Not only was it easier, but I also learned that the service I used CROSS-shreds, which means that they turn your paper into little quarter-inch squares. It's super secure. I still have a shredder that I use for small jobs - but if you've boxes of stuff that need to be shredded and recycled, consider paying someone else to do it.

Scanning Services

I didn't try having my stuff scanned by professionals - and I'm not sure I would have in retrospect. One of my colleagues, however, used a service that collected his boxes of files, scanned them, stored the files on a cloud so that he could get them, and then shredded and recycled the paper. It was a little expensive, but he believes this was the best way to go. Once I pared down the vitals and necessaries, I discovered that I had a lot less to scan than I thought I would. 

Image Credit:

Posted on June 18, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.

Going Paperless - 2. Essential Tools

Perhaps because my pop was a machinist, I am a tool-freak! In fact, one of my guilty pleasures is browsing the Snap-On and Matco tool websites - I sorta like to fantasize about all the wonderful things I could do with a good Cleco fastener (for sheet-metal work). The truth is, I don't need a Cleco fastener, because I am never going to do sheet metal work - besides, I'm pretty sure my pop has one anyways ;-) On the other hand, I've found that the right tools, and the right QUALITY, are really important to getting things done effectively.

I once stopped to help a man on the side of the road change his flat tire. When I drove up, he was trying to remove the lug nuts with a pair of pliers. I guess it COULD have been done - but he really needed the lug wrench that remained pristine and undisturbed in his trunk.

Frankly, when it comes to going paperless, some of the same principles apply. There are a lot of very specialized tools that are both expensive and specific. Conversely, there are probably ways to get lugs nuts off with a pair of pliers - but the right tools can make a MAJOR difference.

So what tools are most valuable when it comes to going paperless? I have found the following necessary in my normal every-day management of files and paper.


This is my default place for storing files. I even keep my iTunes and Photos libraries there - so all of my stuff is available on my desktop, my laptop, and my tablet. I recommend starting with the free version, but keep in mind that at some point you will want to pay for additional storage. I've tried other cloud services (iCloud, GoogleDrive, Box, and even thumbdrives) - there's just nothing out there that does the trick as well as Dropbox.

Dropbox is NOT a backup. It's a really good idea to use some sort of additional backup (like Time Machine or Carbonite) to have second version of your Dropbox saved in case aliens abduct all of the Dropbox servers. 

Pro-Tip - Other folks on campus will invite me to Google Drive documents to share stuff "in the cloud." I've written a Hazel rule that gathers stuff from shared folders in Google Drive and places them in an "inbox" in Dropbox. I try to process that inbox once a week and put things where I want for them to go.


I use Dropbox to store FILES. I use Evernote to store INFORMATION. There are other services that are also pretty good as well (OneNote is great), but Evernote is becoming increasingly ubiquitous among other users. Since you will likely want to share a note or notebook at some point, Evernote is likely the best option.

I use Evernote for almost everything I scan. Receipts, student work, course development materials, projects, and even my own personal LMS are in Evernote (see my post about Evernote as my preferred LMS HERE). If I am likely to need to reference information later, it will be in Evernote.

Evernote is free to start, but you should plan on purchasing an upgrade in very short order. Currently (as of June 17, 2016), their plans are Free, Plus (24.99/year) and Premium (49.99/year). I started with the free version, and then went to the full Business version - that was a bridge too far. If you are planning to go paperless, I recommend starting with Plus, and then move to Premium if necessary.

Pro-Tip - When I want to take notes on my iPad, I have find "Drafts" by AgileTortoise to be indispensable. The app opens VERY quickly, talks to other apps very well (Evernote, OmniFocus) and supports Markdown (you can even Markdown to Evernote). If I am typing on my iPad, it's in Drafts.


Folks will be giving you paper, whether you want it or not. I have three scanners, and they each do different things for me...

  1. ScanSnap ix500 - This desktop scanner is the most important part of my paperless toolbox. It is extremely fast, scans duplex (two sided), almost never "misfeeds," and the ScanSnap software is remarkable (it allows one to choose whether to scan to Evernote as PDF, Evernote as JPEG, Dropbox, etc.). My assistant uses a NeatDesk scanner, but she's decided that mine is better. It's pricey (around $420), but it works ALL the time. The ScanSnap s1300i is also quite nice, has a smaller footprint, the same software, and a lot cheaper (around $260). I use one of these on my home computer.
  2. Scannable - This is a free (as of June 17, 2016) app that the good folks at Evernote developed for iOS. It is a GREAT scanner!!! The camera finds the edges of a sheet of paper (or Moleskine page, or receipt) and captures the page. Scannable will capture the image as soon as it sees it - without having to push any buttons. It will also deskew, unwrinkle, convert images to black-and-white, and send them to Evernote with exceptional ease. Evernote has the same software in the iOS Evernote app, but I keep Scannable on my home screen so that I can quickly capture paper without opening the Evernote app. Scannable is so fast that my colleagues who travel with me have joked about how I can scan a receipt faster than they can open a wallet to store theirs. True. What's also true is that I'll actually have mine when it's time to do the expense report ;-)
  3. Copier - The university provides offices with a big copy machine (Canon irC2550) that also scans. It's in our department's main office, so it's not really convenient to go over there to get something scanned. But when I started clearing old paper files, it was really useful. I actually had student workers do a lot of that scanning, so it was nice that they didn't have to sit at my desk - and the copier chews through big files very quickly. My rule is, if I am doing the scanning, I use my scanner. If a student is doing scanning for me, they can use the big copier.

Pro-Tip - I use Scannable a lot in the library. I take a quick snapshot of text that I want to refer to later, and send it to Evernote. 


I'll probably refer to this in the next post as well, but I spent a good deal of my graduate education in the basements of libraries with my cargo-pants LOADED with nickels. It's so very nice to be able to search for and find academic articles online. Zotero has become my file-cabinet for all academic articles.

This is one instance where free is better. I purchased Papers III, and have paid for Mendeley, and found that neither met my needs nearly as well as Zotero (to see a comparison of Zotero and Mendeley, CLICK HERE). I also tried to keep that stuff in Evernote for a time, but I decided that Zotero's citation tools and browser integrations were just too good to pass up. If I am saving a peer-reviewed article, especially one that will likely be cited at some point, it goes into Zotero.

Pro-Tip - I use Zotero to manage my own library as well. I use a free app called "Bar-Code" to scan the ISBN bar code on the back of the book, and import those into Zotero. I can track where by books are (Home, Office, Student-who-I-errantly-believed-would-return-it), and the citation help is really nice as well. I've an upcoming post planned for that workflow.

There are other tools that may be valuable for more specific concerns - and if I ever need a Cleco fastener, I'll go get one. These are the tools that, at least currently, are indispensable multi-taskers that have proven valuable in my paperless office.

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Posted on June 17, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.

Going Paperless - 1. Getting Started

When I worked at Texas Instruments in the early 90s, one of my fellow linguists would print every email he received at work. He had about three stacks of paper on his desk, each about two-feet high. Try as they might, the programming nerds could never convince Jack that the emails were safely recoverable on the servers - he insisted that they must be printed to be "permanent."

I think of Jack a lot in Higher Ed. His anachronistic view of the "ephemeral" nature of electronic media seems to have found its preservation in academe. I still show up to committee meetings where stacks of paper are distributed across the conference table - as if they are somehow more "real" than emailing docs. Students pick up on these biases, and often believe that a paper turned in on paper is somehow more "complete" than a pdf. In the absence of an institutional priority to intentionally move to paperless, faculty and staff are kind of left to their own devices to figure out how to go paperless.

Part of the challenge in going paperless is the inertia that paper seems to have. If I've old stuff in paper form in a file cabinet, it can feel daunting to think about scanning, naming, and filing all of that stuff. And since that stuff is paper, I might as well postpone going paperless.

I'd like to suggest that this is not the way to get started - and here are a few tips that can help get you on the path to "someday" being paperless.

Step 1 - Choose One Project

Rather than trying to "go paperless" on everything, a great way to start is on one project or in one course. I found that this approach gives room to work out specific kinks without investing time in fixing the whole system. For example, when I went paperless in one of my classes, I thought it would be fine for my students to send me their papers in email. That was a mistake - but it was a mistake in only one class, so it wasn't a big deal. I started with a single course, and a single committee, and focussed on finding paperless solutions in those two contexts. In short order, I started to figure out my system to migrate other projects and courses to entirely paperless affairs.

Step 2 - Stop Printing

Before worrying about scanning, it's a good idea to stop printing. In fact, printing to PDF is a great habit to develop. Usually, we print when we want to give someone a document - but if one develops the habit of "printing to PDF," those same documents can be sent via email (or Slack, etc.).

Step 3 - Inboxes

I keep a lot of my files in Evernote (Receipts, reference material, websites), and the rest in Dropbox (Records, gradebooks, student papers). I've found that organizing these in "real time" can be a "real headache." Instead, I have an inbox in Evernote, and an inbox in Dropbox - everything is saved to those inboxes, and processed later. I have an OmniFocus task to clean the inboxes once a week. This practice has proven useful in two major ways...

  1. I can batch name a lot of the work I've done in the week - if I've been working on a specific project, most of those files may have similar names.
  2. I DELETE files that I discovered I didn't really need - sometimes I realize that I saved a file that doesn't deserve to be saved. If I decide I don't want to process it, I delete it.

Step 4 - Ask for E-files - Politely

I was recently in a committee meeting where a colleague passed out a stack of printed spreadsheets. Saying, "I hate paper - why don't you just email us the files, you idiot?" is probably not the most effective means of getting cooperation. I will often say to a colleague, "Sarah, I really appreciate these data, and I'd like to make sure I don't lose them - can you email me a copy of this for my files?" Truth be told, when I get them, I throw the paper copies in recycling ;-) Your mileage may vary.


I mentioned this tip in the article about Filenaming Conventions - but it bears repeating. I use TextExpander to make my filenaming seamless and painless. I have a series of snippets that expand to common filenames. For example, I’ve a snippet with a shortcut “.pro” to conduct the following snippet...

<Proposal - %| - %y-%m-%d>

This snippet will expand to create a document title - and it will move the cursor into the middle of the file name so that I can add the unique identifier…

Proposal - | - 15-06-05


So we haven't even discussed scanning - let alone emptying the filing cabinets. Think about small projects, single classes, and trying to minimize GENERATING paper before trying to de-staple 24 linear feet of journal articles. I'll give some tips for THAT monster in the near future :-)

Posted on June 16, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.

Mind the Gap - OmniFocus is great, but...

As I’ve described earlier, I’m pretty much “all-in” with OmniFocus for my task management. Of all the apps I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a LOT of them), OmniFocus is the best at capturing tasks, managing personal projects, and focussing on specific tasks and next actions. I REALLY love how I can hide all of the stuff in the “future” and focus entirely on the tasks at hand. If I’ve a project that I am doing alone (and most of my projects are my own), you can believe that it's in my task-manager. And though it is expensive (compared to other task management apps, some of which are free), I have become convinced that one gets what one pays for.  

The Problem

But there’s a problem with OmniFocus that has proven (at least to date) insurmountable - there really isn’t a way to manage “shared” projects. OmniFocus is a personal task management system - it’s not designed for sharing tasks or sharing projects. This is actually a big problem, and leaves a significant gap that needs to be considered when selecting a task management system.

The gap is ubiquitous for OmniFocus - even OmniPlan (a project-planning app) doesn’t support managing tasks with delegates in OmniFocus. Even as the support forums continue to suggest that they are thinking about how to integrate OmniPlan and OmniFocus “someday,” there has been no development thus far.

Here’s an example of the problem…

I tried to use Trello to manage projects where I am collaborating with colleagues. In the case below, I shared a project with several colleagues as we wrote a grant together. As sections of the grant were drafted, edited, approved, and ready for submission, we were able to track where we were in completing the entire project. It’s a great way to communicate where things are in a shared project.

But if I am assigned a task in Trello, and my colleague Jennifer is assigned other tasks, there’s no way to integrate those into our OmniFocus systems. I’ll have to create a task in OmniFocus, and then when I have finished, go back to Trello and mark the task complete.

It’s double-entry - and in a perfect world, this is a problem we shouldn’t have. I’ve tried Basecamp, Podio, Trello, OmniPlan, and a whole bunch of other shared project services, and run up against the same problem. One has to go back and forth between the two platforms.


  1. The least-elegant way to deal with this is to visit Trello, find out what’s been delegated to me, and enter the tasks in OmniFocus. When I’ve completed those tasks, I would return to Trello and mark them completed there. The same could be done with other shared task/project managers. Frankly, this is what I do for the few shared projects I have there. Not good - not good at all.
  2. For shared projects that have predictable (and recurring) tasks, Podio can be worth the investment of time. We have a program that students can sign up for, and their application requires approvals at a couple of different stages. We created a web-form in Podio, and use Globiflow to send tasks to the unique OmniFocus mail-drop. This really only works for predictable flows - any project that is ad hoc won’t be worth the time it takes to set up this workflow.
  3. If one has more shared projects than personal, it would probably be best to use a different task-manager app. Nozbe, Asana, and Todoist are really good at managing shared projects, and gives the user the ability to manage shared project tasks and personal tasks in one place. They are not nearly as customizable as OmniFocus (which is why project sharing works, I’m sure), but they can be quite useful for those who have a lot of shared projects.

I’m still in limbo when it comes to minding the gap between shared projects and OmniFocus. I do recommend that one consider this gap when deciding whether to choose OmniFocus, or another app that better manages shared projects.

Have YOU found a way to mind the gap between shared projects and OmniFocus? If so, share the wealth!!!

Posted on June 15, 2015 and filed under Task Management, GTD, General.

File-Naming Convention

The late Mitch Helberg, my favorite comedian, has a joke about filing a receipt he received for a donut… “I’ll file it under “D” for “delicious.”  Part of the reason this is funny to me is that my filing system has been that bad in the past. Many years ago, I lost my administrative assistant, and had to manage my paper files on my own. I thought I’d try to find some good advice on how to create a functional filing-system, but in fact found very little in the way of resources.

This problem is significantly exacerbated in the digital context - it is very easy to become a digital hoarder, in part because the cost is extremely low. When I read Merlin Mann’s suggestions on file naming, I started looking for ways to develop my own system. I now have everything pretty-well streamlined, and have applied similar strategies to my notes in Evernote as well. For now, I’ll focus on my files in Dropbox.

Step 1 - Take Stock

Before one embarks on renaming a whole bunch of files, it is well-worth the time to take some time to think about what kinds of files are represented in your system. In Higher Ed., we’re usually talking about a lot of text, data, or presentation files. There may be some video and pics strewn in as well. I took about a day to look through all of my files, just to see what patterns were emerging. I put all of these different “genres” on my whiteboard, so that I could edit and revise the list as I explored. For example, I have a lot of expense reports, recommendation letters for students, final student projects, research projects, policies and procedures, and disability documentation for students. As I compiled this list, I tried to find categories that would describe >20 files.

Step 2 - Develop Category Names

Once I had this list of categories, I started working on finding a name for each. Whenever possible, I wanted a single word - but it’s more important that the “category” be broad enough to describe the types of documents. I came up with a list of categories that I felt would stand the test of time. For example, I have a lot of grade books that I exported from the LMS for my own records - most of these are Excel spreadsheets, but some of them are PDFs. No matter - I categorized them all as “Gradebook.”  For letters of recommendation, I nominated them “Recommendation.” Other category names are Presentation, Policy, Accreditation, and Evaluation. I have a couple that are more than one word - “Student Artifact” and “Annual Evaluation” are examples where I just felt that one word didn’t do the trick. 

Step 3 - The Naming Convention

Once all of my files met some kind of “category,” it was time to start renaming the files. I like to name them according to the following method…

<Category Name> - <Specific Identifier> - <Date Created>

The specific identifiers change depending upon the category. For example, when I do annual evaluations for my staff, I name the file...

Annual Evaluation - Smith - 15-06-01

When I have a student project that needs to be kept, I name the file...

Student Artifact - Doe, John - 15-06-01.

The identifier for my presentations is slightly different - there they are the tile of the presentation, like...

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.

The “Date Created” tag is an important element of organization as well. By listing by Year, Month, and Date, files that have the same Category and Identifier can be listed by the date they were created when the files are arranged alphabetically. For example, Mr. Smith’s annual evaluation is going to happen every year - so I will have a number of files that have the same category and identifier, but unique dates…

Annual Evaluation - Smith - 13-06-01
Annual Evaluation - Smith - 14-06-01
Annual Evaluation - Smith - 15-06-01

The real value of this system is that I can have multiple versions of the same file…

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 14-12-01
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-03
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-12-02

If I have several versions of the same file on the same day, I just add a version number on the end of the date…

Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.2
Presentation - Phonological Awareness - 15-06-01.3

Many of the suggestions that I see on the internet involve putting the dates at the beginning of the file name. I have found that I prefer them at the end, especially because they become the final organization structure for files with the same category and identifier information.  

4. Batch Renaming

Before I discuss batch renaming, let me suggest that you hold off on renaming old files for at least a while. When I have consulted with colleagues to revamp their filing systems, I have recommended that we really just develop a plan for going forward. One can always go back later and fix old files when one has time.

If you’re using OS X Yosemite, batch renaming files can’t be easier these days. I used Hazel from Noodlesoft to change the names of all of my files throughout my system, but you can right-click on a group of files and add text before the filename, after the file name, or even change the format of all of the files. I recommend that you use the “add text” before and after names - it’s the safest way to batch rename files. For example, I might add text before the name with my “Category,” and text after with “Date Created.”

If you have a lot of files, and you are willing to take the time to develop a process, Hazel can be useful.

5. Enter TextExpander

I can’t recommend TextExpander enough. This app runs in the background and “expands” shortcuts into text (it does a LOT more than that, too). I have a series of snippets for naming files according to their categories. For example, I’ve a snippet with a shortcut “.pro” to conduct the following snippet...

<Proposal - %| - %y-%m-%d>

This snippet will expand to create a document title - and it will move the cursor into the middle of the file name so that I can add the unique identifier…

Proposal - | - 15-06-05

At this point, I have a number of snippets for my most used categories, and name files with immense speed.

6. Smart Folders & Tags

Once these categories are arranged, it is really easy to set up a smart folder that searches for filenames that start with a category. You could do a saved search for “Presentation - “ and get a list of files that have the category name listed into one location - no matter where they are stored in your system. I use one of these for “Forms,” since I have different forms spread out across my entire filing system. Another option is to have Hazel search for and apply a tag color to the category - all of my “Presentation - “ files are blue.

One of my favorite smart folders is the “Syllabus” folder - it searches and finds all of my syllabi from across my filing system, and lists them alphabetically. When an administrator or former student asks for a copy of a syllabus, it takes only a couple of seconds to respond.

7. Fewer Folders

If you use this kind of naming system, you can avoid the nightmare of nested folders. For example, my Recommendations folder has literally HUNDREDS of letters of recommendation - some for the same student. I was able to move them all into one folder, since I know that I can quickly scroll to the student’s name and find the most recent version of my letter of recommendation. As a result, I am using a lot fewer folders, and finding that I have folders holding lots of files - making navigation and retrieval a breeze. I do have a series of nested folders for my courses (Courses —> Coursenumber —> Section), but this is one of the few nests that I still employ.

8. Just Start

I can’t stress enough the importance of getting started, regardless of whether you have the time and/or automation skills to go back and rename old files. In short order, you may discover that it is worth the investment of time or development of automation skills to get the old files into your new system - which may be evidence that the new system has become valuable.

Image Credit:

Posted on June 5, 2015 and filed under General.

Getting (Re)Started

I recently met with a colleague who wanted to get started on organizing her workflows - and I was reminded that I sometimes reference terms or software without providing some context for how those terms or applications can be effectively used. Since summer is kind of our reorganization time, I thought I’d share a short primer on some of the basics of getting workflows set up.

Key Terms

Inbox - An inbox is a place where stuff gets directed, and most often processed from. I have an Inbox in my reference system, one in my task manager, and one in my Dropbox. David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) suggests that one have as many inboxes as they need - no more and no less. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I am really trying to limit the number of inboxes I have to process. Here’s how I manage that…

  • Major Inboxes - My two most important inboxes are in OmniFocus, Evernote, and email. I process much of the email out of my email inbox, and send it to OmniFocus or Evernote (or delete or archive it). If I need to DO something, I send it to Omnifocus - if I need to remember something, I send it to Evernote. The idea is to funnel as much into these two spaces as possible, and then process those inboxes (organize, delegate, defer, or do).
  • Minor Inboxes - These are inboxes that I don’t mind if they fill up over time. I’ll process them “when I get to them.”  For example, I have an inbox of papers that need to be scanned, or articles to read in Zotero, or things to read in Feedly. Actually, to be very honest, I treat my voicemail at work the same way - I’m going to try to do better on that in the coming months.
  • Automated Inboxes - I don’t always get to control how information and tasks are sent to me, but whenever I can automate the transfer of information from other inboxes to my task manager or reference manager, I figure it’s a good use of my time. and are great starting places for these kinds of automation.

Project - I refer to “projects” a lot, but this term is widely defined. I think of projects that are objectives that have more than one step (task), or tasks that are somewhat grouped together. For example, if I am building a new course, it’s a project - it will take more than one task for me to complete the objective. When I am teaching a course, I have a number of tasks that are related to do that work - so I group the tasks together as a “project.”

Key Software

To be clear, software is not necessary to have good workflows (we sent a man to the moon with slide rulers and typewriters). There are some applications, however, that give me a great deal of peace, security, mobility, and access. Here’s my list of necessities…

  • Reference Manager - The reference manager holds information that I may need to get to later. Having one place to send and retrieve information is immensely valuable. A good system will allow one to share reference material with others for collaboration. I use Evernote,* but there are several other options available as well. Almost every reference item (receipts, meeting notes, course material, etc.) goes into my Evernote. I used to keep academic references in Evernote as well - but in the last year, I’ve broken down and used Zotero (to see a comparison of Zotero and Mendeley, CLICK HERE) to manage journal articles and books. Limitation: A reference manager is great for finding stuff you want to LOOK for - but being reminded of things you want to DO is a different ball-game.
  • Task Manager - The task manager holds information that I need to DO. Some things that need to be completed are projects (research project), and some are just stand-alone tasks (take out the trash). A good system will have several features: the ability to organize projects, integration with email, start dates (to defer tasks) and due dates, and tags (or contexts). I have tried a BUNCH of these, and I have discovered that you get what you pay for. I use OmniFocus, but I also really like Asana, Todoist, and Nozbe. Limitation: A task manager needs to be reviewed consistently to ensure that the most important tasks are visible and ready for work. Also, having “to-dos” organized does not mean that they get done. The point of a task manager is to DO stuff.
  • Appointment Manager - I like to think of a calendar as an appointment manager. Any specific time I have dedicated to spending with others (meetings, class, dinner) gets a place on the calendar, as well as any specific time I have made an appointment with myself (exercise, project, reading). I use Google Calendar, primarily because my campus uses it - but gCal has some great integrations, and syncs well with other calendar apps. I’ve grown quite fond of using alarms before appointments, as I find I can sometimes get lost in a project or a conversation and potentially miss the next appointment. Limitation: Using the calendar as a task manager can become cumbersome. I rely on my task manager to remind me of upcoming due dates, rather than putting them on my calendar.
  • Contact Manager - I’ve become increasingly convicted of the idea of treating students and coworkers like a small business might treat customers. As a result, I have abandoned the idea of using an “address book,” and picked up the idea of a Contact Resource Manager (CRM) that helps me track conversations, phone calls, and meetings. I recently wrote about using BusyCal to manage my contacts, and I grow increasingly dependent on this software to help me see what conversations have recently transpired with a colleague or friend. Limitation: Contact information is constantly changing. It is important to occasionally clean the contacts list (merging duplicate entries, deleting old email addresses, etc.).
  • Email - ‘Cuz, well … email. I am a believer that the best way to handle email is to get stuff out of the inbox - I send stuff to Evernote (for reference), OmniFocus (for tasks), or archive so that my inbox is completely empty by the end of the workday. Limitation: Bill Lumbergh returns to make the point.


  • Start with a task manager - Even of you aren’t going to use Omnifocus, take a look HERE for some excellent tips on thinking about organizing tasks effectively. Some folks use Evernote to manage tasks - but I do not recommend it (I tried it for a while). A legal pad of “to-dos” is fine, but you’re missing out on some real developments in achieving greater focus, peace, and efficiency if you’re using paper. I have spent enough time with my system that “capturing” a task is a seamless part of my day.
  • Start with Free - BUT - With some rare exceptions, I have learned that free software is usually worth its price. I recommend trying out software that has a free trial (the App Store on Mac and iOS needs to figure out how to offer free trials), and then purchase the one that gives you the best performance. Also, consider watching the online tutorials (like on youtube) before making a purchase to see how others are using the technology.
  • Build Structurally - There are lots of apps and services that can nickel and dime a user into spending serious dough, only to find that they are not as useful as you thought they’d be. For example, I like Taskclone to pull tasks out of Evernote and into OmniFocus - but that purchase makes no sense if I decided not to use Evernote.
  • It Takes Time to Save Time - I’ve lost track of how many people tell me that they downloaded Evernote, and it didn’t work for them. When that conversation develops, it usually ends up with a statement like, “Well, maybe I didn’t really spend much time looking at how I could use it.”  I totally respect that . You may not have much time to spare to learn how to use a new tool - but I think it’s smart to make a note to come back to create a little space later and try again. Besides, saving time is only one goal of greater efficiency in my workflows - I also want peace from the nagging fear that I forgot something, freedom to think creatively, and easy access to responsibilities.

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Posted on June 3, 2015 and filed under General, GTD.