Work, Research and Organisational Tools Overview

When work­ing, or study­ing, or for that mat­ter going about dai­ly life there are a mul­ti­tude of skills and dis­ci­plines that will help us be bet­ter at what­ev­er we are doing. Some of those skills and dis­ci­plines I will look at in the Wednesday and Friday ses­sions. But in addi­tion to these skills and dis­ci­plines there are a whole host of soft­ware tools that can make the tasks at hand eas­i­er, more pro­duc­tive, less painful, and assist us over­all. However, there are two caveats with any toolset.

Firstly, they are only tools, they do not replace the tasks that are at hand, or the skills and dis­ci­pline need­ed to com­plete the task at hand. One com­mon trap I have seen many stu­dents and col­leagues fall into is assum­ing that because they are using the right tools that the task will become self-com­plet­ing, or that they can use less effort for the same results. Using the right tools will make your life eas­i­er, but they wont do your work for you. Just because you have a Phillips screw­driv­er rather than a ham­mer to undo the screw, doesn’t mean that the screw will auto­mat­i­cal­ly undo.

Secondly, there are a lot of tools out there. In putting togeth­er this series I have exper­i­ment­ed with some tools out­side of my nor­mal toolk­it, or tried to find free, cheap­er or bet­ter alter­na­tives. But com­mon­ly this can lead to tool paral­y­sis, where we won­der whether Tool A is right for the job, or whether we would be bet­ter served with Tool X, Y, Z and the rest of the alpha­bet. The truth be told there is no one per­fect tool for any job, each has their own quirks and idio­syn­crasies, and it is up to the user to decide whether the tool at hand ful­fils their require­ments accu­rate­ly. On the flip side there is some­thing to be said for main­tain­ing a rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble toolk­it, as chop­ping and chang­ing reg­u­lar­ly tends to waste time with the learn­ing curve of the new tool. The toolk­it I work with, that I will show­case in this series, has has sev­er­al tweaks and minor changes, but hasn’t had any major upheavals for sev­er­al years now. It is sta­ble, and the odd­i­ties I have either embraced or learned to work around.

This Monday series will doc­u­ment my toolk­it that I use for my research, syn­the­sis and out­put in my aca­d­e­m­ic life. In var­i­ous incar­na­tions this toolk­it has served me well through the last ten years of aca­d­e­m­ic research after I fin­ished my under­grads. Some of the soft­ware has changed, and cer­tain­ly the pro­por­tion of dig­i­tal work has increased with new tech­nol­o­gy, but the over­all process has remained rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble. While ten years ago I worked most­ly in paper, I have tran­si­tioned to being pre­dom­i­nant­ly dig­i­tal in work­flow over the last five years. This cer­tain­ly helps with being able to search and access data eas­i­ly, and assists in the syn­the­sis and out­put process.

Overall my work­flow looks some­thing like this:
Organisational Tools
(Click for a big­ger view)

Roughly speak­ing I take input either already dig­i­tal or phys­i­cal, digi­tise the phys­i­cal media, manip­u­late it so that it is con­sis­tent with Briss and OCR (Acrobat) tools, and then add it to my library (Zotero and Devonthink). From there I main­tain my library and process the mate­r­i­al through read­ing, note tak­ing and writ­ing syn­the­sised sum­maries. On the out­put side I use a mindmap­ping tool (Scapple) and a word proces­sor (Scrivener) to syn­the­sise my ideas into their final forms.

Alongside this process sits a bunch of task man­age­ment tools, note tak­ing apps, and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tools that assist me in get­ting my work done. I will come to each of those in turn.

The next six blog posts will cov­er this entire process in more detail, and will rough­ly fol­low the work­flow. The six posts will be on:

  • Task Managers & Focusing (Tools for Getting Things Done)
  • Briss & Acrobat (Wrangling Digital Files)
  • Zotero (Citation and Library Management)
  • Dropbox and Devonthink (Storing and Accessing Digital Media)
  • Note Taking Tools
  • Synthesis Tools (Scrivener and Scapple)

I’m look­ing for­ward to this series, part­ly because I’m keen to help oth­ers be able to organ­ise their research and writ­ing bet­ter, but also because it helps me review my own toolk­it and see whether any­thing needs fur­ther tweak­ing. I would love to hear your thoughts on the process I have out­lined, and what tools you use. Comment here or on Facebook.

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