When I purchased my tablet computer last year, I knew that it would change the way I worked.
- No longer would my right shoulder ache from lugging my laptop computer around; my tablet and Bluetooth keyboard fit easily and discretely into my medium sized bag.
- No longer would I tell my students that I would email them key references after class; I could locate and send it to them as they stood beside me.
- No longer would I need to choose between electronic submission and handwritten annotation; I could easily mark essays or review colleague’s articles on the train to work with my stylus.
- I had Remember the Milk installed for task management and easy access to my calendar and email.
- I had task timers to make sure I worked efficiently.
- I could even track my food and exercise, to prevent the ill effects of a research (read: sedentary) lifestyle.
- Most importantly, rather than take handwritten notes at seminar papers or conferences, I could type notes directly into Evernote for later use.
This was the moment, I thought, that I would finally transition into the superbly organised academic I always wished I could be.
I could not have been more wrong.
In some respects, having a tablet has made me a more effective, organised individual. I am able to mark essays and read electronic articles during my commute, on my couch and in my back garden without printing them off or stretching my power cable through the kitchen window. I am also able to quickly bring up notes, drafts and other files at meetings or during tutorial sessions. My grand schemes for a seamless workflow, however, have fallen far short of expectations.
This is not, necessarily a technological failing. With the exception of being able to easily dock two independent windows (such as Evernote and Word) on a single screen, my tablet and applications generally provide the services advertised. Instead, I have overestimated my own ability to stick to the regimes necessary to achieve these lofty goals.
- I often forgot my Bluetooth keyboard, or decided to do non-keyboard tasks “for now”
- My Zotero database, while fully accessible, remains far from organised, and thus relatively useless in time-sensitive situations
- I rarely remembered to mark my tasks as completed or reference the list regularly. I read my emails, but, unfortunately, did so to the point of obsessive compulsion
- I timed my work habits but often felt depressed at ‘how little’ I actually worked once mid-morning chats, comfort breaks, and ‘quick’ trips to the shop were removed**
- Tracking my exercise was automatic (thanks to FitBit) but facing up to my unhealthy canteen lunches was another story
- Finally, on those rare occasions when I took effective notes at conference, I have not read or referenced them since
Most importantly, I found that my easy access to all my data was eroding what meager powers of memory I had left. The names of the articles I had read, and the authors who had written them, were never entered into my long-term memory. Nor were the reams of evidence from papers I had attended or books I had read. Tasks, once entered into my tablet, became an unobtrusive (1) in the corner of my screen, never to be thought of again. In short, my tablet was making me a very poor academic.
So, this autumn I decided to make a change. Rather than create a digital workflow, I would reintegrate paper into my life. I had tried paper to-do lists and project notebooks in the past, but they often became lost or jumbled. This time, I turned my attention to a short article on Lifehacker: The Bullet Journal. The concept, described in detail here, is simple enough. One book to rule your life, with good old pen and paper. All your tasks, events, contacts and notes go in one place, annotated with a variety of bullet point styles, and, like commonplace books of old, you can index your entries for easy reference.
After four months (and three pocket notebooks later), I am fully convinced of the power of paper, over my own mind at least. I have not abandoned my tablet (as my colleagues will surely attest) but I have integrated it into my life in a wholly new way. With the exception of marking essays and tweeting, the tablet is now a reference device only. I do not input into my tablet.
Instead, I carry my journal with me at all times, noting down every stray work-related thought, every task I am given, every contact I should know, every interesting reference I should follow up. At the end of the day, I type up all my notes, carefully, into Evernote, my digital commonplace book. I migrate all of my uncompleted tasks into either my master to-do list (at the end of the journal) or to the start of tomorrow’s entry. I then migrate any relevant tasks from my master to-do list to tomorrow’s entry as well. Finally, I write out any appointments I have planned for tomorrow. Shutting the book, I rest for the evening, making sure to keep away from the perpetual glow of my tablet’s screen.
The result? First, while seemingly inefficient, the double (triple, even quadruple) writing out of my tasks lodges them within my long-term memory. Any task that is left unfinished several days in a row becomes a priority, if only to save myself the hassle of writing it out once again. Second, my recall memory of names, dates and events (from my own life) has vastly improved. I have long known that I learn best through spatial positioning. I may not remember the name of a book, but I can remember the exact colour of the cover, where it resides on a given library shelf, and the approximate spot on the page where my fact can be found. By writing out my notes and data, I gain a much stronger visual memory of the content, including the approximate day on which it was written from its position within the notebook. Moreover, by retyping my notes at night, I am practicing the knowledge, shifting it from my short-term and into my long-term memory.
Finally, and this is only a recent development, I have started writing in an unlined notebook, which I photograph directly into Evernote. Why do I do this when I also retype my notes? Because if I can get Evernote OCR to understand my handwriting, I will have finally achieved the consistent penmanship I so envy in the Georgian men and women I study.
*Image Courtesy of Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
**My average work day, all breaks and digressions excluded, for this January (no teaching) was about 5 hours a day, seven days a week.