Cleaning up my digital workspace
Guest blogger: Carolyn Rauber
I use four tools to manage my work: Evernote for notetaking; Google Drive for document storage and sharing; Google tasks for deadlines, checklists, and reminders; and a nifty little app called Thinglist for jotting down names, ideas, or anything that might land on a Post-It note or on a pad of paper.
You read that correctly: I can describe my system in one sentence! Before you roll your eyes, just a couple months ago it would have sounded like this:
- take notes on a little yellow notepad. Sometimes, when I don't bring my laptop to a meeting, I take notes on the Evernote iPhone app (when I can remember the password I chose last time I reset my password). Or, depending how I feel, I use Google docs, MS Word, or the Notepad app on my iPhone.
- My documents are in Google Drive and the hard drive on my work laptop (I have a different file structure for each, though). Some of my files are in Dropbox, but only the ones I need to access at home. I also put files in something called my Home Directory, which I used to think was Netfiles but was actually my Active Directory web space. I have one or two things in Netfiles, I think.
- I have a constellation of Post-It notes, calendar alerts, Google tasks, large pieces of paper stuck to my wall, and notes on a whiteboard in my office to keep track of deadlines and to-do lists.
- If I need to write down a name, idea, or interesting book title -- gee, that could be anywhere.
After accumulating a year of stuff this way (I started at the Libraries in July 2012), I felt completely swamped. I decided to follow PIM's advice: take a few days, sit down, and organize my stuff. The challenge for me was choosing a system that reflected how I like to work. In an organizational fervor, I tend to create overly complicated file structures and tagging systems that look nice, but have no relationship to my workflow. That was what I wanted to avoid.
What follows were the biggest challenges, the ones about which my poor officemates heard me complain most loudly. I started at the beginning of the summer term, when my schedule was quieter. In all, it took several afternoons of effort, though I worked on it sporadically over a several weeks.
For note taking, I used notepads and my iPhone because I didn't like carrying my laptop to meetings in other buildings. I often used Google Drive for notes when I had my laptop, but it just didn't work for me because I couldn't differentiate my notes from other Google docs. I didn't want all my notes in a separate folder on Drive, or write "NOTES" in the title, either, because I wanted more context. For me, it was important to see whether the notes were from a conference or a staff meeting.
I had used Evernote sporadically, and had heard good things about it, so I finally chose to commit. First, I copied and pasted notes from Google Drive and from the Notepad app on my iPhone, to new Evernote notes. It took about an hour to create and tag these notes, all said and done -- the easy part. I then went through all my paper notes. I started to discover things like this:
These are meeting notes. Sometime after the meeting, I went back in highlighter to identify this note as related to the astronomy department, and highlight the key parts of the note. As if that would help me find or use it in the future!
I also found things like this:
Those are names of fancy furniture stores, hastily scribbled on meeting notes. The meeting was about statistics and serials, and must have been on my desk at the time. I don't know what I was trying to convey with the bouncy arrow.
As I typed my notes into Evernote, I made sure each note was tagged. (The furniture note was tagged "apartment" and "furniture.") It took hours, and I had to do it incrementally, but I felt much more efficient when all my notes were in one place. I could use the Evernote iPhone app to take notes on the go, or the desktop application on my laptop. I also discovered that I could attach files to a note; when I take notes on a presentation I like, I attach the slides. I still use the paper notepad occasionally, but I make sure to keep my pile of paper notes near me and type them up when I have time.
The biggest challenge of simplifying my note taking was typing handwritten notes. It took awhile to find and type everything, not to mention deciphering some of my handwriting!
For document storage, I wanted to access my files from home, work, or my phone. I also wanted to have collaborative documents in the same place as non-collaborative documents and put an end to the two-separate-file-structures system I had on my hard drive and Google Drive.
I chose Google Drive for the collaborative features, and the simple fact that most work I do takes place on Google Drive. I finally used the Drive desktop application I downloaded ages ago, and moved all the files from "My Documents" into Drive. I threw out my old, complicated file structure and created a flatter, simpler one based on the documents I knew I had. Then I chose a backup schedule.
I was also very diligent about what I kept and how I named files. I knew I had duplicates, versions that could be deleted, and files I wanted to keep. I went through everything. I deleted what I could, but mostly I made sure I could identify each file by title, and to rename it if I couldn't.
The folder that contained all my instruction materials was the biggest challenge. I had a year's worth of presentations, handouts, and prep materials. These came from class sessions, workshops, and orientations, and were all jumbled up. I could have created a folder for each session, but I wanted to keep the structure simple and flat. Instead, I created a file naming system for that folder.
I used the titles to keep workshops, orientations, and class sessions together. I added dates and course designations when I could, and tried to be as descriptive as possible. It's not perfect, but it works very well for me.
The most time-consuming part of this process was moving and renaming files, but it was absolutely worthwhile.
When I discovered Google Tasks, I was sure I found the solution to all my problems. "I'll just make a task for myself," I thought, "and will be compelled to get it done!" You can display your Task list by clicking the down arrow next to "Mail" in the top left corner of the page, then selecting "Tasks." I brought up the Tasks window in Gmail and went to town.
At first, I only wrote down long-term tasks and projects, but noticed that after I added a task to the list, I hardly ever looked at it. I had a difficult time breaking up with my Post-Its for immediate to-dos.
What I didn't realize was that Tasks are integrated with both Gmail and Google Calendar. A task with a "due date" adds it to the "Tasks" section of Google Calendar. I usually have my calendar up all day, so it's convenient for me.
I can now add tasks to the day as quickly as I add events. I make little to-do lists for myself every day.
Gmail has shortcuts for adding tasks, as well. You can save specific e-mails as tasks with the Shift + T shortcut. This is less useful for me, but I have used it occasionally when I'm in a hurry. Then I go back and add a due date to the task, which adds it to my calendar.
Those Pesky, Random Jottings
Remember the furniture note from before? I probably wrote that down after a conversation about fancy furniture stores. It ended up in the corner of a different note and was completely forgotten. I had tons of those. I'm looking at one now: a small scrap of paper that says nothing but "dieffenbachia." What am I supposed to do with that?
I ran across an article on Mashable that described an iOS app called Thinglist. It costs $1.99, but the description was what got me: "Thinglist. It's a list of things." That's exactly what I needed: a place to write down things.
This is now where I put things that would otherwise end up on a small scrap of paper in my office. The "dieffenbachia" problem is solved.
And that's it! That's how I organized my life: Evernote, Google Drive, Google Tasks, and Thinglist. Consolidating my information to those tools took some effort, and I'm still developing habits to use them. But I have much more control over my personal information! That alone is worth the trouble.