Archive | July 2015

GTD in Pocket Informant Usage Scenarios

So what’s the point, you might ask, of fiddling around with all these arcane beasts like Context and Action? And why should we care about the Parent Task-Child Task relationship? Read on for how my setup in PI is used.

Read More…

Checklists for the Academic Grind

With all the preparatory discussion of Getting Things Done out of the way, here are a variety of work-related projects and tasks that I use in Pocket Informant, most of which can be reused regularly. These are largely glorified checklists, which, recent research has shown, are extremely useful. Even experts (like experienced doctors and pilots) benefit from them when time is short and focus is too easily distracted. Remember that the point of these GTD-themed task checklists is to do all of the thinking about the process once, when you make the list (though you can obviously revise it). So GTD checklists should be slightly different from “trigger” lists (lists of things that trigger you to remember other things), in that the GTD tasks should be explicit physical actions. This way you don’t have to reconstruct the process every time, usually right before the thing is due. You don’t have to, for example, spend the mental energy (as small as it might be – it adds up) to remember what exactly you’re supposed to do with the ‘receipts’ entry on that list. These lists are made even more useful with additional metadata à la GTD, and the ability to integrate them into your calendar. Read More…

Organizing GTD in Pocket Informant

Only read further if you want to learn, in gory detail, about how I implement Getting Things Done. You’ve been warned. Read More…

This academic historian pledges to Get Things Done

After reading the new edition of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), and with a year or two’s distance from my first imperfect implementation, I’ve decided to embrace the system whole heartedly, rather than just adopt a few of the ideas. Because I’m a nerd historian, first time around I focused on the digital calendar/task list (aka Pocket Informant). It has been very helpful in allowing me to capture all my projects and ideas, but I didn’t really implement the other stages of clarifying, organizing and reflecting on my projects and tasks. I clearly need to focus on the mental side of the equation: applying the two-minute rule, asking “What’s the next action I need to take?”, phrasing projects as outcomes I want to achieve, making tasks actionable, deciding which tasks to perform (horizontal thinking) based off of my Next Action list, and reviewing my system regularly – I ended up doing about 4 weekly reviews last year, which is suboptimal. So, yeah, I was kinda using GTD before, but not the most important parts.

For those living under various rocks (i.e. most of us in the humanities), GTD is a comprehensive, flexible, generic system to organize and manage your various commitments. In my reading, the fundamental question that Allen wants everyone to ask and answer is: “Why am I doing this, how does this relate to what do I want to be doing, and how do I achieve that?” If we have a robust system that allows us to acquire a significant degree of control over the hurly-burly of our daily activities, we will have the time to make informed reflections on what we are doing and what we want to do, whether you’re assessing your life at 10,000-foot increments, or using different horizons of perspective, or whatever life-work metaphor you want to use.

The system is much more concrete and practical than the previous sentences might suggest, however. You use categorized lists of projects and tasks (pointing to reference materials you store digitally or on paper) to see which tasks you can choose to do at any given time in any given context (horizontal thinking), and to plan any specific project (vertical thinking) in as much detail as you’d like. You sort your lists with the metadata, using it to decide which actions to perform at any given moment, as well as to review and plan during your Weekly Reviews. If you capture, clarify and organize all your projects in the right kind of system, you’ll be able to align the projects you’re working on with what you want to be working on. As Allen describes it: you externalize all your projects into a trusted system to get your head clear (capture), you then clarify the meaning and importance of those projects by dividing them into discrete tasks (clarify), you organize your lists to help you decide which tasks to perform when (organize), and assess your progress on a regular basis (reflect).

Most of the details of his system are self-evident and his suggestions seem obvious when you read them, but we humans are really bad at being consistently self-aware and following through on good ideas, particularly when we have lots of things competing for our attention. GTD is a rationalized system for our monkey minds, in other words.


Various internauts have debated whether GTD is even relevant for academics or “knowledge workers” or “creatives.” I’ll let others hash that out (see for example here and here and here), but I will briefly summarize my own thoughts:

  • Many parts of the system can be adopted piecemeal without going whole-hog.  Just capturing all the ideas floating around in my head about things I’d like to do in months or years, and facilitating a quick check of my projects anytime concern wells up in my mind, has alone been worth it.
  • GTD is probably less useful/less necessary in the summer, if you’re an academic like myself who has the summer “off”, when it’s easier to find large blocks of time and there isn’t the pressure of teaching and serving and administering. But maybe GTD is even more important then, because it’s too easy to waste away the summer without external obligations forcing deadlines upon you.
  • GTD is probably less useful (given laptops, smartphones and the Cloud) than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still extremely useful, and managing all those lists is even easier with apps. Some IT-types undoubtedly have all their tools with them at all times or only work from home. But I, like most academics, teach in some contexts and not others, have certain equipment and software only in specific contexts (what I can do on a plane vs. in my home office vs. in the library), have certain documents and books one place but not another, and so on.
  • All that said, GTD is more useful for academics than our idealized view of ourselves as thinkers might lead us to believe. Much of life isn’t about research; much academic work isn’t research (especially if you’re at a teaching school); and a surprising amount of research is busywork rather than thinking deep thoughts.
  • It turns out GTD is based on the same principles that I’ve been trying to practice (and preach, in class and on this blog) for a few decades, with tools like argument mapping and note-taking systems like Devonthink. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the recent cognitive research about the human mind backs up the main principles (the new edition has a chapter on that). To wit: At least start thinking about whatever’s worrying you. Externalize. Organize. Avoid multi-tasking. Convert unknown unknowns and known unknowns into known knowns, by converting a project into an outcome with concrete tasks to perform.
  • At the least, GTD allows you to see how many and what kinds of research projects you need to decide to do (or not do), and how these research projects relate to all the other projects in your life.

I’m not particularly concerned about enforcing a GTD orthodoxy or debating whether David Allen first developed each of these points, much less what the core of his “system” exactly is. The only important question is whether the system (in part or in toto) achieves its stated goal, assuming you’re busy enough to even need that goal: do you feel more in control, cope with your obligations better, and have a better perspective on your life? To the extent GTD lets you do this, use part of it or all of it. If it does most of it, tweak it where you want while trying to stay consistent with the broad principles (e.g. getting clear by avoiding using your brain to rethink what you’ve already thought and avoiding using your brain as the main memory place…). Or ignore it altogether. As always, I’d recommend reading the (new edition) of the book – it’s cheap – before relying too much on what people online say about it.

Next up: my system as implemented in Pocket Informant.
After that: a variety of checklists (implemented in PI but broadly applicable) that I’ve made for common academic tasks, teaching and research particularly.

Get clear

Blogs are inherently narcissistic vehicles – Look at me, world! Let me tell you what I think! So why wouldn’t everyone be interested in looking at my new office setup? Think of it as an extension of note-taking. And yes, I’ll post next on my tweaked GTD setup.

Read More…

War narrative

An edited collection from a few years back that I missed until now:

Mondini, Marco, and Massimo Rospocher, eds. Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.


One of the most significant aspects of recent historiography on war has been the attention paid to the cultural images of conflict: the visual representation and its memory, language and rhetoric. This approach has brought new attention to ways of representing war and the languages used to recount it. This collection of the essays contributes to this historiographical debate focusing on two paradigmatic periods. The First World War is usually seen as marking a new era; the unusual nature of the violence of this conflict and the mechanization of death, signalling the end of war as a place for generating men’s honour. But so too other moments in the history of Western culture have seen the paradigm of war changing in the accounts and narratives of contemporaries. Among these, the crucial period of the Italian Wars of the sixteenth century, when the image of war transformed from a theatre of conflict between noble-chivalric heroes to the encounters of anonymous armies. Leading North American and European scholars turn here their attention on discourses and narratives without neglecting the reality of war and its dramatic effects on civilian population in order to understand when and in what form the Western narrative of war as generative of individual and collective valour declined.

We historians sure do like to generalize. Something big and amorphous always seems to be rising or declining…

Early modern chapters include:

  • Martines, Lauro. “Notes on War and Social History.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 31–44. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
    As much a criticism of the meager fruits of war & society studies as a dismissal of traditional military history. A bit outdated already (especially since his “early modern” period ends in the late 17C), but worth perusing.
  • Fournel, Jean-Louis. “Narrating the Italian Wars (1494-1540). Contamination, Models, and Knowledge.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 45–62. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Shaw, Christine. “Wartime Propaganda during Charles VIII’s Expedition to Italy, 1494/95.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 63–79. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Rospocher, Massimo. “Songs of War. Historical and Literary Narratives of the «Horrendous Italian Wars» (1494-1559).” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 79–98. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Lavenia, Vincenzo. “In God’s Fields. Military Chaplains and Soldiers in Flanders during the Eighty Years’ War.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 99–112. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Stermole, Krystina. “Chivalric Combat in a Modern Landscape. Depicting Battle in Venetian Prints during the War of the League of Cambrai (1509-1516).” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 113–32. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.

Personally I find it a bit odd, though, to couch the book in terms of a fundamental change in the Western narrative of war, yet the book only focuses on the 16th and 20th centuries. I truly appreciate the case studies, but we historians appear preternaturally averse to the idea of representative sampling whenever we start talking about big ideas. Not only our tendency to present a single country as the paradigm for an age, but chronologically as well, when we draw a straight line between points A and F, forgetting about B, C, D, and E in between. Or as a mathematician might say, linear trends are the only option if you only plot two points.

As Efficient As They Wanna Be

Turns out the Service historique de la Défense can be pretty darn efficient, if you know the right people (Thanks Bertrand!). The long-running saga of ordering microfilm from the French military archives has come to a successful conclusion. As proof, I offer Exhibit A:

All good things...

All good things…

For those who must pry: nine volumes on eleven reels. Four volumes on Flemish administrative matters during 1706, as well as several volumes of Chamlay’s mémoires. And as a bonus, most of them are positive exposures!

The timeline:

  • Order placed via email: 2 June.
  • Order charged to credit card: 22 June.
  • Order processed and snail mail notification sent: 6 July.
  • Order delivered: 13 July.

Now I just have to scan them in and read them, which will require learning Chamlay’s handwriting. Good thing I’ve got office hours in the fall.

Time to put the toys away and get back to work

I spent the last few days playing around with small multiple maps in Adobe Illustrator:

Alliances, War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1703

Alliances, War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1703

Blue is Bourbon (vertical lines are allies, of which there are various kinds); red represents Allied countries; gray are neutrals; explosions are revolts. The bright colors (bright red and bright blue) indicate a change that occurs in that year, so you can not only see the overall alliance composition in any given year, but also focus on which changes occur in each year.

Still a work in progress: need more details on some of the minor powers, cut-off dates are a bit complicated, not sure how I’ll emphasize the change when the revolts go away, may add combat point symbols (e.g. circles for sieges, x’s for battles)… But you get the idea.

Next up on my to-do list: Way-overdue book reviews!

What are you working on?

Though I still am working on many projects, I enjoyed reading through a few old blog posts and appreciating the knowledge and contributions made by various commenters. Combining this with the idea of sharing information with fellow EMEMHians (in this post), I figured the least I could do was start a thread dedicated to people interested in sharing their current research projects on EMEMH topics. If it’s popular, it could become a semi-regular feature of the blog. If not, I’ll delete any evidence that this post ever existed.

As of July 2015, I’m working on several projects (I’ll leave out the shamefully-late book reviews I need to complete). If you’ve been a faithful skulker, you shouldn’t be surprised at the topics:

  1. Finishing up final revisions to a chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession for an iBook textbook. It’s targeted for the undergraduate cadets taking the first half of West Point’s History of Warfare course, and provides a broad overview of the war (all theaters, with operational/strategic focus), maybe 2800 words of text and 43 maps and illustrations. Hopefully my chapter will be available for sale to the general public someday, but they already have some sample chapters available here.
    Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.56.13 PM
  2. Writing a book chapter for a collection, The World of the Siege (tentative title). My chapter explores contemporary portrayals of sieges as sites of honor and dishonor. It focuses on the challenges defining what an “honorable” defense was by illustrating how both participants and observers during the WSS crafted and contested claims to honor during a siege. Capitulations play a large role. Hopefully the edited collection will be published by Brill next year (2017 at the latest) – Anke Fischer-Kattner is the main editor, and I’m co-editor.
  3. Working on a paper for a conference this November on how the French viewed field battles during the WSS. The exact focus is somewhat amorphous at this point, because I need to finish reading a very detailed French thesis on the subject before I can figure out what exact angle I’ll take.
  4. My recent shift back to Louis XIV’s France has put my book on the English cult of battle on the back burner for the time being, though the French projects are natural outgrowths of the same themes I’m addressing in the Marlborough book. I continue to amass more sources, quotes, and ideas for the book, but it looks like next summer will be the summer of Marlborough. Funny how invitations to contribute to other projects make you reprioritize your research…

So what are you up to? Try to keep your summaries to a few sentences for each major project. And feel free to query any projects people post.