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There’s gotta be a better way

In preparation for a new introductory digital history course that I’ll be teaching in the fall, I’ve been trying to think about how to share my decades of accumulated computer wisdom with my students (says the wise sage, stroking his long white beard). Since my personal experience with computers goes back to the 80s – actually, the late 70s with Oregon Trail on dial-up in the school library – I’m more of a Web 1.0 guy. Other than blogs, I pretty much ignore social media like Facebook and Twitter (not to mention Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest…), and try to do most of my computer work on a screen larger than 4″. So I guess that makes me a kind of cyber-troglodyte in 2017. But I think that does allow me a much broader perspective of what computers can and can’t do. One thing I have learned to appreciate, for example, is how many incremental workflow improvements are readily available, shortcuts that don’t require writing Python from the terminal line.

As a result, I’ll probably start the course with an overview of the variety of ways computers can help us complete our tasks more quickly and easily, which requires understanding the variety of ways in which we can achieve these efficiencies. After a few minutes of thought (and approval from my “full-stack” computer-programming wife), I came up with this spectrum that suggests the ways in which we can make computers do more of our work for us. Toil, silicon slave, toil!

Computer automation spectrum.png

Automation Spectrum: It’s Only a Model

Undoubtedly others have already expressed this basic idea, but most of the digital humanities/digital history I’ve seen online is much more focused on the extreme right of this spectrum (e.g. the quite useful but slightly intimidating Programming Historian) – this makes sense if you’re trying to distantly read big data across thousands of documents. But I’m not interested in the debate whether ‘real’ digital humanists need to program or not, and in any case I’m focused on undergraduate History majors that often have limited computer skills (mobile apps are just too easy). Therefore I’m happy if I can remind students that there are a large variety of powerful automation features available to people with just a little bit of computer smarts and an Internet connection, things that don’t require learning to speak Javascript or Python fluently. Call it kaizen if you want. The middle of the automation spectrum, in other words.

So I’ll want my students, for example, to think about low-hanging fruit (efficiency fruit?) that they can spend five minutes googling and save themselves hours of mindless labor. As an example, I’m embarrassed to admit that it was only when sketching this spectrum that I realized that I should try to automate one of the most annoying features of my current note-taking system, the need to clean up hundreds of PDFs downloaded from various databases: Google Books, Gale’s newspaper and book databases, etc. If you spend any time downloading early modern primary sources (or scan secondary sources), you know that the standard file format continues to be Adobe Acrobat PDFs. And if you’ve seen the quality of early modern OCR’d text, you know why having the original page images is a good idea.

But you may want, for example, to delete pages from PDFs that include various copyright text – that text will confuse DTPO’s AI and your searches. I’m sure there are more sophisticated ways of doing that, but the spectrum above should prompt you to wonder whether Adobe Acrobat has some kind of script or macro feature that might speed up deleting such pages from 1,000s (literally) of PDF documents that you’ve downloaded over the years. And, lo and behold, Adobe Acrobat does indeed have an automation feature that allows you to carry out the same PDF manipulation again and again. Once you realize “there’s gotta be a better way!”, you only need to figure out what that feature is called in the application in question. For Adobe Acrobat it used to be called batch processing, but in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC such mass manipulations now fall under the Actions moniker. So google ‘Adobe Acrobat Actions’ and you’ll quickly find websites that allow you to download various actions people have created. Which allows you to quickly learn how the feature works, and to modify existing actions. For example, I made this Acrobat Action to add “ps” (primary source) to the Keywords metadata field of every PDF file in the designated folder:

Screenshot 2017-05-10 18.52.17.png

I already copied and tweaked macros and Applescripts that will add Keywords to rich text files in my Devonthink database, but this Adobe solution is ideal after I’ve downloaded hundreds of PDFs from, say, a newspaper database.

Similarly, this next action will delete the last page of every PDF in the designated folder. (I just hardcoded to delete page 4, because I know newspaper X always has 4 pages – I can sort by file size to locate any outliers – and the last page is always the copyright page with the nasty text I want to delete. I can, for example, change the exact page number for each newspaper series, though there’s probably a way to make this a variable that the user can specify with each use):

Screenshot 2017-05-10 18.52.43.png

Computers usually have multiple ways to do any specific task. For us non-programmers, the internet is full of communities of nerds who explain how to automate all sorts of software tasks – forums (fora?) are truly a god-send. But it first requires us to expect more from our computers and our software. For any given software, RTFM (as they say), and then check out the software’s website forum – you’ll be amazed at the stuff you find. Hopefully all that time you save from automation won’t be spent obsessively reading the forum!

I sure do love Lincoln and Washington

Because they give us U.S. faculty on a MWF teaching schedule a full week off in the Spring, and that’s before Spring Break. Which, combined with the two consecutive snow days last Friday and this past Monday, mean I’ve had the time to finish up my siege capitulation chapter (okay, 99% done) that I’ve been working on forever. Literally. I wrote a graduate seminar paper on the subject circa 1994.

Why has it taken so long to finish this chapter with a target length of only 12,000 words? Let me count the ways, leaving aside non-project issues: Read More…

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.

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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.

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