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.
HAVE BLOG, WILL ARGUE
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.
Historical research, as most of us know, has traditionally been a solitary practice. Even in this postmodern age of killa’ collabs and remixes with co-authors named feat., historians, by and large, are still a lonely bunch of recluses. Admittedly, one’s choice of subject has a lot to do with how crowded your subfield is. Unfortunately (or not?), I’ve rarely been in a position where I knew somebody else who was actively researching the same war as me (War of the Spanish Succession) and might want to look at the same sources. John Stapleton is the closest example from my grad school days, and he focuses on the war before “mine,” so we’ve given each other feedback and pointed each other to various sources from “our” respective wars over the years. In general, though, it’s been kinda lonely out here on the plains.
But the times they are a-changin’ and the prairie turf is being transformed into suburban subdivisions. The question is whether all these houses will follow a similar aesthetic, whether their architecture will reference each other, or whether the only communication between neighbors will consist of vague nods at the grocery store and heated arguments over how far their property line extends. (Thus far, subdivisions are still segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.)
If we look beyond the discipline of History, we’re told that it’s an age of collaboration (CEOs say they want their new employees to work effectively in teams) as well as the age of information overload (I believe that – my main Devonthink database has grown to 104,000 documents and 95 million words of text). Even the other kind of doctors are having a rethink. Now this whole Internet thing allows like-minded individuals to communicate and commiserate across the planet, and not just with their neighbor next door. “Global village” and all that. As a result, even historians have figured out that we can now find out if we’re alone in the universe or not – I assume everybody has Google Alerts set for their name and publication titles? This academic version of Google Street View certainly has certainly expanded my worldview. My one semi-regret is that, thanks to online dissertations, conference proceedings and even blogs, I now find out I was in the archives 10-15 years too early, and there are currently a bunch of people both American and Euro looking into the period – and by “bunch” I mean maybe 6-12. Even more reasons for making connections. Hmmm, someone should create a blog that allows EMEMH scholars to communicate with each other…
So how should historical research work in this interconnected digital age, in this global, digital village? In an age when the moderately-well-heeled scholar can accumulate scans of thousands of rare books and hundreds of archival volumes? The combination of collaboration and digitization has opened up a spectrum of possibilities, and it’s up to us to decide which are worth exploring. Here are some possibilities I see, stretching along a spectrum from sharing general ideas to swapping concrete primary sources (Roy Rosenzweig undoubtedly predicted all this twenty years ago):
- Topic Sharing. The way it’s traditionally been done, in grad school, or if people meet up in the archives or at a conference or on fellowship. You let people know the specific topics you’re working on, and let it progress from there: “Oh, you’re working on X. Do you know about …? Have you checked out Y? You should really look at Z.” This has two advantages: first, it allows participants to keep the details of their research close to the vest, and more fruitfully, it allows the historiography to develop into a conversation rather than separate ships passing each other in the night – it’s such a waste when something gets published that really should have looked at X, Y or Z, but nobody suggested it. Or, perhaps peers studying the same period/place offered comment, but other potential-peers studying the same theme didn’t (or vice versa). Sharing subjects also forces people to acknowledge that they might not be the only person writing on topic X, and encourage them to consider whether they might want to divvy up topics rather than writing in ignorance of what others will be publishing, or already have written. Say, hypothetically, when one thinks they want to write a chapter about how the French viewed battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then discover that another scholar has already written about a thousand pages on the subject. So letting others know what you’re working on would be a start: type of history, subject (sieges? battles? operations? logistics?…), type of study (campaign narrative? commander biography? comparison of two different theaters?…), sides/countries (including languages of sources being used), and so on.
- Feedback and advice. This requires longer and more sustained interaction, but is far more useful for all involved. I’m not convinced by the latest bestseller claiming that the crowd is always right, but crowdsourcing certainly gives a scholar a sense of how his/her ideas are being received, and what ideas a potential audience might like to read about in the first place.
- Research assistance. Here, I would suggest, is where most historians are still living in the stone age, or more accurately, are on the cusp between the paper and digital ages. Most of our precious historical documents survive entombed within a single piece of paper(s), in an archive that may require significant costs and time to access. Depending on a government’s view of cultural patrimony and the opportunity for a marketable product, a subset of those documents have been transferred to the digital realm. But not many. This is where many historians need help, a topic which we’ve discussed many times before (as with this thread, which prompted the present post), and where collaboration and digitization offer potential solutions to the inaccessibility of so many primary sources.
But there is a rather important catch: copyright. Archives and libraries (and publishers, of course) claim copyright over the documents under their care, and they frown upon the idea that information just wants to be free (ask Aaron Swartz):
So this puts a bit of a kink in attempts to create a Napster-style primary source swap meet – though I am getting a little excited just imagining a primary-source orgy like Napster was back in the day.
Fortunately there are steps short ofscofflawery. Most of these revolve around the idea of improving the ‘finding aids’ historians use to target particular documents within the millions of possibilities. These range in scale from helping others plan a strategic bombing campaign, to serving as forward observer for a surgical strike:
- A wish list of specific volumes/documents that somebody would like to look at. This could be as simple as having somebody who has the document(s) just check to see what it discusses, whether it’s worth consulting. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort than simply sharing the PDF.
- Or it might mean providing some metadata on the documents in a given volume. For example, I discovered in the archives that if the Blenheim Papers catalog says that Salisch’s letters to Marlborough in volume XYZ cover the period 1702-1711, and I’m studying the siege of Douai in 1710, it is a waste of one of my limited daily requests to discover that Salisch’s letters include one dated 1702, one from 1711, and the rest all on 1708. The ability to pinpoint specific documents would in itself be a boon: many archives have indexes and catalogs and inventories that give almost no idea of the individual documents. Not only would it save time, but it might also save money if you want to order copies of just a few documents rather than an entire volume.
- Or, such assistance could be as involved as transcribing the meaty bits of a document. Useful for full text, though purists might harbor a lingering doubt about the fidelity of the transcription.
- Or, it might mean running queries for others based off of your own database. I did that for a fellow scholar once, and if you’ve got something like Devonthink (or at least lots of full-text sources), it’s pretty easy and painless. Though if there are too many results, that starts to look a bit like doing someone else’s research for them.
Of course with all of these options, you have to worry about thunder being stolen, about trusting someone else to find what you are looking for, etc., etc. And there probably isn’t a good way to assuage that concern except through trust that develops over time. And trust is based on a sense of fairness: Andy’s questions about how to create a system of calculating non-monetary exchanges have bedeviled barter systems for a long time, I think.
As usual, I don’t have a clear answer. Simple sharing of documents is undoubtedly the easiest solution (cheapest, quickest, fewest number of eyes between the original source and your interpretation), but I don’t have a system for the mechanics. Nor am I clear on the ethical issues of massive sharing of sources – is “My thanks to X for this source” in a footnote enough? If some documents are acquired with grant funds, can they be freely given away? And the list goes on…
With the semester drawing to a close, I’ve gathered all my little slips of paper scattered about the house and am typing up all the various notes, questions and thoughts I’ve had over the past semester. Many of the fragments are quite specific and will eventually appear in some type of publication, but occasionally I have a meta-thought, usually in a generic methodological vein, that would probably sound weird if I wrote it in a publication (usually either too preachy or too tentative, or maybe too simplistic or too obvious), so I might as well put it here, where every post is tentatively simple in its preachy obviousness.
For example, most of you can probably think of examples where the strongest evidence to support claim X, or at least the most frequently cited evidence, is the fact that an opponent agrees with claim X. The two examples that come to mind most readily for me (or at least which I’ve been reminded of this semester):
- English troops are obviously superior to other Europeans (“races” as they might have said in the early modern period), a Truth evidenced with a quote from a foreigner who praised the quality of the English soldiery.
- A battle not-fought, a missed opportunity for battle, would have been a decisive battle if it had been fought, because one of the enemy admitted that had they been attacked, they would have been defeated entirely.
At first blush, these confessions from an opponent (or at least from one beyond your own tribe) seem a convincing piece of evidence. After all, your competitors generally resist giving you credit for anything, so when they do, they must be overwhelmed by the Truthiness of your claim.
But at some point I realized that an opponent’s “confession” is a bit more slippery than that. There’s an obvious problem with the second, counterfactual, example above – few people really know what might have happened but didn’t (‘fog of war’ making it that much worse in wartime), so the confession’s evidentiary strength depends entirely on the perspicacity and vantage point of the confessor. So you have the basic questions of “What did this person know, when did he know it, how did he know it, and did he generally form accurate judgments about such matters in such situations?” Pretty basic stuff as far as reconciling various accounts go, though actually answering those questions can be quite challenging.
Both examples raise another question, however, about the motivations of the confessor. When I come across such claims I’m left wondering about the context in which the confessor made their admission (there’s probably a name for this logical “fallacy” already). Was it intended as a straightforward factual statement, or was there an ulterior motive behind it? Who was the intended audience, and how did that shape the statement? For example, if some foreigner was bragging about how great English soldiers were, was it because it was a truth universally acknowledged? Or might it have been because the confessor was trying, for example, to butter the English up to provide them with more mercenary troops (who may or may not have been the best troops available – they usually needed all the men they could get)? Was it an attempt to play on English vanity in order to acquire their acquiescence, in other words? Or maybe it was intended as a way to indirectly insult or praise some other group? Dunno without the context.
In the case of a Frenchman admitting that their army would have been defeated if it had been attacked, is it possible that he said that for some reason other than to state the unvarnished Truth? Was it possible such an admission was really a critique of a competing French general (e.g. the commander of the said retreating army)? Was there some kind of factional or command dispute that might help explain such a statement, and thereby weaken its utility as a piece of evidence for the other side? Maybe an attempt to curry favor with someone, even someone on the other side? To assess the strength of the evidence, we need to contextualize the “confession” in order to figure out what it actually meant. But we rarely seem to get that contextual information.
Further, we really need more than just that one single juicy confession. The problem, in my experience at least, is that such frank admissions are incredibly rare in the sources, and readily brandished by partisans on either side, which makes me wonder whether such a ”frank” view would have even been accepted by other contemporaries, people who were likely in as good a position to know. For example, on a couple of occasions I’ve found “well-established” judgments about specific tactical or operational events (repeated ad nauseum in secondary sources) brought into question by other contemporary eyewitnesses. In a few cases a less-quoted source might actually say “Some uninformed people believe X, but I’m on the scene and it’s actually Y.” That should shake your confidence in the original confession, and in confessions generally if we entertain the notion that this obscure source might just as easily be wrong. I had this same problem in Vauban under Siege, where I couldn’t figure out whom to believe in the debate over which front was best to attack a fortress on.
Given how little information historians can recover of specific operational and tactical situations, how contentiously various candidates used such opinions in their jockeying for reputation and remuneration, and how contradictory various contemporary accounts often were,* perhaps we should hesitate to accept such blunt opinions at face value? At the least, let your readers see your argumentation, rather than just say “Trust me.” Assuming your publisher will let you interrupt your ripping yarn to do so…
* Seriously, now that we early modernists have dozens of contemporary accounts of the same event to compare, we really need to stop assuming that there was consensus on much of anything.
My post ideas are usually extremely long and involved, which means I have a few dozen drafts that aren’t finished. So I’ll take a different tack for DT and just include a series of short-ish post on how I’m using DT now, showing a variety of usage scenarios with screen shots. 1100 words isn’t particularly short for a blog, but it’s my blog.
Unfortunately nobody that I know of has come up with a typology of the types of notes one might take, beyond the barebones. So I’m calling this one the RTF-notecard-from-specific-page-of-image-PDF technique. Not quite ‘flying crane’, but I lack the Buddhist monks’ combination of wisdom and careful observation of the natural world. This post largely explains the process that replaces what I described in an earlier post, with thanks to korm on the DT support forum for the Applescript which I then tweaked.
Say you’ve got a PDF of a primary source without text (OCR doesn’t work) in DT. It could be a scanned volume of archival documents, could be an old book.
1. I open the PDF in a separate window, move and resize the window to fill more than half the screen, and zoom in to a comfortable reading level.
2. Start reading.
3. When I come across something that is worth taking note of, I take note of. Specifically, I select the page: either Cmd-A, with the focus in the page (not the thumbnails), or just drag across the page. You don’t need to actually select any text per se, which helps because there isn’t any text in an image-only PDF.
4. Then I invoke the New RTF from Selected Text with URL to PDF macro (Ctl-Opt-Cmd-P for me), as discussed in the aforementioned post. This prompts you to title the new document.
I overwrite the default (the name of the original PDF file), and instead use a substantive title, like an executive summary of the point being made, e.g. Tutchin says the French are morons. This popup window is really helpful because it forces you to make a summary. Remember that efficient note taking requires a brief summary, which relieves you from having to reread the same quote (possibly several sentences or even a paragraph) every time you need to figure out what it says. One of the most useful examples is how naming your files by summary makes it much easier to plow through Search results when you’re performing a needle-in-a-haystack search.
In needle-in-a-haystack searches most notes aren’t what you’re looking for – you need a quick way to discard false hits. In many other instances you’re looking for a specific variation on a theme – you need a quick way to distinguish similar items. Thus, a summary title allows you to quickly see that a specific note isn’t on the right topic; it similarly allows you to quickly find a certain variation on the general theme of French stupidity, for example. Having columns to sort the search results by would also facilitate this.
5. After I’ve named the RTF note and hit Enter, I’m prompted to send it to a particular group
For the purposes of speed I usually just default to the Inbox by pressing Return and then use the Auto-Classify to help me process them (in the Inbox) in a single session. But you could, if you want, find the proper group (not tag however), and then that will be the default group from then on. Usually, though, the same PS will be addressing different topics, which would require navigating my 1000s of groups in that tiny little window. So I go for speed at this phase.
Then the code does more magic. It adds a link from the original PDF to the new RTF note (in the URL field, which is the blue link at the top of the RTF). This allows you to jump back to the original whenever you want. The code also copies the title of the PDF file to the Spotlight Comments of the new RTF field (Bonus material: I use the Spotlight Comments as another place to put the provenance info – that way if I ever need to cite a specific file, I can just select the record in DT’s list pane, Tab to the Spotlight Comments field, Copy the already-selected text and then paste it elsewhere). The code also opens up the new RTF in its own window (which you may need to relocate/resize), and pastes the file name into the content of the RTF file. I do that last step because the AI only works on alphanumeric characters within the file, not the file name or other metadata.
6. Now the blinking cursor is in the RTF, with the original image visible, just waiting for your input. You can make further notes and comments, or transcribe however much of the PS you desire.
7. Then you add additional tags or groups in the Tag bar of the RTF (Ctl-Tab from the content pane). You can also run Auto-Classify (the magic hat) if you want to move it to a different group, or have other suggested groups that you then manually enter in. (Remember that Auto-Classify moves the record to a different group, so don’t use it if you’ve gone to the trouble of already selecting a group in step 5).
8. When you’re all done with this single notecard, close it. Now you’re back to the original PDF where you left off. Continue your reading and repeat the process to your heart’s content.
9. If you send all your RTF notes to the Inbox, you’ll need, at some point, to go to the Inbox and assign the notecards RTFs to groups, either with Auto-Classify or by assigning your own tags. If you manually add tags to files in the Inbox, their file names will turn red (indicating there are aliases – aliasi? – in several groups). You’ll then need to get them out of the Inbox (reduce clutter) by dragging them to the Untagged group you’ve already created, then run the Remove Tags from Selection macro on the selected Untagged files.
All this may sound complicated at first, but it becomes second nature once you’ve done it a few times, and once you understand how Devonthink works in general. The busy work of opening and tagging and such only takes a few seconds per note – certainly no slower than writing a physical notecard.