An an academic, you need a system to effectively capture and curate your ideas. Such systems are infinitely flexible–part of the fun is playing around with different components until you find a set that fits you. That said, I suspect that the following components are pretty much universal in any such system:
you need a means of capturing an idea anywhere,
you need centralized, temporary storage,
you need an arena for right-brain and left-brain play,
you need long-term storage.
We’ll spend time over the next couple of weeks examining each of these in more detail; consider this the opening chapter.
OK, here’s my system in, of course, 5 parts:
1) You need a means of capturing an idea anywhere. Every academic needs an instantaneous recording device. In fact, one way of recognizing yourself as an incurable academic is the near painful nakedness you feel upon discovering out in the real world without anything to write with. Because you never know when an idea will hit. Let me reemphasize that.
You never know when an idea will hit.
Never. Driving to work. In the middle of the night. Sitting on the john. As a consequence, there are only a handful of scenarios where I can’t at a moment’s notice reach out scribble on my Hipster PDA–a bunch of 3×5 filecards clipped together–with my Pilot V5 Extra Fine. Sure there are other technologies, like real PDAs or voice recorders, but nothing is faster, simpler, and less costly to replace when it goes through the wash. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking–“whatabout the pen?”. So far, the caps my trusty Pilot V5s have stayed on).
2) You need centralized, temporary storage—One insight of GTD is the importance of a physical repository for the paper that enters your life. I throw ripped out magazine pages, bills, journals, essays to be graded, and, of course, scribble-filled index cards, in my inbox. Since I have two desks, one at school and one at home, I have two inboxes. The goal is to process all items in the inbox by the end of the day. The reality is that it may take ’til Friday. But, and this is the important point, I know where my stuff is. Loose papers that need to be processed always pass through the inbox.
3) You need an arena for right-brain play– My Moleskine notebook, a high quality bound notebook, serves two functions. First, it is my upscale Hipster PDA. It goes with me to every seminar, faculty meeting, and waiting room–any place where I will be sitting for more than a 20 minutes. But it also serves as my analogue computer–a place to jot down ideas and connect them with arrows, to draw, to think visually and spatially. Every seminar/meeting/waiting room get’s a new page and heading (usually where I am, or a particular problem I’m trying to solve). The sequential nature of my Moleskine entries let’s me return to a where I left off and quickly get up to speed. When I’m working on a big project, the Moleskine sits (as it’s doing right now) between me and my keyboard so I can go back and forth, analogue and digital, right brain/left brain.
4) You need an arena for left-brain play–Thank gawd for intel Macs. I can now run my two PC-based programs, SAS and SigmaPlot, on a machine with an OS built by folks who understand how I work. I use one computer because my work is not CPU intensive–I don’t do a lot of simulations, and my graphics are simple and straightforward. Thus I can get by with a decent notebook computer and I don’t have the hassle of transferring files back and forth between my notebook and desktop.
5) You need long-term storage. Storage memory is incredibly cheap, your ideas aren’t. A notebook used in two offices allows you to effortlessly keep your backup’s in two places against the awful, finite probability that one of those two places will be obliterated (hey, I live in tornado country). I use LaCie backup drives because they look cool (I’m a MacHead), but the quality of backup drives is starting to converge on “pretty good” all around. Add a program like SuperDuper! (yeah, I know…MacHead) that does progressive backups (backing up your entire hard disk once, then only those files that have changed or been added subsequently) and you have as close to a guaranteed, painless system of protecting your data as is possible for about $200.
So that’s my system to capture and curate ideas. I’m pretty happy with it. Ultimately the system you use will be driven by your taste, budget, and work habits. But you need a system. We’ll be delving more into each component in the future. In the meantime, here’s your opportunity to share tweaks or hacks that work for you.