using trello to organize and track my work

Earlier this year I decided–for about the 100th time–to try to find a way to better organize and track my work to reduce stress and increase productivity. This time, however, it seems to have worked, so at the request of some colleagues I’ve talked to about this, I’ve decided to write it up.

I chose Trello as my central tool, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s free–and I didn’t want to spend another penny on software that I was sure would work for me but then never used. Second, it’s cloud-based and cross-platform, so I have it on my phone, both my computers, and my iPad. Third, I’ve been using it as a project management tool in development projects (and requiring my students to use it) for years.

Trello works on a board/list/card model. You create a “board” for a specific project–in this case, I have a board called “Personal Task List.” In each board, you can have as many “lists” as you want. And each board has “cards” that represent specific tasks. At a minimum, a card needs a title–e.g. “Write plan of work”. It can also have a description, a due date, one or more labels (that you customize, attachments, links, checklists, comments, and more.

The challenge for most people is deciding how to organize their boards. Some people decide to organize Trello based on project stage–“to do”, “in progress”, “done”, “on hold”, “awaiting review”, etc. This works well if you have multiple people who are trying to keep track of the status of other people’s work as well as their own. For my personal purposes, however, it was not useful–it actually increased stress because there were so many things in the “to do” pile and it looked unmanageable.

Another approach is to organize by type of task–“Writing Tasks”, “Errands”, “Email/Phone”, “Course Prep”, etc. This isn’t bad if your list is reasonably short, but it didn’t work well for my purposes either.

What I went with was a breakdown based on the types of work professors are expected to do–“Teaching”, “Scholarship”, and “Service”. I also added a “Personal” list, and a “Completed” list.

Each card (task) I add to a list gets a due date and at least one label. I have a fairly long list of color-coded labels that I use, most of which address the type of task it is–email, phone, reading, writing, errand, on-campus, grading, online action, etc. I have a few that are status related, like High Priority, and Waiting for Response. Trello allows you to filter the displayed cards based on a number of criteria, so this allows me to quickly display all the cards that require me to send email, or all the ones that need to happen when I’m on campus.

The free Trello account allows you to incorporate a few addons, and I use one called Butler that allows me to automate some tasks, and to assign a series of tasks to a button. (So, for instance, I’ve got a button on my cards that says “done”, which checks off the due date of a card, adds a custom field to indicate what type of task it was, and moves it to the top of my completed list.

The completed list is wonderful, because on days when I feel like I haven’t gotten much done, I have a visual reminder of all the things I’ve accomplished lately! It’s also a great source of information when I’m getting ready to write up a self-evaluation, because I can filter it to show me all the service work I’ve done, all the scholarship tasks, etc.

Once I had this set up, my next task was to figure out how to stop using my email inbox as my defacto todo/reminder list. My standard process was always to leave something in the inbox if I needed to take some action, thinking that by leaving it where I could see it I wouldn’t forget to respond. Of course, this doesn’t work very well when you start to have hundreds of those “reminders” in your mailbox!

I decided to start limiting my time checking email to three times a day–when I started work in the morning, right after lunch, and at the end of my workday. If there’s something that I need to see more quickly, my colleagues will usually text me, and my students can use Slack to get my attention. When I checked email, anything that was a “todo” got put into Trello immediately, and the email got archived. That worked really well over the summer, when the load was lighter, but I realized I was having a harder time with it now that classes have started up. And if I was checking email on a mobile device, it was more difficult to move things into Trello on the fly. So I tweaked my workflow by adding a “From Email” list to the board, and setting up Trello’s email-to-board feature so that incoming emails went to that list.

Now when I check my email, if I can’t answer immediately, I forward the email to Trello. That creates a card in the From Email list that has the email’s subject line as the card title and the body of the email as the description. It also attaches any included files to the card. The next time I open Trello, I move those into their appropriate lists, and give them labels and due dates.

As a result, here’s what my daily workflow looks like:

  • At the start of the workday, check my calendar to be sure I know where I need to be and when.
  • Check my email, respond to anything I can deal with quickly, archive the things that need no action, and forward the pending actions to Trello.
    • Open Trello
    • process the cards in the From Email list.
    • Sort my lists by due date (I have a single Butler button that sorts all my lists at once), and skim to see what’s coming up. If necessary, add a “High Priority” label to make sure the important stuff gets done.
    • If I have a meeting coming up, check the card to see if there are documents I need to review. (If so, the document is either attached to the card, or there’s a link to it.)
    • If I have time to make phone calls, display the cards that have a Phone label and make the calls.
    • If I’m headed to campus, display those cards to make sure I have anything I need to bring.
    • If I have time for errands along the way, make sure I have a plan for where I’m going and when.
    • If I have a block of time that I can use to focus, look at the cards for reading and writing tasks.
  • Based on the card review, do whatever tasks I can in the morning. As I finish a task, I make sure to mark it as completed. (I leave Trello open in a browser window, so this is quick and easy.)
  • After lunch, check email and repeat the process.
  • At the end of the day, check email and repeat again, but adjust due dates if there are things I didn’t finish.

I’m happy to say that after months of using this approach, I’ve been able to stay at or near inbox zero for months now. (I just checked, and there are currently four messages in my Gmail inbox, and only one in my RIT email inbox.)

This process GREATLY reduced my stress about remembering tasks. Every time I say “I can do that,” I add it to Trello. It has also significantly increased my productivity–time spent in front of the computer is more focused, and I’m better able to remember that there are errands that need to be run either on campus or off.

There’s one more thing I’m hoping to implement soon, and that’s an Amazon Echo to Trello action. (In large part because I almost always think of things that I need to do while I’m in the shower, and I’ve got an Echo Dot in there.) It looks like I’ll be able to do that using IFTTT. (And I’ve just added a low-priority task to my Personal list in Trello so I’ll remember to do it!)

research reboot

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

I’ve completely neglected this blog since my sabbatical ended three years ago, but it’s time to boot it back up and start using it both to share what I’m doing with others, and to “think out loud” for myself.

My current work is focused on three primary areas:

First, I’m continuing to work on defining the interaction and overlap between the fields of games and tourism, particularly in the context of geolocal (aka location-based) and augmented reality games, and historical and cultural contexts. In the spring of 2018 I brought nine students from RIT’s Rochester campus to Dubrovnik, Croatia for a semester-long study abroad experience that included two classes focused on games and tourism. As a part of that class, the students created a prototype of a location-based narrative game intended to help tourists explore more of Dubrovnik and the surrounding areas. Based on that work, the students have gone on to refine the application and create a new version of the game for use on the RIT campus. Our hope is to procure funding to further develop and refine the application, and to use it to create a mobile version of RIT’s successful Picture the Impossible game from 2009.

Second, I’m working with colleagues in both game design and development, and digital humanities, to explore the potential of overlay journals to address the challenges facing highly multi-disciplinary fields.

And finally, I’m writing and speaking more informally about my use of (relatively) new collaborative technologies to support and enhance my teaching, including GitHub for publishing course materials, Slack for enhancing class communication, and Trello for keeping student groups organized and on track.

Because I find that I’m most productive when I push myself to write about what I’m doing, I’m going to try to start posing here on a much more regular basis. We’ll see how that goes…


transitioning from evernote to onenote

As part of my tech cleanup for the new year, I spent most of the day yesterday migrating all of my notes and documents from Evernote to OneNote. (tl;dr version: It was not nearly as smooth a process as I’d hoped, but now that it’s done I’m pretty happy with the new setup.)

Evernote has been one of my major organizational and productivity tools for a very long time–one of my oldest active notes (a list of my frequent traveler numbers) was created in 2008–and have had a paid account with them since it became an option. My primary uses of it are for notetaking in meetings (the ability to take pictures of whiteboards and napkin notes and have the text be searchable was the killer feature for me from the beginning), clipping of web pages for future reading/use, storing scanned documents and receipts (also with searchable text), and quick access on mobile devices to critical pieces of information like insurance ID cards and frequent flyer numbers. I paid $45/year for my premium account, and I felt that what I got for that made the cost worthwhile.

Over the past several years, however, the Evernote interface has gotten increasingly cluttered, and it felt as though I was constantly being badgered to use it to collaborate, or being prompted to view “related content” that wasn’t really relevant to what I was doing. When they bought the Mac screenshot program Skitch, which I was a heavy user of, it was annoying that *every single screenshot* got saved to Evernote, cluttering my notes and searches. Overall, I just felt like there was more and more friction in what had previously been a really clean and easy to use tool. By last year, I’d started to read reviews of Microsoft’s OneNote that indicated it might be a worthy competitor to Evernote, but the hassle of moving eight years of notes to a new system had me hesitating. When Evernote pulled their boneheaded privacy move last month, however, I figured it was a good time to get serious about switching. (It helped that I recently switched from a Mac to a Win10 laptop for my primary work machine, so I was already in the mode of switching tools and workflow.)

I started the process by weeding out old notes and notebooks from Evernote, so that I wasn’t dealing with importing and reorganizing unnecessary content. Once that was done, I downloaded Microsoft’s Evernote importer, and started it up. Given the number of notes I had, I figured it would take a while, so I left it running overnight and started the real work of transitioning the next morning.

The first challenge I ran into was that there are apparently two different OneNote applications on my Win10 machine. One is called OneNote, and it’s an app that appears to be optimized for touch/tablet computing. The other is called OneNote 2016. It took me a while to figure out the difference between them, and I ended up settling on OneNote 2016 because I don’t need the touch/ink features, and it gave me better options for organizing and customizing.

The importer put all of the converted notebooks in my cloud-based OneDrive account, and didn’t cache local versions of anything. To get local copies cached on my machine, I had to open them from the server. That wouldn’t have been an issue if it weren’t for the fact that every time I tried to open a new notebook from the server, OneNote would crash. This happened dozens of times while I was working on re-organzing things in the OneNote interface. (I had about 40 different Evernote notebooks that got converted.) I could open one remote notebook, have it sync to the desktop (which took a painfully long time), but the next time I went to open a remote notebook the program would crash, hard. I tried deleting settings files and cache files, but the problem kept recurring. I finally resigned myself to the fact that it would crash and have to be restarted multiple times during the process. The *only* reason I kept going at this point was that I found I really liked the OneNote interface better than the Evernote interface, and I was hopeful that the crashes would be a one-time startup problem.

Why did I prefer the UI? One of the biggest reasons is that OneNote allows you to create separate tabs within a Notebook, allowing for more granularity in organization. This worked a lot better for me in terms of how I organize my information. For instance, I’ve always had an Evernote notebook for medical information, but it’s gotten hard to navigate since I’ve got general stuff (insurance cards and info, for instance) as well as specific articles and notes related to both my own and my family members’ medical issues. (2016 was quite the year for doctor’s visits…) In OneNote, I was able to create a general tab, as well as tabs for each individual person, making it a lot easier to access the content efficiently. I also had separate notebooks for material for each of the classes I teach, but was able to turn those into individual tabs in a “Teaching” notebook. OneNote also has the ability to create “subpages,” which I haven’t played with much yet, but which I can see adding another level of organizational usefulness. (Keep in mind that my graduate work was in library science, so well-structured organizational systems make me really happy.) Similarly, my catch-all “Receipts” notebook now has tabs for house, car, appliances, software, hardware, etc.

The tab-based organization allowed me to greatly reduce the number of notebooks I had, since many individual notebooks made more sense as tabs in a single notebook. But that made the process of getting things set up that much more painful, since I had to deal with the crashes, as well as the very slow initial sync (even on relatively small notebooks with mostly text notes). I also discovered that once I’d moved the content out of a notebook into a tab elsewhere, deleting the unnecessary empty notebook from the server was seriously awkward. There’s no way to do this in the OneNote client, it turns out. You need to go to your OneDrive cloud storage account, find the directory in which the OneNote files are stored, and delete it from the online file system. Then you have to make sure the notebook gets manually “closed” in the local client, or it will create problematic sync issues. That’s very user-unfriendly. (Even worse, once I’d deleted all the unnecessary notebooks and cleared them from the Win10 client cache, I found that OneNote on my mobile devices still suggested all the deleted notebooks at the top of the list for opening, since they had been “recently opened.” I would have expected that it wouldn’t suggest notebooks that no longer existed on the server.)

Similarly, you can’t rename a notebook without going into the online file system, either. You can change the display name in the local client, but that won’t be reflected when you open the notebook from another device. And given the sync problems I’ve had, I’m a little reluctant now to change the notebook names on the server for fear that it will cause new crashes/sync issues.

The good news is, the problems described above are all, for the most part, only issues if you’re migrating a lot of content from Evernote to OneNote. And now that I’ve got my notes moved and organized, and all of the new consolidated notebooks cached locally, everything seems to be running really smoothly. I’ve successfully used OfficeLens, the camera capture app for mobile, to capture a whiteboard and create a searchable note. I’ve accessed documents that I needed on my phone without difficulty. I’ve captured web pages and screen shots on my computer and stored them in the notebook tabs I wanted them in. Searching across notes is faster and the results are presented more cleanly than in Evernote, which is a big plus. Overall, as annoying as the issues with crashes and deleting/renaming notebooks were yesterday, I feel like OneNote is not just an adequate replacement for Evernote, but actually an improvement. And the fact that there’s no annual fee for the same functionality I had in Evernote is a nice bonus, as well.

The only thing it’s missing for me at this point (and to be fair, Evernote was missing it, too) is the ability to convert handwritten notes to text on my iPad Pro. I can take the handwritten notes on the iPad, but converting them to editable, copyable text has to be done on Windows. As a result, OneNote will not become my primary notetaking tool on the iPad–instead, I’ll keeping using NotesPlus, the only iPad program I’ve found so far that allows for easy conversion of handwritten notes to digital text. Honestly, if OneNote supported that on the iPad, it would make it a complete no-brainer for anyone with an iPad to switch to it as their primary organizational tool cross-platform.

literature review tools & workflow

Since a number of people asked me on Facebook about my literature review process, I decided to write up a detailed version of my answer.

First, the tools I’m using. On my Mac: Zotero citation manager (stand-alone software plus Chrome browser extension), university VPN for access to my university library’s database subscriptions. And on my iPad: PaperShip for access to my Zotero library, VPN for library database access, Zotero bookmarklet for mobile Safari.

(All of those tools are free, although I paid $10 to upgrade PaperShip so that I could annotate PDFs inside the app, and I pay $20/year for 2GB of Zotero cloud storage so that I have access to the PDFs of articles from any of my devices.)

On to the process…

I started with a series of searches in Google Scholar for terms related to my research (the intersection of games and tourism). This turned out to be particularly challenging (even for a trained librarian like me), since the word “game” can be used in so many ways–i.e. olympic games, game animals, game theory. As I encountered citations that looked like they’d be relevant, I used the Zotero extension in Chrome to add those items to a collection I called “Preliminary Lit Review.” In most cases, I made decisions based on title and abstract, since this was a first pass. (I did exclude works that were from known predatory publishers, like igi-global.) When I’m logged into our university’s VPN, the plugin does an excellent job of retrieving the full text of the article along with the citation. In the few cases where it didn’t, I attempted to find the PDF myself using our library’s online databases, and then ordered the remaining items via interlibrary loan.

When I found articles that looked particularly relevant, I used Google Scholar’s “cited by” feature to find related work. Once I started running out of relevant works in Scholar, I re-ran my searches in a number of databases that our university subscribes to, including ACM DL and IEEExplore for computing literature, and SpringerLink, Web of Science, and ProQuest for tourism literature. For each of these searches, I again used the Zotero plugin to add the citations. At the end of this process, I had about 180 citations, complete with full text of the item, stored in my “preliminary” collection.

I then began working my way through the preliminary collection. I open the full text of the article, and scan through it to see if it has clear relevance to the review I’m doing. I’m excluding games that are entirely virtual/digital, with no connection to real world exploration. I’m also excluding items that mention games so peripherally that they add no additional information to the review. For each of these items, I’m adding a note to the Zotero entry so that I can remember later why it wasn’t included.

If the article seems relevant, I then add tags to help me categorize it for later steps. While I’ll need to add more tags once I start writing and develop a structure for organizing the literature, right now I’m primarily focused on simple descriptors like “case study”, “mobile game”, and “augmented reality”. I also review the article’s bibliography to see if there are additional citations that look useful. For articles that seem particularly useful, I’ll check Google Scholar so that I can look over the “cited by” data. I then copy the citation to the “final” review collection.

Working my way through the preliminary collection in this way, I seem to have gotten close to a saturation point at only about the 20% mark. The preliminary collection has grown to ~240 citations, but increasingly the bibliographies and referencing works are items that I already have in the preliminary collection. I suspect there won’t be a lot more that need to be added.

I’m using my iPad when I’m away from my apartment. PaperShip gives me access to my Zotero library, and I can download any of the full text papers from my Zotero cloud storage. PaperShip also provides annotation tools that I can use to either add notes using the iPad keyboard, or directly on the page using the Apple Pencil. Annotations are synced with the PDF, and available on my computer later. This makes it easy for me to do the more intensive reading wherever I am, without carrying the computer with me (something that’s more of a challenge as I recover from my broken foot).

I’m also using Microsoft Word to take notes as I work; I save the file to Dropbox, and can then access it with Word on my iPad as well. I didn’t list Word in the tools above, since notetaking can be done with any editor.

iPad Pro 9.7″: first impressions

(This was originally posted as a Facebook note on 3 April.)

Okay, here’s the lengthier version of my first impressions of the iPad Pro, after having gotten it fully set up and playing with a variety of applications.

Specs: 128GB wifi-only, rose gold (to match my phone), $729 after edu discount. Bought the Pencil ($99) and Applecare ($99), but not a case or keyboard–I’m holding out for the Zagg folio case, which hasn’t shipped yet. I traded in my iPad Mini 2 for a $115 gift card to apply to the purchase, which was a seamless process and netted me more than Gazelle would have given ($70). Total, with edu discount and no tax, was $812.

tl;dr: I love it. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten a new device and thought “Wow, this is going to significantly change (and improve) the way I work.”

Keyboard: I’m able to use it with my old iPad3 Logitech keyboard. It doesn’t work as a case, but I can set the new one in it and use it as a keyboard until I get my Zagg case, and it makes using the iPad for writing completely feasible. I’ve got all the Office apps installed (Word is my word processor of choice), and can keep files synced between iPad and computer using Dropbox or OneDrive. (This was a huge issue for me with the Mini; even with my tiny hobbit hands, a mini-sized keyboard was unusable for real typing.)

Pencil: I could not love it more. My biggest frustration with styluses on the mini has been that my palm regularly triggers unwanted input. “Palm rejection” works beautifully with this setup, making it possible to write and draw in a comfortable way without sabotaging my own work. It’s a game changer for usability of the iPad in research work.

Research Tools: My goal with this purchase was to have an easily portable device that makes it easy for me to carry research papers with me wherever I go, and then to be able to annotate them while reading. All my research papers are in my Zotero database (citations and PDFs). I was using PaperShip on the mini to access and read them, but couldn’t find a way to effectively annotate them. With the Pencil added to the setup, PaperShip’s annotation tools are well worth the one-time $9.99 cost–I can draw, highlight, add notes, in a very intuitive way. The annotations are saved to the PDF in my Zotero library, and are reflected when I look at the paper in the Zotero program on my computer. I could not be happier with this workflow!
Screen: The TrueTone makes more of a difference than I’d thought–if I turn it off, I can see how blue the screen seems when I’m working in incandescent light. And while it’s not matte, it definitely reflects much less light than any iPad I’ve owned previously.

Miscellaneous Other Stuff: (1) I’m quite intrigued by Adobe Comp, which allows me to hand draw wireframes and have them automatically convert to vector objects (image placeholders, text boxes, etc) so that I can do page layout on my iPad and then easily send it to Photoshop, Illustrator, or inDesign on my computer. Haven’t really put it through its paces yet, but I’m excited about it. (2) I have the Texture app for magazine reading, and magazines look fabulous on it. Much easier to read than on the mini. (3) For the first time ever, I’m actually thinking about starting to play with freehand drawing and sketching on a digital device. Not sure what tools to use for this; open to suggestions from friends who have more experience.