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Getting Progressively Better Organised… November 26, 2006

Posted by Johan in Off Topic, Self-Management.

As my course moves on, I find that keeping all my notes, articles and other random stuff organised is proving quite difficult. From the start of my degree, I’ve kept a tidy folder structure where everything I do is sorted by module, but this is not always intuitive, when you’re trying to find some random article that you vaguely remember reading last year.

I’ve found that, looking back, I’ve progressively gotten better at achieving some kind of order (though I don’t know if my improvements match the rate of new material that gets added). In true Piagetian fashion, I will outline a developmental trajectory:

The 3 Stages of Organisation

1. Ignorance
For almost all of my first year, I was actually in the habit of deleting PDFs that I had read, in some insane cleaning mania. This is really the one mistake that you cannot correct through later re-organisations – if it’s no longer on your harddrive, it’s gone. I learned this the hard way when a recent article in Wired about Daniel Langleben’s use of fMRI for lie detection prompted me to remember a meta-analysis by Ben-Shakhar and Elaad on the Guilty Knowledge Test, which I had read about a year before. I spent the better part of an afternoon scouring my harddrive, but no… Apparently I had, despite finding the article fascinating, decided to delete it after reading it. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the article again, casually referenced in a blog somewhere. Next time I don’t count on being so lucky.

Lesson learned: Save everything. PDFs aren’t that big, you can afford to gather up a few thousand.

2. Elaboration
It turns out that even if the article is on your harddrive, a cryptic title like “Ben-Shakhar2003.pdf” is not always going to be enough to jog your memory. Since I use a Mac, I can use the built-in Spotlight feature in OS X to search any text on the harddrive, including text in PDFs (similar features are available to PCs through Google Desktop Search, I hear)… But this doesn’t work with older articles, which are typically scanned as images. You can tell that this is the case if you are unable to highlight text for copying.

In addition to this, sometimes even searchable articles refuse to be found because your search terms are based on your own version of psychobabble, which may be subtly different from the psychobabble used in the article (e.g., short-term memory versus working memory).

And let’s face it – some researchers just don’t know how to write. There are plenty of important articles that I would just never want to attempt to decipher again.

Lesson learned: Write your own notes on articles. Jot down a few bullet points on the key findings, and save as a text file with the same name as the pdf.

3. Integration
At some point, sooner rather than later, this “note and PDF” system will become a little unwieldy, no matter how good your folder organisation is. My folder system is now four levels deep (e.g., Psychology/Perception/MAE Storage/Sources). Since this system is based on the current module, I’m fine as long as I stay within perception, for example. But as soon as I need to integrate findings from different modules, I end up jumping up and down folder structures like mad.

Additionally, this system still relies on me knowing what I’m looking for. This only works if I remember every single source I have ever saved.

Lesson learned: time to switch to an organisation program. Fortunately for Mac users, there are plenty of solid options. The most “Pro” alternatives are perhaps DEVONthink and Boswell. I tried both, and they are both improvements over a straight folder structure… However, I ended up settling for the decidedly non-pro VoodooPad, because hyperlinks are awesome.

Let me explain: Voodoopad is essentially a personal wiki (as in Wikipedia), that you keep for yourself. Without any scripting, you can create pages and link them together. It’s also easy to create outside links to locations on your harddrive. The really cool thing about this is that if I have a page where I sum up all my stuff on Behavioural Genetics, basically anytime I type those two words they are automatically linked to said page. You can set up aliases for each page, so I tend to create an alias for each article that I summarise in that page, e.g., Turkheimer, 2003. Now, every time I cite (Turkheimer, 2003), that citation becomes a link to my notes on the original article.

As you might imagine, this becomes extremely intuitive, once you get used to it. When typing out an essage plan, the plan itself contains direct links to every article I’ve used, and if I want to relate my writing to another area, I just type in something like “this is similar to the heritability estimate used in Behavioural Genetics”, and poof, I have direct links to my writing on heritability, and Behavioural Genetics.

I’ve only started to tap the full potential of Voodoopad. When you first start to enter data, obviously you get very few links lighting up, because there is no other data to link to. It is only once you go through the trouble of importing all your old notes into Voodoopad and giving them appropriate aliases that you start seeing what the application is capable of.

I’m under no illusion that I’ve now reached organisation nirvana. Stages 4 and 5 are out there, and I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. There is also an issue of optimal self-management to consider here. In other words, it’s easy to forget the time you spend figuring out how to self-manage better, when estimating how much productivity you can gain from switching to a new system. More on that in another post.

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